CHICAGO — Halifax Linen Service Inc. provides laundry services for major medical facilities and large corporations, as well as small businesses, throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and surrounding areas.
That’s a lot of linen to take in, process and get back to the customers, and Preston McElheney, president of Halifax Linen, says the company is committed to supplying the products necessary to meet or exceed the industry standards expected in today’s professional business environments.
With so much linen being processed, how can the company stay on top of it all, make sure that production is on track and performed properly, and the goods get to the appropriate places? Real-time reporting.
“With real-time technology, we have access to what is needed, at all times, in a manner using the least amount of labor and manual intervention to pull data,” says McElheney.
“In a non-real-time world, the consequences of inefficiency or the unexpected are noticed when they impact the customer or laundry, or the next day after the costs or pain have been felt,” says Simon J. Allen, senior vice president at Spindle, a software management company. “Not to mention the inaccuracies of manually recorded, historical data.”
“Given the data available to us through RFID tracking of textiles, we could become paralyzed by data analysis if we did not take a step back, often, to determine the best use of the data and what data we should ignore,” McElheney says. “Putting real-time systems in place can have tremendous benefits, but this same type of system can drive everyone crazy.”
Too much information can cause indecision on the part of managers, says David Rinella, product manager of soil room systems at Colmac Industries Inc.
“The managers think, ‘So what, we have this information, what do we do now?’” he says. “Too much information can also lead to endless hours of ‘curve fitting,’ where the plant operations are constantly adjusted, leading to some unhappy employees and staff.”
Management must first execute a comprehensive exercise to define what data is important, what metrics by job area need visibility and then how they want to report this information and who they should be sharing it with, says Joe Gudenburr, president of G.A. Braun Inc. Once this is done, standards for performance can be put in place and real-time measurement against the standards can start.
“The reality is that this is basic blocking and tackling and operational 101,” he says. “Most industries have used data and leveraged real-time reporting and decision-support tools for decades. Our industry still is a bit behind the times in doing so, but there are many operators who get it and have made good use of said tools. If you make good use of them, and have said processes in place, there is no reason why you can’t run a very successful business.”
“By working with our partner laundries, we identify the information that is most critical to their processes and tailor the real-time information to their needs, while still allowing in-depth analysis of less critical metrics,” says Eli Cryderman, director of technical services for Gurtler Industries Inc. “In this manner, we try to mitigate the paralysis that can be caused by information overload while still providing an exceptional array of data reporting features.”
According to Keith Ware, vice president of sales for Lavatec Laundry Technology, companies generate hundreds of pages of data, but the key is to roll this information up to simple, measureable data points.
“Does the laundry manager need to know kilowatt usage by the minute or hour? This is a tool that would be used by the chief engineer or GM, but not a key number for a floor manager,” he says. “By establishing each department’s key criteria to utilize, you can break out the information into manageable bites. But if the need arises for someone to drill down into the specifics of an item, these systems have the ability to do so.”
Ware cautions that the systems are not developed for the manager to sit in the office and look at screens all day, but rather to supplement hands-on management on the floor.
“Too often we have been in plants that have a lot of data being collected, but when asked how have they used the data to improve their operations, there is no action plan for lack of performance,” he says. “For example, many plants like to track POH [pounds or pieces per operator hour] to compare to other laundries. They will often tout their numbers but then state they are not making money in the operation. POH is good information, but how can you use this to translate into financial improvement?”
Brad Thomas, systems architecture and programming with Textile Technologies, a software company that provides systems for textile rental operators, points out that providing the wrong information at the wrong time, or making it difficult for a laundry manager to get the information they actually need, can make the manager less efficient.
“We encourage our customers to not be shy about telling us what information they need and how they want it presented,” he says. “Our products get heavily shaped by the feedback from our customers, and we are grateful for that, because our customers are happy with the efficiency that results and we are happy because our products get more useful.”
According to Rinella, count data is most important to management, as this ensures goods are accounted for so that inventories are kept in place to ensure proper deliveries of clean items. After that, production data is important to know personnel are working at acceptable standards.
“The priority is determined by our partner laundries, as they usually have KPIs [key performance indicators] which they prefer to see in real time,” Cryderman says. “In general, we recommend that washer efficiency status monitoring, production poundage KPIs, tunnel/washer turn times and production efficiency monitoring be included as priority information, as these areas can have the most impact on laundry production in a plant.”
Ware adds that each manager will have specific measurements or data points that are key to their portion of the operation. He says laundry operators need to use the data to determine performance against established goals.
“Are you meeting or exceeding your goals? Is your department underperforming? Use the information as a tool to see if the action plans are working,” Ware says. “If not, readjust your plan to what works for your team. The best coaches do not stick to one game plan week after week, they adjust to the opponent, the situation and what works best for their team.”
IN EVENT OF MALFUNCTION
Of course, technology doesn’t work all of the time. When the real-time reporting fails, what is a manager to do?
Ware and Gudenburr agree that in the event of a system malfunction, the plant should always have a manual system to track and back up the system if needed.
“Every plant at one time or another used manual systems,” Gudenburr says. “If the process is well-defined, and the metrics are appropriate, the operator can still leverage the individual PLC data outputs to capture performance in the event of a malfunction. This will take a bit more work, and all of the real-time visual presentation of the information will be delayed as the data is collected, but this should not render the site inoperable.”
“We maintain redundant systems,” says McElheney. “We also go through regular training sessions where we act as if we lost the data. What steps do we take, how quickly can we move on getting the system back up, reloaded with the critical backups maintained on-site and off-site.”
Sensors and display messages are used to alert operators of a malfunction, says Rinella.
“During these times, there are usually mechanical backup counters, lighted indicators and automatic overrides,” he says. “These backup reporting devices usually require more human intervention and effort.”
Brooks says that any time the communication stops, it doesn’t stop any of the operations.
“None of the equipment is dependent on this, so it never shuts down your laundry,” he says. “The system itself is called ‘fault-tolerant,’ so if communication ever stops, a Wi-Fi goes down or cell goes down, the data is automatically backed up, and as soon as the system is back up, it repopulates. They don’t ever miss the information.”
Rinella points out that sometimes a laundry manager needs to step back and do analysis the old-fashioned way to verify and fully understand the real-time technology installed.
“Sometimes a bad input is discovered,” he says. “An input can be a wrong type of sensor, a wrong method the operator is using to operate the machine, or complicated/misinterpreted reporting. This will skew the conclusions and create bad decisions by management.”
Ware adds that real-time reporting does not eliminate the need for good hands-on management. It is a tool to help find issues in a specific step being measured by the system.
“Having the information is good, but it takes teamwork, planning and dogged determination to implement improvements, changes in your team’s operating methods or practices,” he says. “Information itself is not the answer. For example: Many people try to lose weight in their life. The key measurements to being successful depend on the individual. Do you track how much you eat, how much you exercise, number of fat grams in your food, etc.?
“Measuring the information is a start, but developing your individualized plan and how you stick to the plan is key. If one individual tracked everything recommended but the results weren’t there, how do you adjust your plan to meet your goals? No one plan will work for everyone, and the same thing goes for each laundry operation.”
Cryderman agrees: “All the graphs, charts, indications and reports are useless if they’re not used to proactively manage the process and make it more efficient in real time.”
Real-time reporting is important, Gudenburr says, but it also does not release operations staff from having to maintain equipment, hold employees to performance standards or from establishing realistic metrics by which to manage the business.
“Data and information systems are only as good as the processes that have been put in place to leverage said systems,” he says. “This is no different than the implementation of a business ERP [enterprise resource planning] system. The salesman will tell you it can do everything—no, it won’t. It will still rely on sound human interaction, well-defined business processes and discipline to work as advertised.”
However, Allen says that without real-time reporting, a laundry is being left behind.
“Laundries can save 10-40% on their cost per pound produced by engaging the various portions of real-time information,” he says. “Laundry managers who use real-time information feel like they get their laundry back—they make informed decisions with their supervisors on real data (not assumptions or gut), and they guide a workforce that is engaged and knows what it feels like to do a good job.”