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Re-establish Trust to Stop Hoarding

Eric Frederick |

During a working lunch the other day, a sales representative from a manufacturer of microfilament mops asked me how to solve an inventory problem. One of his customers regularly purchases mops but never seems to have enough.
This customer sends his supervisors and lead personnel to check employee lockers and closets to retrieve extra mops stored for a rainy day. This seems to solve the problem for a week or so but then they begin to run short again. I cautioned this sales rep that it’s always easy to come up with a possible answer when you take a quick look from a long distance, but I told him I felt the problem was one of a lack of confidence in the distribution system to consistently supply adequate numbers of clean mops to the housekeeping staff.
It’s human nature not to want to be delayed or inconvenienced by a product shortage. The normal solution is to hoard product during times of plenty so we’ll have enough when the system fails. Unfortunately, if enough staff members decide to put product back for a rainy day, then they create just such a day.
By hoarding mops and then eventually creating a shortage, the staff reinforces its own behavior and we managers find ourselves trapped in a never-ending cycle. This can only be solved by treating the cause. We can’t solve this problem with periodic raids of these hidden backup stores. When we take this approach, we encourage our employees to find better hiding places.
When I worked in Memphis, Tenn., the hospital experienced an ongoing shortage of washcloths. No matter how many we added to the system, a week later there wasn’t enough to go around. Management decided to go to a “Hospital Property” washcloth and buy as many as were needed to flood the hospital with the product. Washcloth shortages became a thing of the past. Five years later, construction workers renovating a nursing unit found several hundred all-white washcloths hidden above the ceiling tiles in a storage room.
Breaking this vicious cycle of hoarding that leads to shortages is the challenge, and the only way to break the cycle is to provide perfect service for nine months or longer. Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind.
If the problem is caused by a lack of inventory, or by a lack of laundry capacity, the only way to stop the cycle is to re-establish the employees’ trust in the distribution system. My experience has taught me that a minimum of nine months is needed to begin to redevelop this trust. I agree with many managers that nine months seems like a long time, but I personally know of no way to shorten this time frame. Promises and fancy memos simply don’t carry the needed weight.
The most frustrating part of this endeavor is that it takes nine months from the last shortage. Everything goes perfectly for five months until there’s a shortage one day. You literally have to start the nine-month period all over again.
Providing perfect service will require a circulating inventory substantially larger than what would be required under normal circumstances. The good news is that after nine to 12 months, the secret hoards will trickle back into the system and you can decrease your inventory to a more normal level. A shortage of another critical supply item will cause employees to quickly dump their hoards of mops in favor of hoarding the other item.
It’s incumbent on any good laundry manager to make sure that his or her inventory management system and productive capability are in harmony with what the customer needs. While it’s easy to see how to deal with just one item, our linen systems often have hundreds of items.
The simplest way to avoid hoarding problems is to make sure a customer has what they need. In my laundry, we call this the Doritos philosophy: Use all you want. We’ll make more.

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at efrederick@carilion.com.

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