What Are They Thinking?

An Exclusive

CHICAGO — As many of you know, I had a great career in the U.S. Marine Corps. It gave me the opportunity to do just about everything from jumping out of airplanes and swimming out of submarines to training new Marines and serving as a company commander. Naturally, in the Marine Corps, you’re trained to follow orders without question — maybe this is where thinking outside of the box started.
I was a young Marine corporal in Vietnam with several months of combat experience when my Force Recon Team adopted a young second lieutenant — a Naval Academy graduate with no combat experience — as team leader. One day, while on patrol, he wanted us to go left down a path in the jungle. I advised him, based on experience, that it looked like we were walking into an ambush. Well, we lost our point man, a good friend of mine. When we got back to camp, I requested to see our commanding officer. After he heard what had happened, the second lieutenant was relieved and I assumed his duties.
That’s not to say that I never made mistakes, because I certainly did, and I will continue to do so, but I always wonder, what the heck was he thinking? Just being in charge because of a title or position shouldn’t cause one to make decisions without listening to those with experience.
With more than 30 years of experience in the textile care field, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in some major corporate and reorganization decisions that both directly and indirectly impacted our industry, and in some decisions that had no impact at all.
As many of you realize, the input of managers in the textile care arena is seldom heard, especially in an organization that has so many so-called experts with little experience (but with titles that make some think they’re always correct).
For this next example, I want to be clear that I very much respect the person of whom I am speaking – Hillary Clinton. She was our nation’s First Lady, and had great conceptual ideas about healthcare reform and the need for change in our country. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to a group that provided support to this effort.
Unfortunately, as one who always thinks outside of the box, and seldom gets inside the box, I’m usually pretty vocal on issues that make my hair stand on end (I had hair in those days). The group supporting the process and I were virtually backing into a decision without a thorough review of process, making a decision on direction without sufficient research as to whether it made good sense. Being outspoken and raising objection, which is usually healthy, wasn’t the politically correct thing to do, so I was asked to go back and do what I do best: build laundries.
With my rather abrupt removal from this task group, to which I probably should never have been assigned in the first place, I got the message that I wasn’t a team player. A couple of months later, the program was abolished for the exact reasons I had brought up, as well as some other political reasons. For those who want to back into a decision without proper research, all I can say is, with all due respect, what are you thinking?
The reorganizations I’ve been part of involved anywhere from 10 employees to hundreds of thousands, including efforts to streamline the logistics of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This last endeavor led to the development of a nationwide effort to establish what’s now called the Prime Vendor Program in lieu of the internal supply distribution program that previously existed and resulted in the closure of VA’s internal distribution and warehousing program.
I don’t think anyone has tabulated the final result in cost savings, but based on what I’ve read, millions of dollars have been cost-avoided or saved. Unfortunately, not all items are available now, even though they once were. Just think, you could get sheets, blankets and other items three to five days after a request, all stored and purchased by the VA.
As part of the task group that managed this effort, my major concern, as with most reorganizations, was that decisions were made before all the facts and figures became available and before we had finished interviewing all of the parties that were instrumental parts of the effort. It’s a major flaw when management decisions are reached before reviews and analyses are completed. Many times, management is in such a rush to save valuable resources that it rushes to premature judgments.
Sometimes, these risks are completed with very little impact in the short term, but long-term effects and responsibility for the outcomes are so fragmented after three to five years that no one is around to take the heat.
In this case, simply thinking about the outcome and examining the situation would’ve made a world of difference. What were they thinking?
Many may not be aware, but my first charge when joining VA was to systematically shut down all of its laundry facilities. Once again, thinking outside of the box, my concern was that this charge required me to back into a program without regard to what could and should be done economically and logistically.
We presented the proposals, project by project, over a 20-year cycle, and top management jumped on the effort and provided the resources to meet our goals. We closed about 42 laundry facilities, but the VA also systematically consolidated these operations into 68 newly renovated or constructed facilities, so one would wonder — what were they thinking?
In the meantime, after about a $210-million-dollar investment in buildings and equipment, we did close two facilities and saved or cost-avoided about $250 million after the investment. Don’t forget, in those days we examined the potentials of outsourcing before any project or consolidation was approved.
We used this program to justify in which direction we should go, and now these efforts have been abandoned at legislative levels. The problem here is that the VA, or its laundry program specifically, has once again let the program become a negative status quo, to where it’s just about where it was in 1977 when I came on board. It’s been 10 years with very little capital improvement. Not only what were they thinking, but what are they thinking? You've got to spend money to save money, and you have to convince the powers to be just how important laundries are in the hospital environment and how important it is to control operations and outcomes.
One of the major challenges I had to overcome was the traditional thinking and methods used when dealing with engineers. As we began developing new laundry programs, it became obvious that those methods of building facilities had to go. We had to focus on getting the best at the lowest price and getting the projects done in at least 50% less time than the VA had ever experienced.
After examining the best alternatives, including outsourcing, consolidation, etc., many new laundries were part of new hospital projects. We had to make the traditionalist aware that a new hospital design should focus first on the laundry. Let’s face it, the laundry uses the most energy of any department, and it services all departments, so energy centers and laundry design must come first.
It was like banging our heads against the wall, but fortunately the VA was in the process of building a new hospital when I arrived. The hospital didn’t have a laundry, by the way; they just forgot about it. To make a long story short, we had to carve out 30,000 square feet of space, changing the entire footprint of the facility. With my choice words during the process combined with the situation that was under way, the remaining 14 hospitals that were built during my time always examined the laundry and textile requirements first, before beginning to design the hospital/medical center.
What were they thinking?
Finally, I want to echo Nate Belkin, who has argued against the use of the term “linen.” The correct term is textiles — linens are a particular type/category of textile and shouldn’t be used as a universal term, unless you’re talking about linen garments, suits, dresses, pocket squares, etc. It shouldn’t be used with organizational names, in communication or in education. If you’re guilty of this, what are you thinking?


Digital Edition

Latest Classifieds

Industry Chatter