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Where Did All the Linen Go? (Part 1)

“What do you consider the most challenging aspects of inventorying and securing textiles? Why? How can insufficient inventory impact the rest of my operation?”

Commercial Laundry: David Griggs, Superior Linen Service, Muskogee, Okla.

As a healthcare linen provider, ensuring a nurse has the linen they need to properly care for their patients is the basis for the entire industry. Maintaining the balance between having enough linen and too much linen available helps decide if you will be a profitable or an unprofitable laundry. The industry has constantly been evolving to help keep this balance. Some of the methods are:

  • Count the linen in the soil room that comes from the hospital and send them the exact amount they sent the laundry. There are many high-speed counting systems available and the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking has greatly sped this method up.
  • Batch the linen that is brought in from the hospital and send the exact linen back to the hospital that they sent the laundry.
  • Weigh all soil linen in from the hospital and compare it to the clean linen weights that are sent out to ensure the hospitals are sending the proper amount of linen back to the laundry.

No matter the method the laundry decides to employ to maintain this balance, there is one factor that no method completely catches, and I believe it is the most challenging aspect to maintaining the proper balance—linen that is thrown away or goes home with the patients. 

It is not uncommon for patients or friends of patients to be given blankets to keep them warm going to their cars when discharged. You can usually go to any trash container at a hospital and find linen that has accidently been thrown in the trash bin instead of the soil linen bin. When EVS is making a bed, they may find a stained or torn piece of linen, and instead of returning it to the laundry for credit, it is quite frequently thrown in the trash.

Running a laundry with a low linen inventory raises every cost associated with running a laundry:

  • Utilities. You will begin to run light loads in your washroom, which will cause you to use more water and chemicals in the washroom. Light loads in dryers take longer, so your gas bill will go up.
  • Labor. Employees will begin to wait around for the linen they need to process. This is especially true about items that are not always used at the hospitals, such as a larger gown or baby goods. The employees will start folding items that are not really required just to stay busy until the items they need get to them.
  • Customer Relations. When the laundry is short on inventory, it will begin shorting the customers. The occasional linen shortage may be understood. The hospital may have enough of the item to make it through that work day. Constant linen shortages will begin to affect how the nurses can care for their patients. Which, as stated earlier, is this basis for the entire industry.

Textiles: Gabriel Boardman, MIP Inc., Anjou, Quebec

As a supplier to customers across North America and 30 other countries, we have compared notes with some of our industry colleagues and these are the issues that came up most often.

Longer Pipeline—In order to offer most competitive pricing, many manufacturers have moved to overseas production. To ensure proper inventory, forecasting covering a much longer period can be a much more complicated exercise for the customer and the supplier.

No Plan B—There are fewer and fewer local options available. It is up to healthcare linen suppliers to be their own plan B (unfortunately translating at a higher price for customers when their inventory unexpectedly runs out).

Spikes in Demands—It becomes increasingly difficult to respond to large spikes in customer demands. This seems to be happening more often as customers try to be as lean as possible with inventory. In turn, suppliers try to be cautious not to overstock products that will end up having a low turnover. 

Trade Volatility—We are all at the mercy of constantly changing tariff charges, currency fluctuations and raw material costs that have been more erratic. It can become a gamble that is not always to the advantage of the supplier

We all want to minimize the financial burden of large inventories—customer and supplier—and the challenge is to do it with as little risk to the efficiency and quality of linens. Each challenge can be addressed by having supplier and customer discuss as partners and make responsible inventory decisions that they both can commit to. Our decisions cannot have a negative impact on the level of care provided by our hospitals and care facilities

Because, in the end, the patient or resident that will be in need of a clean gown or bed linens could be a family member—or even ourselves!  

Uniforms/Workwear Manufacturing: Scott Delin, Fashion Seal Healthcare, Seminole, Fla.

Thirty-six years ago, I began my laundry career at Penn Linen & Uniform Service working with my father-in-law, Max Stettner. Penn Linen & Uniform Service was an operation of four operating plants and a depot. The mothership plant was a mixed plant, which processed linen supply, industrial uniforms, dust control, cleanroom and healthcare. The other three plants processed for the healthcare market only.  

I remember my first day on the job like it was yesterday. Upon reporting for duty, Max and I drove to our warehouse where we kept our inventory for all four Penn Linen facilities. 

Once we entered the building, Max said to me, “Welcome to Fort Knox. Look around, all those cartons and bales of textiles represent dollars. It is imperative that, if nothing else, you must learn two lessons and learn them fast in order to be successful and profitable in this business. 

“Lesson one: Be smart in controlling your inventory and inventory levels, both in and out. Too much inventory leads to wasted dollars spent sitting on the shelf gathering dust, while insufficient levels of inventory means you cannot service your customers’ needs efficiently, thus impacting your service and your delivery schedules. 

“Lesson two: Know your suppliers and how to secure quality textiles and products needed to run your business. Beware of vendors who sell on price as opposed to those who sell on quality and reliability in order to deliver product on time and be sure to develop programs that lead to a win-win situation for all.”

The next stop on my opening-day tour was the soil room. During my visit to the soil room, I was informed, “The soil room is the most important area of any laundry. Every piece of linen crossing the soil belt represents a dollar. The employees in this department are responsible for accurately counting the dollars (soiled items) daily upon coming back from our customers. 

“Efficiency in fulfilling orders to our customers is dependent strongly on the counting accuracy of our staff working the soil belts and accuracy of the department as a whole.”  

To this day, I am happy to say my first day at Penn Linen enabled me to successfully understand the need for managing realistic inventory levels and the impact poor inventory management and inferior products have upon successful laundry operations. 

I understand the importance of listening to my laundry partners’ needs and operating procedures in order to recommend solutions that satisfy and meet their expectations as it pertains to inventory control. Having walked the walk and talked the talk, I get it 100%.

Okay so now, it is time to talk about that elephant in the room. Or should I say the elephant in our plants, stockrooms or warehouses that continually controls and influences how we as business owners and operators run our laundries and more importantly how we service our customers on a daily and weekly basis: inventory and securing of textiles.

When it comes to inventory control and securing textiles, suppliers and laundries walk a fine line on a daily basis. 

As market conditions continue to change and become more competitive due to the impact of global sourcing and other unknown variables, it is important to align your business with suppliers who have consistently maintained strong partnerships and solid communications with their offshore manufacturing partners. 

Such an alignment is key to running a successful business with a lean-and-mean inventory program that allows you to service customers properly without carrying the burden of tying up your dollars with excess inventory. 

In order to deal with the many unknowns that can and will have a direct impact upon your ability to meet the demands of your customers’ needs, one might want to consider the implementation of “programs” with your suppliers as an excellent way to efficiently and cost-effectively mitigate these unknown challenges. 

With programs, suppliers can be smarter in forecasting production in an efficient way that will support the “Just in Time” inventory control principle. This will ensure your customers’ expectations for service are met consistently day in and day out. 

As technology continues to change how we receive, process and deliver to our customers, RFID (radio frequency identification) is now used as an inventory tool in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. Tracking product in real time enables laundries better control of costs both internal and external while ensuring proper deliveries and inventory levels to their end user. 

Will RFID end inventory losses? No. However, it will aid in the reduction of inventory losses and help to increase efficiency in processing and information accuracy to our customers.  

In reality, in order to be successful, it is imperative that you work with a supplier that can and will work with you on developing programs that will guarantee quality inventory as needed so you can concentrate on what is important with growing your successful business. 

Check back tomorrow for advice from equipment/supply distribution, consulting and healthcare laundry experts.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].