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Using reservations at your plant to obtain materials and minimize delays

Sept. 29, 2014
How materials management is like running a restaurant.

I am a senior consultant and materials management subject matter expert at Life Cycle Engineering. To be honest, I don’t much care for that title. What I really am is a parts guy — a box-kicker, as my co-worker calls it. My wife prefers to call me an inventory manager. As my mother used to say, “I don’t care what you call me. Just don’t call me late for dinner.” I don’t know why she said that, but she did, and now I say it, too, even though I don’t really get the reference. The point is I truly don’t care what people call me. What’s important is they trust my knowledge and experience to help them to solve their MRO material challenges.

For the past 10 years I have been helping people use materials management best practices to reduce their inventory, improve productivity, and provide better service to their customers in operations and maintenance. One of the first things I stress is the use of kitting for planned jobs and reservations for unplanned materials due to emergencies, discovery, or opportunistic work. There is so much time wasted at the warehouse wicket while mechanics, sometimes several at once, shoot the breeze for a while before trying to explain what they really want and then wait while the warehouse clerks try to satisfy their often unrealistic expectations.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when it is actually beneficial to be able to walk to the wicket, talk to someone, and actually look at the parts to make sure you get what you need as quickly as possible. But in many cases, walk-up service only results in unnecessary delays due to uncertainty about part numbers and descriptions, locations, or even on-hand balances. Individually these instances may only consume an extra five to 10 minutes apiece, but when added up over the course of a year they can equate to one or more full-time equivalent employees. That time could be much better spent on things like cycle counting, turning wrenches, or redeploying resources to fill more critical needs.

I stress the importance of using reservations to speed up the process of obtaining materials and minimize delays. Reservations provide the warehouse personnel with advance notice about what’s required and give them time to plan and schedule their workforces to support picking and kitting. Even for walk-up service, a reservation can provide a heads-up to the warehouse that there is an urgent need for materials and can also provide the requester with information about the on-hand balance to let them know if there’s a reasonable assurance that the material will be there when they get there.

Granted, it can be a little difficult at first for both parties to get used to using reservations. For mechanics who aren’t accustomed to accessing the inventory control system, it takes a while to learn how to look up parts and find part numbers, but once you get comfortable with it, putting in a reservation isn’t time-consuming. With good records and cheat sheets of commonly ordered items, the process takes only a minute or two.

For warehouse employees, it can be awkward asking every person who walks up to the wicket if they have entered a reservation for what they want. As a case in point, consider the plant manager who went to the wicket to talk to the warehouse employees about a recent site-wide communication and was asked if he had a reservation. That’s taking it a little too far.

But the discomfort doesn’t have to last for long. Once people get in the habit of entering reservations, there’s no need to continue asking. When everyone realizes how much better service becomes with a reservation, they wonder why they didn’t do it sooner.

When I’m not working, and particularly when I’m on vacation, I try to forget about parts. I’m Hubby, Dad, Grandpa, Big Guy, or just Doug, and I love those titles. But there are times when you simply can’t avoid it, like when my wife and I recently visited the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. While enjoying a sample of white wines at one of the local vineyards, we happened to mention that we were looking for a nice place for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. The associate in the tasting room immediately suggested Ports Café on the west side of Lake Seneca. She said they make everything fresh and try to use as many local ingredients as they can.

Since we were staying near the restaurant, we decided to check it out on the way back and weren’t overly impressed with what we saw. We were expecting a large building with a beautiful façade and inviting entrance, but it was so nondescript that we actually drove right past it without noticing, and we had to turn around to find it on the way back. That made us a little skeptical about the recommendation, but generally locals know where the best places are, so we decided to try it anyway.

We pulled in at about 7:45 PM and were immediately greeted by a friendly hostess who asked us, “Do you have a reservation?” The irony escaped my wife, but unfortunately it got my wheels spinning, and, as the evening wore on, I found myself contemplating several analogies between dining and parts.

As we were seated, the waitress informed us about the specials — virtually a second menu just for the day. There were so many that she had to leave her notebook on the table so we could review them again before ordering. Talk about unpredictable demand! How do you plan for that? How could they possibly have the right amount of ingredients without any idea how many people would be coming for dinner, let alone what they would order? Even we had no idea until well after we arrived what we wanted. Ultimately we ordered one entrée from the regular menu and one special.

While enjoying some adult beverages, the table next to us was served an appetizer of bacon-wrapped scallops, which according to the waiter was the last one available. My wife told me that she had considered ordering the same thing but had decided it would be too much. I told her it was generous of her to let the other couple have it.

At the same time I thought to myself how perfectly this demonstrates the delicate balance between inventory and service. At first we didn’t know how many scallops they had and didn’t care because we didn’t want any. Then we learned that they were all gone — out of stock — but it still didn’t matter to us, or to the couple next to us. If no one else wanted that appetizer, the chef would have somehow been able to perfectly anticipate his inventory needs.

Doug Wallace, CPIM, is senior consultant — materials management subject matter expert at Life Cycle Engineering. He’s also knowledgeable in planning and scheduling and operator care best practices and is certified in Prosci change management methodology. He can be reached at [email protected].

But anyone else who ordered bacon-wrapped scallops this night would have experienced a stock-out situation, where demand exceeds supply. They would then be forced to choose between a suitable substitute and nothing, likely ending up disappointed either way. Fortunately, stock-outs at dinner aren’t as potentially critical as they can be at the warehouse.

We enjoyed the rest of our dinner at a leisurely pace, which allowed one more work-related thought to creep into my head. Unlike many restaurants, this place obviously was less concerned about turnover than about a pleasant dining experience. Normally I encourage higher turnover, but it didn’t bother me that we weren’t rushed at all.

Overall, the food was superb and the service was excellent. On the ride to the hotel, my wife said it was one of the best meals she had had in a long time and would highly recommend the place to anyone travelling in the area. She had apparently noticed my occasional periods of inattentiveness and was concerned that I didn’t share her sentiments. Not wanting to admit that I had crossed the line between pleasure and work for a few moments, I agreed with her assessment completely and assured her there was nothing wrong with me that a few more tastings wouldn’t cure.

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