Fixing Your Inventory Processes: Start Small, Think Big


By Douglas Lowe

Several years ago, I started a new job as a supply chain manager in a large hospital with well-established systems and business processes.  As I was getting to know how things worked, I had to wonder “what did I just inherit?” I knew it was time to dig in and find out what was working well, what wasn’t working at all, and build from there.

If you’re getting started in a new organization – or if you’re thinking about how to improve the one you’ve worked in for many years – some thoughtful conversations and planning will help you decide what to do.

  1. Take a few days and practice “management by walking around.” See exactly how things are working and understand the flow of current processes. I took some videos along the way with my smartphone to capture existing processes.
  2. Have conversations with key stakeholders, even if the conversations are difficult. Even in areas that haven’t worked together well, it’s never too late to have a conversation that starts with the words “Tell me what’s been working for you” and then follow up with “Tell me what hasn’t.” Find out what’s been getting bogged down, and what service levels aren’t being met or need to be changed. These conversations will also identify your best subject matter experts. As a new manager, I talked with everyone who touched or was touched by supply chain processes. I talked with people in the storeroom, receiving dock, nurses, supply techs, prime vendor, purchasing and AP – everyone who could help build a complete picture of the flow of paperwork and supplies.
  3. Grab your white board and flow chart your current processes. I divided mine into categories to understand processes, technology, workflow, people and culture.  Let it sink in, then bring in some of your in-house subject matter experts to validate your understanding, and start looking for redundancies, duplicated efforts, gaps – anything that might reveal where improvements are needed.
  4. Look for the low-hanging fruit and fix what bothers you the most. I tried to find places where I could have the most impact without causing the wheels to fall off. I started with things that could be changed quickly without involving a lot of time and resources. Do the simplest things first, then work your way up the list. The easy tasks and quick wins will help gain support for the larger changes to come.
  5. Establish new service levels between your team and internal customer groups. Communicate continually with your stakeholders; ensure people know what changes are being made, why, how they’re impacted and what to expect. You’ll get more support for change when people understand and are part of the process.  
  6. Remember the videos we took in step 2? I found value in going back out and taking videos of new processes, so we could recognize the success and improvements we had made. This helped show the difference in processes, which in turn helped people stay focused on keeping new processes in place, not sliding back to old methods.

It’s not always easy to get started, especially in an environment where processes are well-established. But remember to start small, use a quick wins strategy and give yourself a chance to make easy changes.

Next time, we’ll talk about making change in your storerooms, how to start and a few proven strategies that can help.