Solving the ‘Nothing I Need is Ever There’ Dilemma – Step 2
In Step 1 we talked about determining the state of your lab and figuring out how to take the first steps toward making availability of lab supplies less frustrating and less costly. Need a refresher? Check out Solving the ‘Nothing I Need is Ever There Dilemma – Step 1.
Want to know the secret to solving this dilemma? It’s figuring out what you need to order, how much and when.
Wait… what? I’ll bet you’re thinking to yourself, “that’s not the solution, that’s my problem!!” Exactly. Let’s figure this out starting with the people who use the lab supplies you manage. Are they the kind of people who let other people know when the shelf is empty? Or, better yet, when supplies are starting to run low?
Or, is it more likely that the shelf will sit empty while everyone just orders their own supplies?
If the latter, you’ll need a process to review or count what’s on the shelf on a regular basis. If the former, you might be able to manage your stockroom or lab with an alert type process. Either of these processes can be done manually or using digital tools.
Exploring manual options
There are a few manual options available for alert processes. These include:
- White board, clip board or sticky notes – users write the item or items that need to be ordered and how many. The person managing the stockroom determines the final order quantities after reviewing the white board/sticky notes.
- Visual Signal (sometimes called a two bin or Kanban) system – the stockroom manager places a visual indicator within the stock on a shelf. When users see that visual indicator – often a colored card or a card with ordering information – the user either takes that card to person who orders for that stockroom or places the card in a basket to be collected.
It’s often easier to change your process versus trying to change human behavior. If you know your stockroom users are unlikely to let you know when the shelf is running low on an item, a review/count process may be more effective than an alert process. Your best bet is to establish time to do periodic cycle counts. With manual periodic stock counts, the stockroom manager counts each item in the stockroom. The counts are recorded using pen and paper, spreadsheet or another document.
- The stock count process can either focus on counting the empty spaces or on counting the items remaining on the shelf.
- Counting empty spaces creates orders that fill the shelf.
- Counts of items remaining on the shelf are compared to pre-established reorder points. This type of stock count is an important tool for optimizing spend, shelf space, and availability of supplies. We’ll cover this topic in more detail in a future article.
- Frequency of counting depends on how much shelf space you have and how many supplies are used each day. Start by doing counts a few times a week and gauge the frequency you need at your site from there.
Items to be ordered – either from the stock counts or the alert system – are then entered into an ordering system or sent/called into each vendor.
The pros of using a manual system are that it’s easy to set up and it can be effective. However, manual systems are often tedious, cumbersome, and time consuming both for counting items and placing orders.
Digital options can boost efficiency
The digital options for both count processes follow the same general flow as the manual options, but leverage a variety of digital tools to complete these steps.
For an alert type process, some inventory management programs offer mobile apps for recording items as they are taken. The process is as simple as scanning the bar/QR code on the product shelf and indicating quantity taken. You are alerted to reorder when the quantity on your shelf falls below a pre-set reorder point.
Another efficient source of digital alerts is your Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). These systems track and associate the reagents and consumables that are used with each experiment. They can also provide you with dashboards to track stock levels and notify you when you are getting low to trigger a reorder.
Digital inventory management systems also streamline counting stock – often reducing the time need to count stock by up to 50% and with fewer errors. To count, you scan the bar/QR code on the shelf, enter the count of items on the shelf, and continue until all items are counted.
In more advanced inventory management solutions, like the one offered by Thermo Fisher Scientific, the system both automatically calculates the order quantity needed and places the order directly with the vendor. This dramatically reduces the time to identify and order supplies needed by the lab.
Digital inventory management systems take a little longer to set up, but quickly return that initial investment through more efficient and more accurate stock counting and ordering.
Your next steps? Assessing which of these options makes the most sense for you and your lab.
Next up for us? Taking a more detailed look at some best practices in tactical inventory management.