Traditional organizations, especially in the manufacturing sector, usually go through a grueling exercise called "inventory" or "&#!*@ inventory" depending on whether you're supervising or doing the actual work. Typically it's around the end of the year, if not quarterly, and is designed to ensure that months of transactions have occurred properly and counts are correct… and "value" can be changed based on the change of "cost" standards for the following period. Traditional accounting then requires a revaluation of inventory value, often resulting in significant expense hits to companies with bloated warehouses. It's one of those miracles of traditional accounting: somehow at the stroke of midnight "value" can change dramatically.
One of our nation's bio labs recently had a minor problem when trying to account for their inventory. Cost reconciliation was not a factor, but it still created something of an issue.
Frederick found more than 9,200 vials of material that was unaccounted
for in laboratory records, Fort Detrick officials said Wednesday. He [Col. Mark Kortepeter, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases] said the found material included Korean War-era serum samples from
patients with Korean hemorrhagic fever, a disease still of interest to
researchers pursuing a vaccine. Other vials contained viruses and
microbes responsible for Ebola, plague, anthrax, botulism and host of
other ailments, Kortepeter said in a teleconference with reporters.
How this happened probably sounds familiar to many of us.
"What happens over time, these get moved from one freezer to another,
historically. Now we have much better tracking of where they are,"
Kortepeter said. The material was in tiny, 1mm vials that could easily be overlooked in
the 25-cubic-foot freezers or even covered by clumps of minus-80-degree
ice, said Sam Edwin, the institute's inventory control officer.
The same problems that confound inventory management at manufacturing organizations, right? How do lean organizations reduce or even eliminate the problem? First they try to reduce the inventory as much as possible by getting rid of non-performing inventory assets. Fort Detrick is doing that as well.
Samples deemed potentially useful were saved and entered into a
laboratory database, he said.
But that's not a solution and just fixes the problem at the current point in time. To really prevent the problem from reoccurring the organization must attack the inventory-creation process itself by eliminating overproduction and minimizing work-in-process. To ensure inventory accuracy the transaction process needs to be streamlined, simple, visual, and intuitive. Every transaction boundary creates complexity that leads to potential errors. Finally the locations that hold whatever inventory that remains, if any, need to be 5S'd to improve organization. I wonder how the 350 freezers at Fort Detrick are organized… are some used strictly for long-term storage? Or are all accessed on a regular basis? And I wonder how many freezers are really required in the first place.