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Myth Busting 16: Who should run stores?

Myth Busting SeriesPerhaps the number one excuse that maintainers use for being unable to get repairs executed in a timely manner is to blame parts and their supply. For the maintenance technician on the tools, it’s a very obvious problem. No parts or materials means that work simply cannot be done without some sort of work-around / jury-rigged solution. The alternative is to get the needed materials as quickly as possible – often incurring substantial premiums on the price of the materials and premium shipping charges. When the parts arrive, usually after some waiting period, all emphasis is on getting the job completed even if it requires overtime effort and costs. This makes compliance to budget a real challenge and invites plenty of queries from accounting, finance and general management about our ability to work within a budget. As fire fighters we are sometimes heroes, but as managers we are failures.

There are several possible solutions to this situation. Our natural tendency as maintainers is to take matters in our own hands – keep our own stashes of often-needed parts. I’ve seen rows of cabinets full of parts, already pre-expended from stores, located right beside the machines those parts are intended to support. In one extreme case I saw 14 rows of these cabinets full of parts beside each of 14 machines, all on the same plant floor. Most of those parts didn’t get used. The cabinets were managed by the maintainers and kept full of “just in case” parts. The store-room (managed by a supply chain group that reported to finance) was used to re-stock those cabinets. It contained less stock by dollar value than any one of those 14 rows of cabinets!

The cabinets were replenished when maintainers noticed that something had run out. Occasionally the parts that were needed for the adjacent machine were not available in its cabinet and other cabinets would be raided to supply the need. Stores wasn’t even considered a viable option. The maintainers had no systematic perspective on how parts should be managed, no rules about minimum stock levels, no rules about minimum order quantities nor maximum stock levels and no cycle counting. They merely filled empty spots in the cabinets when (and if) they noticed. The result was that plant having close to 14 times the inventory actually needed – a huge expenditure tying up a lot of working capital “just in case”. It took an auditor’s review and observations to point out that this wasn’t working.

You probably recognize that that was extreme. It was. How about having the storeroom managed by maintenance?

Sadly, that doesn’t usually work very well in most cases either. In fairness, I have seen this work, but usually it does not. Again, the lack of formal stores practices usually results in a storeroom that is too well stocked of “just in case” items. Inventory turns will be low and since there is no systematic view of what is / is not moving from inventory, much of what sits on the shelves, remains there. Maintainers are typically busy and don’t have a lot of time to think about spares – if asked whether something that has been sitting on the shelf is really needed (even if it’s been there for years), they usually answer “yes”.

Another problem is that access to these store rooms are rarely well controlled. If they even have a dedicated stores person (fairly rare if maintenance runs it), they still allow maintainers to come and go as they please. They may have a way to record what is taken out, but in a rush job that step is often overlooked. This is especially prevalent for items taken from stores after normal working hours. Most repair work done in those hours is in response to breakdowns and it is usually rushed so that production can be restored quickly. Paperwork is left to later and usually forgotten. After all, they need to rush to the next breakdown. In these cases it’s the discipline that is lacking. It’s the same discipline that is needed to keep your CMMS populated with useful information about work that has been done. If the CMMS / EAM has spotty data (as most do), then your maintainers are not good candidates to manage stores.

In my opinion, given all that I’ve seen, maintainers do a poor job of looking after their own best interests when it comes to parts and materials. They just don’t have the discipline nor the knowledge of good inventory management practices.

In most cases I recommend that stores be managed by stores-people who report to finance and have had training in how to manage stores. Access to store rooms needs to be controlled – maintainers should not be allowed to “shop” in the store room aisles. If they don’t know what they need and where it is (exactly by aisle, shelf and bin) then they shouldn’t be inside the store room.

Having said that, parts supply is not problematic because of who runs stores. Having it run by those who are professionals helps, but the more significant problem is knowing what to store. That problem is dealt with in the next article about what to store.