Inventory management systems?
October 26, 2004 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Small- to medium-scale inventory management system recommendations?

Our office has three supply rooms that we use. Two have office and classroom supply materials (standard stuff: pencils, pens, note pads, staplers, etc.) as well as some non-standard or items produced in-house (certificate folders, reams of letterhead, etc.). The third supply room has a huge quantity of books; multiple titles and multiple copies of each.

Are there any inventory management systems that exist that are rather simple to use? I’m thinking barcode scanners attached to PDAs, and then downloaded to a computer. Some sort of Excel or Word output that could be uploaded to a intranet site for internal use?

I’ve seen a interoffice mail delivery person using a (I think) Cassiopeia with a scanner attached. Has anyone used this? What’s required on the computer-end of things in order to handle the data when it’s transferred back?

Suggestions or recommendations?

posted by NotMyselfRightNow to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I only have general suggestions based upon inventory management practices, but ... don't try to track everything. Tracking books = good, they're expensive and sometimes can't be replaced.

But reams of letterhead, pens, pencils, notepads? The only thing that you might institute if you're having supply problems with them is a 'kanban' system ... when you reach a certain level, there's a card that people are supposed to put in a pocket near the door of the supply room to make sure that the item gets ordered. Then you just track your usage based upon ordering and decide if it's excessive enough to warrant intervention to stay within budget.

I don't think it'd be worth it to spend a lot of time and money on an inventory tracking system for your use, unless you've got a lot more in inventory than it sounds like you do. That's why you tend not to see computer-based inventory tracking systems for smaller applications like yours -- it's cheaper to spend a day counting books than it is to buy and implement a technology-based solution.

(P.S. - I've got a degree in supply management and have spent about 5 years in IT or manufacturing jobs, not including two years moonlighting as a consultant ... helping businesses solve office problems with a mix of technology and smart paper-based systems...)
posted by SpecialK at 2:35 PM on October 26, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, SpecialK.

The books are my main concern, with the smaller office supplies being a secondary issue. The books are something to keep an eye on because of quantity x cost and the possible savings. The smaller office supplies are necessary because if we run out, we're in trouble....

We basically have two sets of issues:

With the books: We tend to bring about 7000 students through our programs each year. Not all get books, and some get multiple ones. When we order, we get to get an additional quantity to handle late additions, etc. This leaves us with a number of extras left over. Those tend to pile up and not be used by later programs which could be using the exact same books in their programs. Do this over and over and over in a given year, and you get a ton of extra materials that no one uses, no one pays attention to, and that just pile up. We need to find a way to deal with that...

With the general supplies: We have a very rapid turn over with these, and the supplies all tend to be grabbed in bunches (i.e., everyone who needs something for a given week will probably all grab it on the same Thursday). This causes our supply levels to fluctuate heavily, and we occasionally find ourselves lacking what we need and waiting for a delivery to arrive.

I very much appreciate your point on cost vs. effort (taking a day to count once a month), and it's definately something for us to think about....
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:56 PM on October 26, 2004

Well, again, unsolicited advice, and it's worth what you paid for it ... you might maintain a low "maintenance" level of office supplies in your storage closets and pass out order forms for the instructors or users of the office supplies for the rush periods... that's what supply management people call 'seasonality', and there's a billion and one ways to handle it. If you tell your people "We need you to order the office supplies you need during the rush periods. If you don't order them in advance using this form, there most likely won't be any when you need it. Sorry, but you get the idea." There's *no* need for you to try to predict it without any data, and making people figure in advance should reduce waste as well as the time you spend managing, ordering, and dealing with pissed off people when you don't have any. ;) Combine that with the kanban system and except for spot-checking and making sure you don't have a bunch of stuff no one uses, and you should be golden.

As far as the books -- You've got a very good point, and the case you suggested is where digital systems typically shine. But again, I think you've got more of an underlying process problem than you do a lack-of-software problem; the reason that software feels like it'd be a great solution is that it would impose its process on you. This is something I tell my clients all the time; software is no replacement for good internal processes ... that's why when you hear of a big corp "implementing SAP" or something else to fix internal issues, you should sell their stock or stop using their services until you see how things settle out. ;)
So, off the soapbox now -- The best thing you can do for your book inventory problem is figure out a decent system to manage it without using computers, and then if you decide it's too much work put a computer in place to manage it. You'll need to answer these questions:
- When books come in, what happens? Do they get a shelf location assigned to them, or what?
- When books need to be reordered, how does it get handled now, and how *should* it get handled? (Remember 'Kanban' ... "If there are less than three books here, please put this card in the box by the door on your way out. Otherwise, there won't be books here next time you need one.")
- When books are 'obsoleted' and a new version is ordered, how are they disposed of now and what's the best way to get rid of them? No computer system will automate *this* task ... it's still something that requires thought. Will the publishers take them back, or do they need to go to a book depository or be sold on eBay?
posted by SpecialK at 5:19 PM on October 26, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Already ahead of you. Just spent an hour or so completely rewriting all of our book-related processes. There's going to need to be some sort of management system in place, but I think if we get it to the point where we can centralize some of what we do, we can track everything in something as basic as Excel...

Thanks a ton for all of this; it's much appreciated!
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:49 PM on October 26, 2004

Good to hear. Simple is the best kind of solution!
posted by SpecialK at 11:53 AM on October 27, 2004

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