Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Inventory Management

A question was posed in the BCP Facebook group regarding how folks manage their supplies and keep track of stock levels. (By the way, keep the questions coming. It's nice to know what people want to learn about.) Oddly enough, this particular question fell right into my background. I answered it briefly on Facebook, but I'd like to expand upon that answer here.

Done right, proper inventory management saves you time, money, and the embarrassment of being caught without. Many years ago, before I was a professional builder of things, I was a salesman specializing in managing parts supplies for manufacturing facilities and commercial operations. That's a long and fancy way of saying that I made sure folks didn't run out of things. I realized early on that this skill set meshed nicely with my faith's teaching of emergency preparedness. While the products being stocked are different, the techniques used are the same, and can be applied by anyone willing to put forth a little effort and attention.

Implementing a management system is easiest if you start small.
  1. Pick about a dozen items that you feel you go through frequently. 
  2. Decide a maximum amount that you want on hand at any given time. This can depend on storage space, budget, and how much you can use before an item expires. 
  3. Choose a minimum amount which leaves you enough to prevent running out before your next regular shopping trip. This becomes the point where you restock the item. 
  4. Before you go shopping, note which items are at minimum, and buy enough to bring you back to maximum. 
  5. The quick and dirty way to do this is to put a tag for each item at its storage location, with the minimum and maximum listed. 
  6. As you get used to doing this, begin adding other items and grow your system.

The system above works great for smaller households like mine. With only two people, communication is easy and things aren't likely to fall through the cracks. However, for larger households, or folks who want to manage lots of items, there is an easier way.

The Kanban method uses a physical signal to call for restock. Professionally, I've used a variety of signals for this. For household supplies, something as simple as a 3x5 index card works wonders.
  1. Write the name of the item, and the min and max quantities on the card. 
  2. This card goes in front of the minimum quantity on your shelf. 
  3. When you get to each card, put them in an envelope, box, or other location. 
  4. When you go shopping, simply take the cards with you, and you have your shopping list. 
This system takes a bit of setup at the start, but is dead simple afterward.

As a simple example, let's use an item from my pantry. We keep boxed macaroni and cheese on hand (hey, it's a comfort food from my childhood, and it's cheap). Our minimum quantity is 2 boxes, because we're not likely to use more than that in a week. Our maximum quantity is 10 boxes, mostly because I can buy in 4 packs sometimes. The kanban card would sit in front of the second to last box on the shelf. As we eat through our supply and reach the card, it goes in an envelope until we restock. We rotate our stock so we use the older product first, and re-insert the card at the second to last box.

Mac and Cheese Kanban card. It really is that simple. 

It's a whole lot of words, but it makes for a fairly simple system. All it requires is that you pay attention before you shop. It can be adjusted at any time, and requires no other work to keep running. It also levels out high and low supply points, and you won't be caught unaware.


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