Ask Unclutterer: Organizing and operating a central supply room

Reader Brenda submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

[I’m] looking for guidelines or rules on how to operate a central supply room.

I strongly recommend taking as much from Lean systems as possible when it comes to supply room organizing. If you are unfamiliar with Lean, check out The Toyota Way. In short, the basic philosophy of Lean systems is to trim the fat (waste, unnecessary processes, etc.) and improve the flow and quality of work. These systems apply wonderfully to office supplies because objects like reams of paper and toner cartridges can be counted, tracked, sorted, organized, and replaced systematically.

The five phases (5S) of Lean are: sorting, straightening, sweeping, standardizing, and sustaining. You can immediately see how these concepts apply to office supplies — sort them, straighten them (organize), , standardize them, sweep them (clean them and the room), and sustain the system (maintain).

Start by sorting items into groups by type. Do this in either an adjacent conference room or on the floor outside the room when employees aren’t present (like on a weekend). Group blue ball point pens with blue ball point pens, blue felt tip pens with blue felt tip pens, unsharpened pencils with unsharpened pencils, etc. Also during this time, create an inventory listing all the items, how many of each item you have, and the replacement information for that item (like a relevant catalog ID number from your supplier). If you could have one person creating the inventory in a database while someone else counts and reports, you can work relatively quickly.

Once sorted and inventoried, focus on the straightening and standardizing portions of the project by returning the items to the storage area. If you need to install shelves or bins, do so after evaluating how much stuff you have during the sorting phase. On the shelves, label storage bins and boxes very specifically so that there is a place for everything and everything is in its place (Staples: 26/6; Staples: 23/20; Manila Folders: 1/3 cut, 8.5″ x 11″; Manila Folders: 1/3 cut, 8.5″ x 14″; etc.). Consider using colors as visual cues for even more detailed subdivision — all paper products can sit in bins of the same color, all tools in another color. Make things as standardized as possible.

Any work done in the central supply room should have detail instructions posted nearby. (In Lean terminology, these are sometimes referred to as kanban billboards.) If someone has to ask how to make a photocopy/replace paper in the photocopier/shred papers/unjam paper from the shredder/etc. it means the processes are not properly outlined or posted. Make these posters as part of the straightening and standardizing processes.

For the sweeping/cleaning process, have a weekly time on the schedule to re-organize, evaluate, run a detailed inventory, and clean/dust the room. In Lean systems, the word Kaizen is usually associated with this process. The belief with Kaizen is that there is always room for improvement, so you should be continuously looking for ways to make things better. If the central supply room experiences extremely high traffic, this chore may need to be done once or twice a day.

One person should manage this room and be responsible for keeping track of inventory, ordering supplies, and organizing, evaluating, and cleaning the room. Although one person will be in charge of the room, you’ll still want to allow other employees access to the room. So other people will be able to be good team members and help the supply room manager (teamwork plays an important role in Lean), use pull cards, which notify the supply room manager that new products need to be ordered. (These pull cards are also a type of kanban, and will often be referred to as such.) These cards are slipped into stacks of items, usually before the second-to-last or next-to-last supply, and say something obvious like, “Time to reorder,” on them and include the product code (definitely include the product name or the supply manager won’t know what to order). There should be a collection bin for these pull cards where employees can deposit them to notify the supply room manager. Implement as many standardized processes as necessary to make things easier on employees and the supply room manager.

For sustaining and maintaining, train all staff members how to appropriately use the new central supply room. The person running the supply room will be constantly frustrated if this training is not done well. Training may have to happen more than once, and employees’ abilities to properly use the storage area should be regularly reviewed.

Thank you, Brenda, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope implementing a Lean system will help to bring order to your central supply room. Also, check the comments for even more insights into using and implementing Lean systems for office supplies.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

7 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing and operating a central supply room”

  1. posted by CM on

    I have always had a fantasy of having a room like this in my house, with alphabetized shelf space devoted to extras of things we always need. So I can acquire these things on sale and have a place for everything, and if I need extra toothpaste or an umbrella, I just look under the appropriate letter and there it is. I would keep a master of list of everything on the shelves and refill when necessary. We moved recently and part of the basement is still filled with unpacked boxes of books, so once that’s cleared, my dream may come true.

  2. posted by Jessiejack on

    Have you all seen the wonderfully organized stockpile rooms that couponers all seem to have on the show “Extreme Couponing” (a guilty pleasure). There’s a part of me that wants the abundance and neatness of the room though it doesn’t quite fit an uncluttered lifestyle to have 300 liter bottles of mtn dew etc. :)

  3. posted by *pol on

    That 5S system sounds good for Pantry too!

  4. posted by bytheway on

    Great tips! The main thing is that the organization is simple enough that everyone will buy into the process and maintain it. Easily done, in a less formal way, at home. When we moved 5 yrs ago into a smaller home, we repurposed an old large bookshelf that didn’t fit with new decor as a “pantry” in the basement laundry room. It worked great as an extra place for storing diapers (often only on sale if you buy two boxes), megapacks of toilet paper, non-perishable foodstuffs, etc. Just slap a shopping pad nearby and it was easy to tear off on the way to run errands. We nicknamed it our “Basement Wal-Mart.”

  5. posted by Ann on

    I so wish that Texas had more houses with basements, not only because, statistically, we have more tornadoes than any place on earth, but for the extra, cooler space. It amazes me that a place that is so hot and has so many tornadoes has almost no houses with basements. So many articles on home organization recommend using the basement in some way, but many, many houses in the southern U.S. just don’t have that option. My brother once owned a house near Fort Worth with a full basement–so it’s obviously doable–and yet his house is the only one I’ve ever seen in Texas with a basement. If I had a basement, all my organization needs would disappear.

  6. posted by Jen on

    Wow, this is very detailed and would be really helpful for someone managing a small business or office, even a home office. I actually think it’s really useful, in an adapted, scaled-down way, for managing a pantry or bathroom supply closet. I’m thinking specifically of my bathroom closet where I keep shampoo, soap, and other toiletries. My biggest problem is that I tend to stock up on these items when they are on sale or I have a coupon, or sometimes just out of convenience (like I’m on my semi-annual trip to Costco or something). But then the stuff gets thrown in wherever it fits and it’s hard to keep track of what’s left and when I actually will run out and need more. I need to do a re-org of this closet and putting a system like this in place seems like a good idea.

    We’re also redoing our kitchen soon, so maybe another system for pantry items is also a good idea. Even if it’s just a running list of items to keep on hand and how much of each one is left.

  7. posted by Hannah Valentine on

    Love love *love* that pull card idea! I’ve been slowly trying to get some control over our office supplies over the last couple of months, and I think that’s a fantastic next step. Thank you!

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