Seven months ago I joined the NHS from a role in operational management in manufacturing. One of the first things I noticed is that we seem to have missed the point on managing materials.

Seven months ago I joined the NHS from a role in operational management in manufacturing. One of the first things I noticed is that we seem to have missed the point on managing materials.

I accept it is not the sexiest subject, but have you tried to help a patient without the right materials?

We end up wasting clinicians' and managers' time requesting and approving rushed orders. While staff are hoarding stationery, we cannot find what we need, when we need it and where we need it - and we hold far too much of the wrong stock.

In today's financial climate every penny counts, and pennies add up to pounds. One example is that we worry we will run out of latex gloves overnight so we hold 4,000 pairs of small gloves and 10,000 pairs of all sizes for a ward of 12 beds. What other reason could explain this behaviour?

It might appear to be only 4p for a pair of gloves, but this works out at£400 for one ward and£6,000 for 15 wards. It isn't just gloves or just wards, it's everywhere.

There is the cost of storage. Anyone who says their non-pay cost is 30 per cent does not understand the real cost of their non-pay spend.

Holding stock ties up cash, increases staff costs and incurs a storage cost. This stock is also more likely to get lost, damaged or become out of date.

Then there are costs associated with being unable to find what you need when you need it. Far too often, nursing and medical staff waste time searching for materials that could be far better spent with patients. Inefficient ordering processes can mean that managers spend too much time signing requisitions for the same materials repeatedly.

Such costs are not reflected in the pair of gloves that show up as 4p on your budget. The cost of handling these materials is greater than their cost.

In a recent experiment in a local intensive treatment and high-dependency unit, we challenged two experienced clinicians to find 40 regularly used items. The two clinicians did not work on the ward and were not familiar with its layout. Twenty-eight minutes and 32 items later, they gave up attempting to find the remaining eight items. The ITU senior sister completed the same task in eight minutes, but was running from one end of the ward to the other.

You may ask: 'So what?' But what if each member of staff spends one-eighth of their day looking for, ordering or moving materials? What if they had been bank or agency staff? We would be paying a premium for them to waste three to four times longer per item hunting for the materials than they need. What if the senior sister was not around when something went wrong? Time is not only money but also patient safety.

Materials management could be so much better if we:

  • knew how much stock we hold and how much we use;
  • increased the rate at which we turn over our stock;
  • increased the frequency of deliveries at no extra cost;
  • based minimum stock levels on usage;
  • knew which materials are our high-volume usage items and organised our workplace accordingly; and
  • put in place visual controls in store rooms and other stock areas.

Through basic workplace organisation, visual stock management and only holding what we need when we need it, we can reduce our non-pay costs and increase the quality and delivery of care to patients. As a consequence the organisation, its staff and their patients will benefit.