RFID as a Workaround


I've been wondering for a while what the value of my CPIM certification is (a previous employer paid for it). APICS has been trying to reinvent itself as more of a lean organization rather than just being an MRP methodology group.

Looking at the most recent APICS Magazine cover story, it makes me want to cancel my membership and subscription altogether. The article shows their obsession with technology and the lack of lean thinking that still hampers them.

The article pushes technology — RFID tags to be used in hospitals to track and locate equipment. Hospital staff spend hours searching for defibrillators and other equipment that's misplaced or hard to find. This waste isn't surprising at all, from my experience. Not only does the lack of organization waste employee time (reducing the amount of time they can spend on patient care), there can be a direct link to patient care if a defibrillator can't be found when it's desperately needed.

One quote:

“People have been frustrated for years because they buy something — particularly small items — and it never stays where it's supposed to.”

That's true. But jumping to RFID tags isn't really solving the root cause of the problem. It's lazy problem solving (stuff is missing, so we have to put tags on the stuff so we can find it). You have to ask WHY stuff is missing. Answers might include:

  • There's no standard “parking spot” for the equipment
  • There's a shortage of equipment, so employees “stash” something so THEY know where to get it when they need it

If we keep asking why — why isn't there a standard parking spot for items?? We start moving into the realm of 5S, standard work, and workplace organization — stuff that's WAY cheaper than RFID technology. RFID technology is a band-aid, a workaround. It doesn't prevent stuff from getting lost. The “Good News” DVD had a great example of how a hospital prevented wheelchairs from being lost by using lean methods. No RFID required.

One hospital 4,000 tags at $30 each (equipment tags), for a total hardware cost of $120,000 — batteries lat 2 years, so the tags have to be replaced, I presume. That's $60,000 a year, plus software, plus consulting. Lean would be a lot cheaper (even if you hired a consultant to get you going).

Back to my frustration with APICS. The article talks about WHICH RFID system to use. The article never asked “why” or what other alternatives there were to solving the same problem. The writer is a free-lancer “specializing in investment and technology topics.” Maybe that's the problem — APICS has non-APICS people writing their articles. I wonder if the article wasn't just a subtle advertisement rather than being just a news story? It's sad to see APICS succumbing to “siren songs” of another sort (RFID technology instead of enterprise software). I hope the writer didn't have an undisclosed investment stake in the companies he wrote about. I'll assume APICS has editorial standards to prevent that, but it still makes you wonder why that guy is writing for APICS.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Dear Mark,

    It’s good to read what a fellow CPIM certified professional thinks about APICS.

    Their magazine content does tend to be product and technology heavy (because of their advertisers and event sponsors?).

    But during their last national conference I witnessed a shift in focus: Several breakouts about lean, including one on healthcare, and even one titled “MRP RIP”.

    Ten years ago, that last speaker would have been considered a heretic.


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