By Jared Council
Talking while working doesn't bode well for productivity at many businesses, but a Sentara Healthcare division has made itself the exception lately.
The Sentara Service Center - which distributes products such as surgical packs and pillows across the health system - recently welcomed "Jennifer" to the team, and workers at this 86,600-square-foot warehouse have been more productive than ever talking to her, officials said.
"Jennifer, ready to go?" seven-year veteran James Bernardino spoke into his headset, prompting Jennifer to begin giving instructions in her slightly electronic accent.
Each week, the service center distributes roughly 70 truckloads of nearly 4,000 different types of items to various locations, and Jennifer is a voice-directed application that helps the selectors get the right amount of the right item to the right place.
Previously, workers performed tasks by scanning a label and reading from a handheld device. Now, they have Jennifer sitting on their utility belts. She does a lot of talking about where to pick items and which bin to place them in, but she also listens.
"She asks them to verify the location that they're actually at," said Materials Management Director Robert Saunders, who spent 14 years with FedEx before joining Sentara in 2010.
"The reason I tell you that is because it increases accuracy."
The Chesapeake-based warehouse is essentially the large storage room of the health system, and it services eight hospitals, various nursing homes and other facilities in Sentara's network.
Items are purchased in bulk for cost savings. Hospital units can order everything from a box of IV containers to a single tube of toothpaste from the service center and receive it the same day.
"It's not just the medical supplies," Saunders said. "We send the toilet tissue. We send the baby formula. We send diapers. We send crackers."
Selectors "pick" about 20,000 items a day, officials said. They average about 100 picks per hour, which is up from about 85 picks an hour before Jennifer came.
That increase is attributed to several things, including the fact that compared to the old system, Jennifer is hands-free.
"You would put your handheld down, grab what you need, put it in a tote," said 13-year employee Antoine Turner. "Then I'd go back, and I'm looking for my handheld."
Bernardino said it was common for workers to drop the handheld device. And the battery life in Jennifer is much longer.
Jennifer also consolidates orders, telling, for example, a user to pick nine packs of batteries instead of three packs three separate times.
The service center used to commit about 111 picking errors a month, Saunders said, but that's been slashed in half since Jennifer arrived.
When she tells the selector the shelf location of the item to be picked, the user responds by reading a set of numbers. The user also confirms the bin number in which the item is placed. If there's a mistake, Jennifer will say, "Incorrect check digit."
Jennifer is produced by Lucas Systems Inc., which bills itself as the largest independent provider of voice-directed warehouse applications. She can speak different languages, talk fast or slow and recognize a user's voice.
Officials said they adopted the product to increase efficiency, though no specific event prompted it. They began looking at different technologies about 2009 and decided to move forward with Lucas in 2012.
Implementation of Jennifer cost $300,000, a Sentara spokesperson said.
Another benefit Jennifer offers is her ability to shorten the learning curve, as the old system required time to learn menus and other components, Saunders said.
"Some of my new people are already at the productivity level of some of my seasoned [workers] because they pick it up that fast," he said.
Asked if there were any drawbacks or user complaints, Saunders said, "The only complaint that I've heard is that we've reduced overtime."
Order mistakes still occur, but far less frequently than they have previously, officials said.
"We rely on materials management to provide exactly the right supplies, exactly when we need them, for whatever conditions patients present," said Robert Fire-stone, vice president of operations at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
"The alternative could mean delayed care or a less-than-optimal outcome and that's unacceptable."