Why Don’t You Have a Tool Crib?

By Doug Wallace, CPIM

crubOne of the many MRO best practices we look for at our client sites is the existence of a tool crib designed to effectively and efficiently store, control and maintain specialty items such as bolt cutters, shop vacs, sawzalls and other power tools, generators, fans, and pipe threaders. These are often one-of-a-kind and sometimes expensive items that aren’t required frequently, but when they are, they need to be available and ready for use. 

Ironically, our clients often lament about the lack of availability and poor operating condition of their specialty tools, resulting in unnecessary delays in completion of maintenance work, sometimes critical jobs. Yet when we ask them if they have a tool crib, the response is usually an emphatic “No” or a shrug of the shoulders that effectively says the same thing, sometimes with a wistful look that suggests that they wish they did.

The more important question is “Why?” or more appropriately “Why not?” The responses to that question vary from lack of resources to lack of space to lack of management support. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (i.e. experiencing unplanned downtime due to specialty tools being unavailable), some even tell us they don’t think they need a tool crib!

Beyond the verbal responses are perhaps more deep-seated reasons, such as ownership (“I bought this tool, I will take care of it”), or territorialism (“These are my tools and no one else is going to use them”), or more often trust (“I don’t believe ‘they’ will have the tool when I need it.”) Instead of recognizing the problem and fixing it, they live with the current situation and complain about the results.

The fact of the matter is that the only legitimate reason for not having a tool crib is that you don’t have any specialty tools at all, and that’s a rarity.

How a Tool Crib Should Function

A tool crib should handle every specialty tool on site, and that could require a significant amount of space to organize and manage effectively. Ideally that space would be in a designated area of the MRO storeroom so the tools can be properly organized, controlled, and kitted along with other MRO materials, but having the tool crib in the Maintenance area is also a viable option.

Who will manage the tool crib is also a concern. Storeroom personnel generally man and manage the tool crib if it’s in the MRO storeroom, while Maintenance often is responsible for operating the tool crib if it is in their area. Part-time storeroom support can sometimes be adequate to staff tool cribs in maintenance shops depending on the level of activity.

Once the tool crib itself is established, item numbers are set up for each of the specialty tools. These items are essentially no different than any other MRO material, with the exception that you expect to get them back after the job is completed. With item numbers set up in the inventory management system, specialty tools can be assigned a bin location in the storeroom and the available inventory monitored. Tools can be planned, scheduled, issued and tracked through the system, even to the point of knowing where the tool should be, who should have it, and when it should be returned to the tool crib.

As required tools are identified for a planned job, they are listed on the work order. This reserves the tool, preventing it from being used on another job. When the work order is released by the planner, the tools appear on a kit list along with other MRO materials required for the job. The tools are kitted along with the other materials, charged to the appropriate work order, and held until everything – including the required tools – is available. After the job is scheduled, the kitted parts and tools are delivered to the job site where the work is to be completed. Once the job has been assigned to a craftsman, that person assumes responsibility for the tool. The estimated duration on the work order provides an idea of when to anticipate the return of the tool.

After the job is done, the tool should be returned to the tool crib so it can be reused. If the tool is not returned as expected, the assigned craftsman can easily be identified and contacted to find out what happened to it.

Maintaining the quality of specialty tools is often an issue. There is an expectation that the tool will be returned in good working condition, or that the tool crib attendant will be notified if the tool needs to be repaired or replaced. However, this doesn’t always happen, so to be safe it is better to have tools inspected to ensure that they are ready to be re-used. In many cases storeroom personnel are not qualified to perform the inspection or repair tools. But that doesn’t mean they can’t contact someone to check the tool out and make sure it is in good condition for the next person who needs it before putting it back into the tool crib. 

After verifying the quality of the tool, it is put back into the on-hand inventory in the system. This credits the work order and shows the tool as available for future jobs. The transactions to issue the tool to the job in the first place, and subsequently return it to stock, offset each other, so it doesn’t matter what cost is associated with the tool, but generally these items are held at zero value.

For unplanned work, obtaining specialty tools is really no different than any other unplanned material request. The appropriate item number should be identified by the person who needs the tool, and the available inventory checked before going to the storeroom to pick it up or asking the storeroom to deliver it. 

Many storerooms are starting to use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to track specialty tools. The tags allow the item to be located anywhere throughout the site. In some cases, sensors can also be used in conjunction with the tags so the tool is automatically issued from inventory when it is taken from the storeroom and put back into inventory when it is returned.

Start with the Basics

These are all elements of a best-practice tool crib, and we certainly encourage our clients to strive for this standard. But a world-class tool crib can take time to set up, resulting in continued unnecessary delays. While planning for the long term, a working tool crib can be set up in a matter of days. All you need to get started is a list of the tools you have, a space big enough to store them, and a system to track them.

The space can be anywhere as long as it is controlled with limited access. Working tool cribs have actually been set up in closets! Toss in a few shelves or racks, and label them with bin locations. Contact Maintenance to see what tools they have – or are at least willing to turn over until they know the system works. Make a list of the tools in the tool crib, along with their assigned location. Make a spreadsheet or even a manual sign out sheet to track the tools in and out of the crib. Assign a person full-time to monitor the activity, or rotate responsibility to distribute the work. Just make sure everyone knows who the assigned “attendant” is at any given point in time, and make it clear that they have to check in with that person to get a tool.

Is that world class? No. Is it functional? Yes. Will it result in fewer delays? Absolutely!  And that’s what it’s all about. Once people start to realize the benefits of having a tool crib, they are more likely to support it, and help make the necessary improvements to make it more effective and more efficient.

So if you are one of those organizations that are dealing with unplanned downtime due to availability of specialty tools, stop complaining and start setting up your tool crib. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll wish you had done it sooner!


Doug Wallace, CPIM, has more than 35 years of combined experience in supply chain operations and management consulting.

© Life Cycle Engineering

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