An Unpacking Nightmare

Most agencies have someone who serves in a dark corner, behind a locked door. You know the guy or gal. We call them Santa's helper, the police elf, the supply hero, the mechanic, the electrician, the plumber, the supply person. What would we do without them? Not much.

I have a confession to make that most of you will identify with. I haven't previously appreciated the heavy lifting that comes between arrival of products and issuing them to the line officers. Most things you buy don't just leap out of a box ready to go. I just experienced a week that should provide a rather long-term reminder of the assembly process.

I thought with the last of my children reaching adulthood that "insert tab A into slot D2" and place the "push nut on the axle" were in my distant past. Oh, no! I now get the rare blessing of using my decades of assembly skills on the job.

At my agency, we just received 33 new Nikon digital cameras for patrol sergeants, training officers, and K-9 units. Let's see, that's 33 boxes with 66 cables, 33 sets of software, 33 manuals, 33 power supplies, 66 batteries ready to be charged, 33 Pelican brand rugged cases with uncut liners, 8 detachable flash units, 33 more boxes with lenses, 33 more boxes with UV Haze filters, 33 color calibration cards, and 33 users to train. Oh and lest I forget, 100 memory cards, in hard plastic anti-theft adult-proof packaging.

The purchasing and issue process for this small project went something like this.

  • Specify the product: locate an affordable product that improves current photo system for patrol officers.
  • Locate funding
  • Call for bid with purchasing
  • Bid evaluation
  • Bid Award
  • Purchase
  • Back order delays
  • Product pick up from warehouse
  • Product preparation
  • Product configuration
  • Training materials development
  • Schedule Training
  • Conduct Training
  • Issue equipment
  • Support users

The temptation in any project is to assume that when you buy supplies, gravity and other forces of nature combine the products to a completely assembled and ready-to-use condition. Not only do we routinely forget the intensity of the delivery process, but we also forget the labor associated with unpacking and pre-deployment preparation. The emphasis here is on that little-acknowledged process I'll call pre-issue product preparation.

Have you bought a memory stick lately? Who invented this packaging stuff? Harder than Kevlar, welded closed, bigger than a breadbox, to hold a postage stamp-sized memory stick. I've opened these in the past with band saws, jigsaws, tin snips, garden shears, and industrial scissors, I still haven't found the easiest way. The stuff is more rigid than granite, requiring the poor customer to cut three sides to get it open, or risk amputation when your finger slips as you place it inside the package to fetch your prize--a memory stick! Memory sticks must be the most desirable item on the market. If we could get illegal drugs packaged in the material, drug use would disappear immediately. No drug addict would bother. Withdrawal would be over before they ever got the drugs out of the package. When you open these packages, use a sharp knife. One slip cutting the packaging open, and you'll be close friends with the neighborhood prosthetics shop. Wouldn't you think you could buy memory sticks by a lot of 100, without the packaging?

After eight hours of serving as the resident box cutter samurai, I was having flashbacks of my high school job as a box boy in a local grocery. Finally, everything was unpacked and my team of three had everything pretty close to completely assembled. That's roughly 24 man-hours, three full days of work, just to get the parts out of the packaging, assembled and in the issued rugged kit.

For a while, on Wednesday of this week, our office looked like an ugly scene from the movie A Christmas Story. 33 battery chargers were blinking, by a bird's nest of power cords, and packaging from the new cameras was everywhere. Did you ever think something this simple could fill up a dumpster with cardboard, plastic, foam rubber, and packing crates? It did. Fortunately, all the chargers worked, all of the equipment functioned properly, and we are on track to produce a video to train operators. We planned to deploy cameras next week. By the way, new cameras don't come with the clocks set, or menus for quality of photos preset. Two of us looked like we were thumb wrestling Nikon cameras for several hours. Is there such a thing as menu thumb?

The final process followed these steps and was only accomplished in one day by completing each task in the assembly line fashion:

  • Un-box the camera body
  • Install the strap with considerable fumbling
  • Separate components for battery charger
  • Assemble battery charger
  • Unpack batteries
  • Assemble first round of batteries in chargers
  • Find outlet bars
  • Plug in outlet bars
  • Plug in chargers
  • Unpack lenses
  • Unpack filters
  • Screw filters on lenses
  • Unpack software
  • Place in storage
  • Unpack camera manual
  • Discard non-English manuals
  • Unpack cables that aren't to be issued
  • Package these cables for storage
  • Inventory tag all camera bodies
  • Unpack all hardened Pelican cases
  • Tag Pelican camera cases with officer's name and city inventory number
  • Cut liner of pelican cases so that foam fits parts
  • Fetch batteries from chargers
  • Place next round of batteries in chargers
  • Set date, time, and photo quality of photos to be shot by cameras
  • Cut all memory sticks out of packaging
  • Label memory sticks for each camera kit
  • Test all cameras using copy stand

My challenge to each of you this month is to find the person who makes this happen for your agency, look them in they eye, and deliver a firm, prolonged handshake and a hearty "thank you" for everything these people do. Without them, your car wouldn't have working light bars, radios, or cameras. Your supply closet wouldn't have ink pens and legal pads. The copy machine wouldn't work, and most certainly the computers would be permanently on the blink. If you are in management, understand that for most agencies the aspect of procurement and delivery of equipment to the line officer is seldom acknowledged and rarely appreciated. When you see new product arrive, understand that the routine jobs just might have to wait so that the new equipment gets issued. Finally, like me, agree to periodically get your hands dirty and enjoy a little hard work beside your staff.

Back your people and they'll happily wield the box knife for the benefit of the agency and the people you serve. With any hope, at least the price of memory sticks will fall to the point where you can find them in Cracker Jack boxes. Then, at least, opening the package will yield a tasty treat.