Keeping Track of Tools

Tips and strategies for reducing the common tendency of shop tools to disappear throughout the year. July 12, 2008

Is $1500 in lost or stolen tools per year worth losing any sleep over? We have 18 employees and seem to lose tools throughout the year. It is too expensive to hire a full time employee to manage a tool crib, but there is a lot of lost time sharing or running out to get replacements when needed. I was wondering what others are doing?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor J:
I'm only a one man shop, so that would be a big deal to me. How about making a tool list and checking everything off at the end of the day? You could even divide them into sections or areas. With 18 employees it wouldn't take long to gather everything up. Nobody leaves until everything is accounted for.

From contributor W:
The hassle of issuing and collecting tools every day will probably cost you much more than $1500/yr in lost production and profit. You could have stations with tool holders - convenient, but when not used, should be in its place. Paint the tools at each station a different color. Make each person responsible for the tools of one color and at a given location.

Alternatively, you could have a lock box for tools at each station. The employee at that station would have a key and be responsible for a monthly inventory check on their lock box. Delete the cost of lost tools from their Christmas bonus, keeping tally on a dry erase board in public view.

Just ideas. Recently we provided lock boxes for a couple of people and it seems to take care of the problem at their station, with whatever valuable tool they need to protect.

From contributor V:

Those are some good ideas. I would add to assign tools to each employee in writing, with serial numbers of each tool they are responsible for, and have someone do a monthly physical check to verify that they actually exist. The other solution that I have seen used in some areas rather frequently, but I disagree with, is having employees supplying their own tools. That one just always rubbed me the wrong way, but I do understand the reasoning behind it.

As a compromise, though complicated, you might be able to have the bean counter give you a figure and have the employee supply the tool but give him a tool allowance broken up to be reflected in each check.

For 18 employees, 1500 in tools is not a lot, but you should figure in the lost time of sharing and repurchasing and the price will go up.

From contributor R:
Contributor W gives solid advice. We have about the same number of people scattered over 8 work stations. Every station is marked with a different color electrical tape and all of the tools for that station are marked with the corresponding tape. We mark everything from putty knives to trim routers. Each station is pretty much identical, so when we move people around (or move stations around, depending on the project) everyone already knows where everything is. (This is all part of our 5-S program.) Whoever is assigned to that station each day is responsible to make sure everything gets returned to its proper place inside the workstation. Most of the tools hang inside the workstation on a shadow board, so the shop foreman can very quickly see if something is missing.

When we purchase an expensive tool (drill, trim router, jig saw, etc.) we mark it with our company name and the purchase date and add it to our tool list. We started our 5-S program about 2 years ago and we have yet to lose a tool from the tool list.

We do replace quite a few tape measures, safety glasses and putty knives, but this year we will require everyone to supply their own if they lose the set issued to them. I’ve got a jar at home full of pens that I leave in my pocket. I think the same thing happens with safety glasses and other things you carry around all day. At my last company I put safety glasses in the vending machine for $4.00.

To me, $1500 of lost tools for a year with 18 employees does not seem like a lot of money. However, the time your guys take finding the right tool is costing you a whole lot more. A good 5-S program could increase your volume without adding a cent in the expense column.

From contributor B:
Do you have a program in place to repair or replace faulty tools, including batteries? Most of the time when tools "start" disappearing, it's because of a new hire, or the folks on the floor realize it (the tool) will not be repaired or replaced, even though is it not working properly. So the tool goes AWOL. In many places I have been, that is the only way a tool is replaced or repaired. This may or may not be part of the issue, but you should look at it. If you want to have identical work stations, which is a good idea, don't let the work station be owned by any one person - rotate the players. If you don't, the more aggressive personalities will always end up with the best toolset, regardless of how equal things are when they start out.

From contributor E:
What's 5-S?

From contributor R:
Type "5S program" in the search field and have at it. Basically, 5S is a tool many Lean practitioners use to create and maintain an orderly work environment.

The five Ss are the Japanese words:

Seiri (Sort) – Some call this Sweep, but basically means separating what is needed from what is not, then keeping only those things that are needed in the work place. This is the case for tools, supplies, and materials. As a general rule of thumb, if you use it everyday, keep it at the workstation. If you use it every few days, keep it near the workstation (in the cell), and if you rarely use it, store it outside of your work cell.

Seiton (Straighten) – Make a place for everything you just sorted. Make it as easy as possible for anyone to be able to walk into the work area and know where everything is. Use shadow boards for the tools and labels for the supplies. Put tape or paint on the floor to designate where incoming materials go and on and on.

Seiso (Shine) – Clean everything in your work area. Clean all of the tools and machinery. Scrape glue off the floor, machines and tools. Make sure all your machines are well oiled and looking/working like new.

Seiketsu (Standardize) – Develop standard work processes where possible. These should be written down and displayed so everyone knows what they are. This can be an overwhelming part of the 5S program if you try to get it all done in one day. Work standards develop over time; it is important to keep up on them and make sure everyone follows them.

Shitsuke (Sustain) – This may be the most difficult S. Typically, a company will have a 5S kickoff, when one or all the areas go through the first 3 Ss and start the 4th S as well. This may be one day or over several days. The trick is getting everyone to sustain their new found organization on a regular basis. Too often workers will resort back to their old habits and gradually the area looks like it did before the 5S program started. In my opinion, this is a cultural problem. If you can get the guys everyone looks up to, to champion this program and get everyone involved in how the program should work, then this is easy. If management tries to force this on anyone, the 5th S will fail.

5S is a great way to help everyone get organized and really helps with productivity. Give some of your guys a pedometer before you start the program and see how far they walk everyday and compare that to how far they walk after everything is in the correct place. It may blow your mind. Also, training becomes easier because new people can find the tools in the same place you showed them the day before and tools and equipment last longer when people are cleaning them regularly. The boss will also be happy walking out to the shop and seeing it clean all the time.

From contributor P:
I would try to figure out whether they are being lost, worn out or stolen. A thief in the shop is a big problem. We're about the same size, and we wear out hand tools regularly - I imagine our replacement budget is about that number. But if someone is stealing tools, that's an entirely different situation.

From the original questioner:
Wow! Thanks for all the great advice. I will be implementing some of these ideas next week.

From contributor G:
95% of our work is millwork installs on site. In 2007 we "lost" up to $4k in tools. This is with a crew of 25. Makita 18v lithium drills are not cheap, so that pushed the number. And a brand new multi master did not help. As of 2008, we do not supply any hand tools. If an employee does not have a special tool required for a job, they will be required to sign it out and bring it back. We also now have a single location for tool storage not spread across 3 different ones. My biggest concern is the waste or take up factor with screws and fixings, which adds up quick as well. Is there a better way to manage this?

From contributor K:
Even with 18 guys, $1500 is a lot of tools to be lost or stolen. That's a hinge machine or a new air compressor. I spent 23 years in the Air Force, part of it working on airplanes. They require tools both in shop and in portable boxes to be on some kind of shadow board system (somebody already suggested this). At the end of the job/shift/week, supervisors and work leaders had to inventory the tools to make sure nothing was missing. Requires discipline on everybody's part, but it works.

From contributor T:
I think contributor R has the right take on this.

The most compelling reason for you to furnish all hand tools is for simple efficiency. If you provide them, you are in control of what kind, how many, and where they live in the building.

Boeing Airplane celebrated the day they rolled the last private toolbox off the floor. Invariably these personal work spaces were across the airplane from where they were needed, and even when they weren't so far away, they did not necessarily contain what was needed.

Back in the days when our guys furnished their own tool chests, about a third of them became monuments (impediments) and about half of them just held potato chips and spare clothing. The guys who didn't have much in the way of tools tended to borrow from the guys that did. Whenever a personal tool came up missing, I would be the person to pay for the replacement. Since I was going to pay for this process anyway, I might as well have some input into the investment.

Contributor R's idea about color coding and shadow boards is also a good one. These tool pods should be located wherever needed, if necessary on both sides of a bench. At a dollar a minute it doesn't make any sense to spend $8 looking for a $3 tool. Even if you know where it is, it doesn't pay to hike for it.

A forum contributor talked one time about a process called red tagging. Things that don't get used very often get a red tag on them to record dates of use. These tools get archived in a way that you don't have to compete with them to do the things you do every day.

From contributor L:
We use color-coding, shadow boards, and designated locations for common tools and we have a place for taking tools that need repair. All tools are engraved with name and purchase date and bench number or location. Even with all that, at least $100 worth of tools go missing per man per year. I haven't figured a way around it. If an employee is caught stealing, it's automatic termination!