I need a compressor

By James N. Phillips Jr.


One day an internal customer came to me and exclaimed that they needed a compressor. Much like Ralph in the movie A Christmas Story, when Santa offered him a football, Ralph replied, “Football, what’s a football?” So, compressor, what’s a compressor? All too often, purchasing people respond to this statement by purchasing a compressor, but is that enough? Does that solve the problem?

Now awake and revitalized with a fourth cup of morning coffee, I started to ask questions on what was being presented, for instance:

  • What do you need the compressor for?
  • How will the compressor be used?
  • Do you need a compressor or compressed air?

The questions go from general to more specific. The question, “What do you need the compressor for?” may result in a one-word response, testing. Yet the question “How will the compressor be used?” will prompt the requestor to provide a more detailed response, such as “A tube will be hooked up to a compressor and the air from the compressor will test a connector placed inline on tube.”  With the follow-up question — “Do you need a compressor, or just compressed air?”  — the answer to that resulted in a more detailed answer or set of performance criteria:

  • Constant and sustained pressure
  • Continual flow
  • Media doesn’t matter (Ambient air, CO2, O2, etc.)
  • < 2 hours of availability.
  • Must be regulated from 5 PSI to 40 PSI output.

The question is now one of market research. Where does one find a solution that meets the criteria above? Do we purchase a compressor, or go to a vendor who has compressed air canisters, or are there other alternatives? How would you respond if the test was to occur only once and is not ever going to be repeated? Do we buy a compressor, rent a compressor, get a compressed air canister, and find a testing lab or other place that has this resource? Keep in mind that the performance characteristics do not reflect other important factors such as where the work will be performed, any long term/lifecycle costs, storage and accountability, power requirements, any periodic system testing, ancillary equipment and supplies, training requirements, and safety concerns.

As mentioned earlier, often purchasing professionals do not ask or are discouraged to ask the questions to aid them in clearly defining the objective. In healthcare, we cannot afford to spend scarce dollars on ill-defined purchases. We must free our professionals from the shackles of, ‘do as I say’ or ‘do what I told you’, to one of considerate thinkers and team members. In the scenario above, a compressor or a large canister of compressed air will do. For our purchasing professionals to be of any value to the healthcare team, we must engage the part of them from the neck up. Challenging them in this way will produce alternatives that will save money and provide the intellectual stimulation which occurs when given the opportunity to participate.


JAMES N. PHILLIPS JR., MPA, CFCM, NCMA Fellow, is an Acquisition Professional working at the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for Patient Safety.  Jim is a Doctor of Business Administration student at the American Meridian University.  Disclaimer: his comments are that of his own and do not reflect that of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the National Center for Patient Safety.


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