Dennis Mullins: Steering a vehicle for change at IU Health

Contracting Professional of the Year

Dennis Mullins: Steering a vehicle for change at IU Health

Strategic thinkers: The healthcare supply chain needs more of them.

However, a strategic thinker who lacks good communication skills or change-management skills risks either failing in whatever initiative they are involved, or succeeding painfully, says Dennis Mullins, senior vice president of supply chain operations at Indiana University Health.

Mullins is the Journal of Healthcare Contracting magazine’s Contracting Professional of the Year for 2019.

Mullins learned the importance of clear communication and organizational change management through his experience in the armed forces, and supply-chain positions at Columbia/HCA, Shands at the University of Florida, and Baylor Scott & White in Dallas, Texas. In May 2015, he joined IU Health to help direct the design, construction and implementation of that IDN’s Integrated Service Center, which opened for shipments in May 2018 – the first such center he was able to build from the ground up.

The 300,000-square-foot service center, located in the western Indianapolis suburb of Plainfield, is equipped with robotic goods-to-person picking technology, which allows staff to pick low-unit-of-measure supplies at a rate currently exceeding 130 lines per person per hour.

“We transformed our entire supply chain, and moved to self-distribution and self-contracting,” he says.

“I’m not sure everybody totally understood what it was we were doing. But knowing we have an impact on over 30,000 people who work here, we knew it was important that they understood at a high level – and some at a more granular level – what was going on, and what was to come.”

Air Force training
Mullins was born and raised in The Bronx, New York. He holds an MBA from Amberton University and is a candidate for a doctorate in business administration from Grand Canyon University. He served in the United States Air Force for 10 years as a medical materials specialist.

“I’m the youngest of four boys,” he says. “All of my brothers enlisted in the military right after high school, so it seemed like the logical thing for me to do at 17 years old.” He received training as a tank driver while a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I wanted to go to active duty, so I asked my oldest brother – who was an active duty Marine – for his advice. He told me to make sure I got a job that I could use on the outside.” But the Marines wouldn’t commit to anything other than what he had been trained on – driving a tank. “So I walked outside and went next door to the Air Force recruiter.”

Though he would have preferred training in air traffic control, he was assigned to medical supplies. “Needless to say, I grew to love the job, and am thankful that I’m not an air traffic controller,” he says.

“Life has a funny way of just happening,” he continues. After serving eight years of active duty service that included a deployment to Saudi Arabia in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Mullins became a single parent of a three-year-old girl. “I continued to serve two more years with her by my side, but I came to realize that being a single parent in the military wasn’t the ideal situation for my daughter. It all worked out though. She’s 29 now, and I met my beautiful wife of 22 years, Audrey, because of it, too.

“I would have to say that my time in the Air Force gave me a sense of purpose and a realization that the work we do in healthcare supply chain is bigger than ourselves. We provide vital care to those in need. I tell my staff that even though we are not in patient-facing jobs, we still provide healthcare, because we support the hands that heal.

When it rains, it pours
Indiana University Health is the largest hospital system in Indiana by revenues, with 16 acute care hospitals, physician offices, ambulatory care ranging from home health to surgery centers, and a health plan. It has a partnership with Indiana University School of Medicine, the largest U.S. medical school by enrollment. The Academic Health Center in downtown Indianapolis includes Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, the state’s most comprehensive children’s hospital; and IU Health Methodist Hospital, the largest hospital in the state.

Mullins joined IU Health in 2015, attracted by what he calls an opportunity to strategically make a difference. “During my interview process, I got the sense from the executive team that they would be supportive of my vision of a world-class supply chain. We are still moving toward that goal, but I believe that through the support they provide and the hard-working team that I have, we are well on our way.”

A rainstorm was the event that expedited IU Health’s decision to move ahead with an integrated service center. “Our building that held medical records and equipment was badly damaged, and we needed to make some short-term and long-term decisions,” says Mullins. “I felt that the integrated service center was the best business model.”

Despite prior experience with service centers throughout his career, Mullins took nothing for granted at IU Health, touring what he considered to be the best-in-class consolidated centers around the country.

He took a journalist’s approach to helping his team and others at IU Health understand the scope of the project, framing it in three simple questions:

  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it?
  • How will we achieve it?

He posted placards with those questions – and answers – in every supply chain department. After that, he shared them with administration and clinical leaders. “Taking time to let people know what we were working on set us up for success.”

Robotically controlled system
The bulk of the IU Health’s investment in the service center was a robotically controlled picking system. Robots on rails operate on top of a cubic grid. After receiving orders wirelessly, the robots lower their gripper plates into a stack, grab the bin and lift it to the grid surface. If the robot needs a bin on, say, level 9, it digs out eight bins and places them on top of nearby stacks, using the space as a temporary placeholder. When finished, the robot puts the bins back in the same order. Orders are delivered to the port, and the operator picks up the product and prepares it for further processing.

“When you look at supply chain organizations in other industries, they’ve been using technology like this for years,” he says. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m a tech-y person, so robots picking supplies fits right in.

“Seriously, though, we selected a great partner at the Integrated Service Center, whose vision aligned with ours. I believe the ability to pick low-unit-of measure at high accuracy and velocity sets us up well to support our 400-plus non-acute locations around the state.”

In 2018, the supply chain team focused on bringing all of IU Health’s 16 hospitals into the integrated service center. Today, supply chain purchases the majority of the IDN’s supplies directly from manufacturers, while continuing to rely on distributors for secondary support.

In 2019, Mullins and his team will explore and act on opportunities for product standardization across the system, as well as on reducing operating costs. “Every truck that leaves our dock costs money,” he points out. “If we can streamline deliveries and routes, thereby reducing the number of deliveries, we will save money.”

In fact, Mullins believes that the Integrated Service Center will help IU Health save up to $3 million annually, considering pricing discounts (through direct purchasing from manufacturers), product standardization, inventory reduction and improved logistics. “And the self-distribution of medical supplies is only the first step,” he says.

With approximately 120,000 square feet of the Integrated Service Center yet to be built out, the center can offer IU Health’s acute- and non-acute-care facilities pickup-and-delivery services for many other kinds of goods.

“It is the vehicle for change,” he says. “There’s so much more value this business model can bring to IU Health.”

One goal

As hospitals and non-acute-care sites merge to form large health systems, supply chain leaders face some human-relations challenges, says Dennis Mullins.

“Over the past 30 plus years, I’ve watched and experienced the transformation of the healthcare supply chain,” he says. “Our career field has essentially gone from being just a support service department in the basement, to a strategic partner poised to help hospitals stay in the black. That’s a very exciting place to be.

“However, that transformation has created a talent gap between facility operations and corporate operations. I’m passionate about my career, and I love helping those around me who have the ambition to grow their careers. I feel strongly that if they are not able to gain experience on both sides, we run the risk of having future leaders making strategic business decisions without the perspective to maximize patient care.”

Newly hired supply chain employees at IU Health facilities visit the IDN’s Integrated Service Center and gain exposure to related functions, such as value analysis and contracting, explains Mullins. “We hard-wire what we’re doing at the Integrated Service Center with what they will be doing at the site level.

“It’s a constant reminder: One team, one mission, one goal.”

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