How one simple question saved thousands of dollars.
In my last article (“A Blueprint for Effective Workplace Walkthroughs” in the September 2023 issue), I discussed the theory of Gemba Walks: What they are, why they’re important, how to conduct them, and best practices that have proven effective.
As a reminder, a Gemba Walk is where you, as an offsite leader, observe the work environment firsthand. It’s an opportunity to identify areas of waste, engage with employees, and drive a culture of continuous improvement.
This month, I’d like to illustrate the power of Gemba Walks by taking you through an actual walk I conducted with Anthony Halsch, CEO of ROXBOX Containers in Houston, Texas.
ROXBOX Containers is a young, growing offsite construction company that specializes in shipping container conversions. They take used steel shipping containers in good condition and modify them — adding insulation, doors and windows, and interior finishes, to convert the containers into building modules. Their finished products range from small, stand-alone coffee kiosks and beer stands to modules for complex residential units.
Most offsite factories assemble their wood- or light-gauge steel-framed products using mechanical fastening systems such as nails or screws. However, as ROXBOX’s raw materials are composed completely of heavy-gauge steel, welding is a central part of their manufacturing process. As such, they use a lot of jigs and clamps to hold pieces of steel in position during the welding process.
Our First Gemba Walk
Anthony Halsch, Founder and CEO of ROXBOX, is a young, energetic and very passionate leader, committed to his company’s improvement and growth. He is a mental sponge and enthusiastically embraces everything taught to him about Lean manufacturing and process optimization. From 5S workspace organization and Process Cycle Efficiency to root cause analysis and focused ideation, Anthony has led the charge and set the tone for ROXBOX’s Lean culture building.
One of the many concepts that were new, but intriguing, to Anthony was that of Gemba Walks. On one of my training and follow-up visits to his factory earlier this year, I introduced the concept of the Gemba Walk and provided a brief training to him and his Production Manager, Zach.
Then I said, “Let’s do one right now.”
Anthony, Zach, and I walked onto the factory floor and approached the first station, where Curtis, one of their welders, was working inside a container box. This container was being converted to a mobile storage unit for folding chairs, to be used for on-site event set-ups. Curtis was welding rows of steel brackets to the interior walls of the box, for hanging hundreds of chairs.
As we approached, just as I had taught him, Anthony addressed Curtis and explained that going forward, he would be spending a lot more time on the floor, staying intimately familiar with the work Curtis and the rest of the team were doing. He assured Curtis that his only desire in this process was to learn more about what Curtis and the others were dealing with. He then asked what he (Anthony) could do to streamline the process and make their jobs easier.
Anthony had scarcely got the question out when Curtis blurted out, “We need new jigs.” “What do you mean?” Anthony asked.
“Well, the jigs we’re using to weld these racks were built by a left-handed guy. I’m right-handed, so I have to really twist my arm around to make the welds. Also, I have to move my ladder and go up and down twice as much as if the jig were built right. This job is taking me way longer than it should. C’mere, lemme show you.”
Curtis then walked us to the outside of the box and over to a steel framework about eight feet tall.
He explained that the angled pieces, intended to hold the rack arms in place against the container wall during welding, were on the wrong side of the vertical piece, making it difficult and time-consuming to weld the rack arms on. He estimated that if he had the right jig design, the job would take him about half as long as it had been taking.
In astonishment, I asked him, “Do you know how the jig needs to be modified to work for you?”
“Well, sure,” he answered. “It’s easy. We just need to have these angled pieces on the other side of the vertical piece, like this,” he said, holding a scrap piece of steel tube channel up to the jig.
“How long do you think it would take you to remake the jig?” I asked.
“Oh, maybe half an hour.”
“Can you get it done today?”
Anthony and I looked at each other, dumbfounded.
“Alright, let’s do it!” I replied excitedly.
Immediate, Significant Results
After thanking and congratulating Curtis profusely, Anthony, Zach, and I walked back toward the office for our next training meeting, with Anthony shaking his head in amazement.
I asked how long they had been using that jig to complete that welding task. “About two weeks,” Anthony estimated.
“And how many more of those boxes do you need to build?” I asked.
Zach thought, then responded, “Gosh, probably seven or eight more for this job. Plus we may get many more similar jobs where we’ll need to use the same jig.”
“So how many more hours of this task are ahead?” I asked.
“I’d say 10-15 hours per box, so anywhere from 70 to 120 hours for this job.”
“And if Curtis is right that this will cut the time in half, that’s a savings of 35-60-man hours for this job alone, and potentially many times that, depending on how many more of these boxes you do down the line, right?” I added.
“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
After a few seconds walking in silence, I said, “Guys, you just uncovered several thousand dollars of savings ten seconds into your very first Gemba Walk. Imagine what you can uncover if you do this every day.”
“Wow,” they both chuckled and shook their heads again in amazement.
Gemba Walk Takeaways
This was a very powerful lesson for Anthony and Zach, and a great reminder for me, of the power of Gemba Walks. Of course, not every question asked on a Gemba Walk will yield this kind of immediate and significant process improvement. But, if performed regularly, every Gemba Walk can provide you with multiple ideas for ways to eliminate waste and make your processes easier, more productive, more efficient, and more profitable.
As I explained to Anthony and Zach that day, your value-producing workers hold potentially millions of dollars worth of improvement ideas in their heads.
But as was the case here, until and unless someone asks them sincerely, those ideas, and the resultant savings to your business, will remain locked up in their heads as they silently “do their jobs” every day. Gemba Walks can unlock those ideas and encourage many more to follow.
In addition, over time, Gemba Walks can become a strong contributor to your Lean culture. Your team will learn to rely on the fact that you are not some absentee figurehead issuing orders from your office, but rather a hands-on leader who “gets” them — a leader who truly understands their work and is committed to supporting them in making it easier. This will contribute to greater employee satisfaction and loyalty and will encourage more buy-in and active participation in your continuous improvement efforts. It’s a virtuous cycle.
You don’t have to do this perfectly to start with, so go and give it a try right now. Put this article down, walk out onto the factory floor, and start curiously asking questions. Your employees, and your bottom line, will thank you.
Daniel Small is a Denver, Colorado-based management consultant to the offsite construction industry. He specializes in Lean Construction and Manufacturing and Six Sigma methodologies. For assistance with improving your offsite manufacturing process, contact him at 719-321-1953 or DSmall@DaVinciInno.com. Or visit www.LeanOffsite.com.
Published in OFFSITE BUILDER Magazine on October 04, 2023