INTERVIEW – This moving company in Singapore has taken its first steps down the lean road, reminding us that translating your strategy into small, actionable improvements people can make at the gemba is the way to a transformation.
Interviewee: Gabriel Lam, Chief Operating Officer, Shalom Movers
Interviewer: Roberto Priolo, Editor, Planet Lean
Roberto Priolo: Can you briefly tell us about Shalom?
Gabriel Lam: Shalom Movers was founded in 1982 and started with humble beginnings as a one man and one van operation.
Through the years, we have built a rich history and family-like culture. We have expanded our services to include domestic and international residential and commercial moving, storage, disposal and vehicles for hire with driver. Since then we have also brought our services to sectors including aviation, recycling, sea freight, air freight and last-mile delivery. Today, Shalom Movers – which employs over 200 people and 80 vehicles – is the leading moving company in Singapore.
At Shalom Movers, we strongly believe in building our people before our business. Our people live up to the six core values of Shalom Movers: Safety, Honesty, Assurance, Life-long Learning, Ownership and Mastery.
RP: What challenges does Shalom face in the Singaporean market?
GL: A situation commonly faced by small and medium-sized enterprises in Singapore is the tight labor crunch and ever-increasing costs of operations.
We belong to the logistics industry, which is very manpower reliant and where front-line staff often takes a little more time to adapt to new advances in technology. To ensure our staff remains up to date with the state of the art, we have had to create an environment where learning is part and parcel of the job we do.
To create that mindset change took a lot of time and encouragement, but it paid off when our staff started getting excited with learning new things and enhancing their skill sets as a result.
RP: What made you decide to join the Lean Skills Development Program delivered by the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Lean Global Network?
GL: Through a unique partnership between SIT and the Institute for Adult Learning, Shalom was invited to take part in the LSDP back in October 2017. Seizing the opportunity, I went back to school together with my colleagues Mohamed Najeeb, an experienced field manager, and Jackson Wong, our operations manager.
Our participation in LSDP was not a one-off effort, but the reflection of a long and sustained effort in continuous learning and improvement since 2000. It kickstarted our lean journey. The program’s timing was perfect, too, because we wanted to improve our operations efficiency and also upskill our people.
RP: What was your first reaction to lean?
GL: We had expected lean to be more of a manufacturing ideology, something that applies to the conveyor belt system and teaches you how to cut waste from that process.
We realized we were wrong right from the first theory lesson and through the meaningful games that our mentor Rob Van Gorkom from the Lean Management Instituut led us through.
RP: Can you share a couple of examples of the problems you were experiencing at Shalom and tell us how you transformed the process using lean?
GL: A problem we were experiencing was the inefficiency of our moving process. In the past, we would typically have a team of 4-5 movers on each job to wrap, pack and move the boxes from the customer’s home to a holding area beside the elevator, and from there to the truck. This meant that we needed someone to guard the boxes while the rest of team transported them from the house to the holding area.
To solve this issue, we implemented the concept of just-in-time in our process. We have eliminated the intermediate step of gathering the boxes in the holding area and started to transport them directly to the truck instead. We have moved to smaller batches, thus achieving a continuous flow of boxes. We no longer need an extra person to guard the items now.
After we tackled moving, we looked at the storage operations. In the past, the store was what we called an “organized mess”. There were always a lot of people coming in and out to pick up the stores they needed for the daily operations. Moreover, materials were often placed haphazardly along the pathway and sometimes spilled over to the roadside or our neighbor’s pathway.
We brainstormed and set a goal of getting all our trucks equipped with their stores by 8 AM, so that they could be on their way to the customer’s site quickly. We came together to redesign our store layout and flow. We began to set clear and deliberate goals and action plans to achieve them. We also clarified roles and responsibilities of who can be in the store and what they needed to do.
RP: What is the hardest part of what you are trying to achieve? What is the biggest change you have seen?
GL: The journey to get people on board with lean thinking is by no means a smooth one. The most challenging aspect was to change the mindset of our staff and get them to think differently about processes that were deeply rooted in our daily work.
It took time and effort, but we are most impressed with the adaptiveness of our staff. We believe the biggest change we have seen as a result of lean was the mindset shift in our people and their yearning for continuous improvement.
As tangible benefits started to come in – from increased productivity to shorter process time – we began to notice that our people began to step up to their new roles and responsibilities. Critically, senior guys started to take a step back and let the junior staff run the operations.
As a result of our redesigned store operations, we trained three groups of people to handle the storage and deployed the excess staff to higher functions. Along the way, people became more open to suggesting improvements.
RP: What has this experienced taught you?
GL: Lean is more than just a productivity improvement exercise. It is a journey towards accountability, clarity over goals and roles, better leadership and continuous learning. This is about professionalizing ourselves, not just about improving productivity.
RP: What’s next for your lean journey and the company in general?
GL: Shalom thinks differently these days and it has embraced lean thinking in many of its processes. However, it is the yearning for continuous improvement that we believe will prove most valuable: we believe it was one of the reasons behind our company being officially recognized as a Great Place to Learn in 2018, Great Place to Work in 2018, and one of Asia’s Best Workplaces in 2019.
RP: Speaking of awards,I understand you recently won an important one. Can you tell us about it?
GL: In July 2019, Shalom Movers was awarded the Business Excellence Service Quality Class with Innovation and People niches. The award evaluation criteria covered 7 areas – leadership, people, customer, strategy, knowledge, processes and results. It is a very prestigious certification given out by the Singapore Government.
Lean has definitely contributed to this accomplishment. Through it, our people have been exposed to continuous improvement and shifted their mindset towards it. Each of them now has a way to tap into his/her full potential to increase productivity and efficiency, channel creativity and innovate.
For example, they used the motor of an old massage chair to create a simple piece of equipment that reduces the size of industrial-sized bubble wrap rolls for ease of usage. They came up with the idea to increase productivity and reduce time lost in the process.
THE SIT FACULTY COMMENTS
by Jawn Lim Tze-hin, Associate Professor, Singapore Institute of Technology
Shalom Movers embraced the lean principles in all aspects of their organization, engaging in quick cycles of learning, cutting out waste from their processes, and bringing value to their stakeholders. I believe the acronym of MOVERS aptly summarizes their learning and their lean journey:
- M-easured Conditions
Shalom began measuring movement, time and existing conditions carefully. They were honest about their blindspots and rigorous in their data gathering.
- O-ptimized Flow
Shalom explored how the work of movers and even administrative teams could move with less resistance and waste into a state of flow.
- V-alue Stream Mapped
Shalom consciously used value stream mapping to study existing processes so that they are providing value with each step of their processes
- E-liminated Waste
Shalom actively identified wastes using the TIMWOOD framework.
- R-apid PDCA Cycles
Shalom conducted multiple PDCA cycles just for their morning deployment of trucks and distribution of materials. By doing so, they achieved quick learning cycles that provided feedback on what worked and what did not. They were very fast in trying things out and was not afraid to get things wrong at first.
- S-taff Empowerment
Most importantly, Shalom's management team worked with their staff in the same teams to explore problems and solutions together. Staff opinions were always listened to and acted on. Hierarchy didn’t seem to be a hindrance while working on the various lean projects together.
THE COACH COMMENTS
by Rob van Gorkom, Lean Management Instituut, The Netherlands
When I started supporting the transformation of Shalom Movers (as part of the collaboration between the Lean Global Network and the Singapore Institute of Technology to bring lean capabilities to Singapore), I found the company had a holistic expectation for their adoption of lean thinking: they wanted to use it to educate and develop people to ensure the future of the business. A great vision, but no burning platform. The first challenge we faced was to create a connection between this general goal, the resolution of business issues and the support of people at the front line.
Our very first gemba walk revealed that the company wasn’t making the most of its moving trucks. As much as loading boxes and furniture on a moving truck is a necessary part of the job, the only real value-adding work of the vehicle is the actual moving from point A to point B. Especially in Singapore, with small distances between point A and B, using small trucks handling small batches offers tremendous opportunities for increasing the OEE of the vehicles (thus reducing the number of trucks necessary or simply freeing up capacity to do more jobs).
But Shalom management’s reaction was lukewarm. “Ok. Great observation, but this is not really why we are interested in lean. It is about our people!” The project that really won people at Shalom over was much more practical and aimed to solve a long-standing problem the company experienced: the difficulty of getting everybody on the road by 8 AM ensuring all teams could start work at the customer at 9 AM sharp.
There were several issues preventing trucks to leave on time. One of the biggest problems was that the entrance to the Shalom warehouse is only 1.5 meters wide: yet, through that small gate, they would have to move boxes, materials and tools (in and out) to load and unload up to 60 trucks every day. Moreover, every morning a line of 30-40 people would form (workers waiting to collect their reimbursement for project claims) at the same entrance. Between the goods moving and the people waiting, the entrance was clogged – which caused delays. The drivers of the bigger trucks, which had to be parked some 150 meters from the facility, also lined up to get their payments and that resulted in further delays and congestion on the main road.
It was a bunch of small problems that, combined, made for a complicated situation. In response, the team came up with small kaizens (like limiting the number of people lining up at any one time to five or providing people with a card they would hand over to the staff member in charge of payments). The improvements ultimately solved the problem and allowed the team to make their 8 AM departure almost every day.
Towards the end of our work with Shalom, we were thrilled to see a continuous improvement culture begin to permeate the company. That’s really what their mission statement was about: developing people to ensure the future of the company. And I must say, the Shalom leadership team showed an impressive level of dedication to their people from the very beginning. They are up to speed with what’s happening at the gemba every day, and they really live and breathe the lean principles of respect for people.
My personal learning? As a coach, I was looking for the big fish at the beginning, whereas at the end all we had to do was helping people on the gemba to recognize the many wasteful actions they were repeating every day. The secret to the success of the Shalom project was translating a generic view into small, actionable improvements.