FEATURE – You have never seen a workshop like this before: Halfway Ngami in Botswana has creatively transformed car servicing and repairs by making problems visible and introducing flow.
Words: Michael Mruma, Service Manager, Veronica Selelo, Manager of Service Admin, and Lebo Ketwesepe, Workshop Controller, Ngami Toyota – Maun, Botswana
When was the last time you took your car in for servicing? How long did you have to wait? Do you remember it being a smooth, pain-free experience? If just thinking about it makes you blow a gasket, know that you are not alone.
Like too many workplaces, repair workshops tend to be chaotic, noisy environments with flawed processes, poor service, and stressed employees. We wanted better for people at Ngami Toyota – both our customers and our employees – which led the company’s management to introduce lean thinking in 2013.
At the time, the workshop was riddled with work in progress, and vehicles were rarely ready for collection before 4pm. As the end of the day approached, our people (of our 105 employees, 50 are in the workshop) would invariably scramble to complete the work. At the same time, demand was booming and we struggled to keep up. We wanted our customers to know the time they could expect their cars to be ready, while making life easier for our people. But we wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without making sense of the work first.
That’s why our lean journey began with understanding the difference between predictable and unpredictable work, which became clear to everybody when we introduced two different flows: one for simple, fast repairs and services (the Green Bay) and one for more unpredictable jobs (the Orange Bay).
The Ngami workshop pioneered the use of one-piece flow in car servicing and repairs in Halfway. What makes us rather peculiar is the place we operate in: because of our proximity to the Okavango Delta (Maun is considered the gateway to this secluded and inaccessible area characterized by bad terrain full of mud, dust, and water) we do many more repairs than we do services – the ratio is 75% to 25%. No wonder we struggled so much with running things the traditional way!
Every vehicle that comes here arrives with a service and a concern. Back in the day, a vehicle would go onto one of our hoists (we have a total of 13), the extra work would be identified, but nothing could be done until the customer gave authorization. This resulted in many cars being stuck on the hoist for hours, which stopped everybody’s work and created many delays. We spent a lot of time moving vehicles, and waiting. So, after the introduction of the two flows, we decided to start to pre-diagnose vehicles.
Pre-diagnosing means that a vehicle will be designated as “green” or “orange” at the Receiving stage. We know our customers well (most of them are returning) and we have a number of criteria to identify an orange piece of work: the number of kilometers (at 10,000 we don’t expect having to perform any repairs, whereas at 600,000 we know something is likely going to need fixing), the type of usage (a Land Cruiser taking tourists to the bush, for instance, is likely to present problems), or something that a customer says on the phone or upon arriving at the workshop.
Jobs that we expect to be orange are then taken to the Pre-Diagnosis Bay, where they are checked for issues (the most problematic and time-consuming ones being the electrical ones). Once the problem has been identified, a quotation is raised for any extra work necessary. Before we can perform the work, however, we need a green light from the customer. Having all the work identified and getting authorization beforehand means that the vehicle only goes onto the hoist once (as we seek customer approval, we also fetch the necessary parts and place them in the vehicle so that the technician can start as soon as the customer gives us the go-ahead). These days, we know by lunch time what vehicles we will be able to work on that day and which ones will slip to tomorrow as they await customer approval. The new system is much easier for us to manage, and resulted in quicker service for the customer. Productivity has also gone up drastically, as we can now service up to 40 cars per day. We have seen an increase of 30% in the total billable hours worked in the shop – about half from the introduction of the Green bay and the rest from the Orange Bay.
The Orange Bay accommodates most of our work, but the Green Bay was just as game-changing (its effects have been felt across the Halfway Group, with the Ottery workshop servicing nearly 40 cars a day just on the Green Bay – check out our documentary to learn more). Designed for quick, predictable servicing jobs, the Green Bay works to a 15-minute takt-time and is organized in two stages. Standardized work allows the technicians working on the bay to perform their work smoothly: they move around the car once, completing one task after another (from checking tyres to changing the oil) in the easiest and most logical way possible. The Wash Bay works to the same takt-time and the vehicle is complete and ready an hour after work on it starts.
To see how our Green Bay works, check out this video:
The biggest change the new system has brought in is a better way to manage our time: we now run our work as we would a production line in a factory. Abnormalities stand out immediately, whereas previously we had a lot of uncertainty in our processes. Lean has allowed us to measure the work, and therefore improve it. It’s made our lives easier, which is particularly important in an environment as challenging as ours.
Getting to where we are today took a while. After we introduced flow, we immediately realized we had to redesign the whole process, and because this had to be done quickly we figured the changes would have to be inexpensive. That’s why in our workshop you’ll see several clever “hacks” that cost us nearly nothing, but had a huge impact on the work. These kaizen ideas, most of which came from our people, included a soap-and-wash station built with simple parts bought at a hardware store, old gutters used to drain oil filters, and a device made with plumbing supplies that has considerably shortened the time required to grease wheel bearings. The clever systems to visualize, improve and control the work that our people have come up with are testament to the impact that lean can have on a firm: a great example of this is the Veronica Chart (named after one of us authors), which helps us to manage the flow of vehicles by showing what car should be in what bay at any given time of the day.
Shortly after the lean transformation began, the need for training became clear. We knew we had to make this as accessible as possible (we have many educational levels here at Ngami, and we want everyone to be able to understand what we are doing), which meant two things: using toys to explain lean principles and behaviors, and breaking things down in little chunks that our people could process. Along the way, we started learning together – and that’s really what has made our transformation so successful.
As trite as it may sound, our people are our biggest resource. Their passion for what we do and their creativity have been the real engine behind Ngami’s turnaround. Of course, such a shift in behavior and culture required the support of leadership: Sharon Visser, our Principal, has invested a lot of time and energy into changing hearts here. When lean was introduced, we were all pretty worried, but she took the time to talk to each and every one of us, listening to our concerns and fears. That’s when things really started to change.
It is our lean culture that enables Ngami to excel. Here, people know that making mistakes is ok, and how important raising problems is. Our andon system is perhaps the best expression of how we think: if there is a problem, anyone at Ngami can pull the andon cord to let her managers know that something is interrupting her flow. As soon as the signal is received, the manager comes to assist, so that people can continue with their work (the principles of TPS are as strong in Botswana as they are in Toyota City). We all know that hiding problems is counter-productive: sweep them under the rug and before you know it they will become too big to manage!
Another activity that has greatly benefitted from the introduction of lean at Ngami is the overhaul of engines. Before lean came into the picture, Ngami couldn’t keep up with demand and outsourced engine repair jobs. This, however, had an impact on quality, with a worrisome 70% of jobs had to be done twice – at one point, the shop had 27 comebacks over a period of five months. In a bid to fix this problem, the team designed a new Engine Room and introduced standardized work for engine overhauls – traditionally a messy process entailing a lot of waiting.
Today, when a customer shows up with a concern, the technician immediately tries to identify the malfunction by running a basic check or taking the car for a test drive. If the problem is not found and fixed at that initial stage, the engine is removed and stripped for further inspection in the Engine Room (this is when we go to the customer to get authorization to proceed, as a higher level of labor will result in a higher cost). Interestingly, at Ngami we ensure that the same technician takes care of the end-to-end process of repairing the engine.
As he disassembles the engine, the technician washes, dries and measures each component (using the repair manual as a reference), preparing a list of all the parts that need replacing. A quote is then prepared for the customer. As soon as authorization is received and the parts arrive – by far, the most problematic part of the process – the engine can be repaired. Because some parts take a long time to arrive the team has converted old oil drums into lockers used to store stripped components and avoid mixing parts.
Today, the number of comebacks has dropped to maybe one every five months (and even those require small tweaks rather than major overhauls). Without lean and the new room, Ngami couldn’t simply couldn’t handle all the engine jobs it gets.
Lean frees up capacity, and with that capacity one is able to explore new opportunities. In 2015, Sharon asked Kefemetswe Ntshwabi (we all call her Feme - pictured here on the right), a Halfway employee for 22 years, to go back to her native Kasane – a fast-growing town that is rapidly becoming a gateway to Central Africa – and open a branch of Ngami in an old warehouse. Prior to Halfway Chobe opening, our customers from Kasane had to travel 600 kilometers to reach the dealership in Maun. The challenge for Feme, then, was to provide a service point convenient to these customers, which meant she’d have to run on a small fraction of the overheads of a traditional small dealership.
By using standardized work, and with the help of former Ngami employee Kagiso Magosi and her Workshop Controller Obed Melzedek, she managed to replicate the system first developed by its sister workshop (only on a smaller scale) – thus creating a healthy operation that can now work independently. Today, Halfway Chobe employs 12 people and services 15 cars per day on its Green Bay.
The workshop offers same-day delivery to its customers, many of whom travel from neighboring Namibia for their business transactions. The space is small, but the team has been able to make the most of it. Key to this is following standards, tracking the work, making it flow (there is no reversing of vehicles in the workshop) and encouraging people to come up with improvement suggestions all the time.
With a target of 16 hours of billable work each day, the workshop constantly tries to level the number of jobs in order to work at capacity most of the time and avoid being idle. This is just one of the KPIs measured on the Control Board, which offers a real-time picture of the state of the work. Others include the number of vehicles awaiting parts, the number of vehicles ready to be repaired, and the number of carry-overs (vehicles that can’t be worked on today and will be moved to tomorrow). At 4 PM every day, the team convenes around the board to discuss the problems they encountered throughout the day and share an outline for the following day.
The fact that Halfway Chobe was a greenfield has certainly made it easier for Feme to introduce lean in the workshop: with no pre-existing culture to influence and the opportunity to develop a new way of thinking from scratch, getting people to embrace the lean philosophy was fairly simple. And the results are there: this little shop has become an important profit contributor to the overall business and laid a solid base for future expansion both in Chobe and in other remote locations. Indeed, the Halfway Group now has a “model” of how small a site can be and still run profitably: this is an important lesson learned, especially for dealerships in Cape Town and Durban, as they explore the possibility of fast-service satellite shops.
There is no doubt that the success of both Halfway Chobe and Halfway Ngami lies in the extraordinary ability of their people to respond to challenges and in their leaders’ desire to empower them to own and solve problems. Developing local-born Motswana like Feme into lean managers and role models who can fill senior roles is a key part of the long-term viability of Halfway in Botswana.
If ever you struggle with the application of lean in an environment, think about the Lean Thinking principles. The first principle is to focus on value from the customers’ perspective. Rather than value, the dealer industry traditionally focuses on customer satisfaction. The customer experience (CE) score is high on any dealer principal or departmental manager’s radar, even though it has little to do with what really matters to the customer. That's why at Ngami we had to orientate the team towards what basic value was for the customer: fixing the vehicle right, first time, on time, every time. The Veronica chart is a great example of how this can be visualized.
With this different way of thinking, the next principle is all about flow. In service and repair environments, helping people see flow is challenging, because people think that "every job is different". Therefore, we conducted a number of lean learning experiences to help the Ngami team separate predictable and unpredictable work. They could then start trying to flow the predictable work. Where we couldn’t flow, we initiated pull, the team working on simple visual signals to control the flows.
Once we had a few examples of flow, we could be much more ambitious - working on experiments to make unpredictable work predictable (the pre-diagnosis) and designing experiments to make cars, information and parts flow - getting basic stability in each area so that we can then compress even more time (waste) from each process and tackling areas where vehicles, parts or information stagnate. It’s important to keep striving for perfection as the more waste you remove, the more waste you see.
Of course, this is the technical side to lean, but one must also be aware of and manage the people side of change. Like all good lean examples, Ngami’s power lies with its people. What sets them apart from the many teams I’ve worked with is their willingness to try things and not to be put off when they don’t go 100% according to plan. The purpose and the problem(s) to solve have been made clear by the site's leadership team (two areas that management teams find difficult to articulate). But the genius of Ngami is also in the kaizen and the countermeasures they have come up with - some of the best I’ve ever seen and certainly some of the best I’ve ever been involved with. The countermeasures look very simple, but this simplicity hides the thought and the iterations that each idea goes through. Most firms overthink the problems they are trying to solve and overcomplicate their countermeasures, whereas improvement at Ngami is driven by need: there is a real focus and desire by people to improve themselves while improving the business. Simple kaizen developed by the people doing the work that solves a problem for the customer, the business or a worker is needed everywhere.
Dave Brunt, CEO, Lean Enterprise Academy
Michael Mruma is Service Manager at Ngami Toyota in Maun, Botswana.
Veronica Selelo is Manager of Service Admin at Ngami Toyota in Maun, Botswana.
Lebo Ketwesepe is Workshop Controller at Ngami Toyota in Maun, Botswana.