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Wasted steps kill shop productivity

Step counters are generally used to increase exercise throughout the day. But when you’re a technician or welder at a busy shop, time spent walking around the shop floor is not spent turning wrenches or welding joints.

“I’ve dropped down to about 10,000 steps a day,” Kyle Cowling, a welder with National Tank Services, said of the transformation at the company’s Calgary location.

Tool room picture
Every tool now has a logical home. (Photo: Supplied)

National Tank Services, which is owned by Trimac, reconfigured its Calgary facility as part of a five-year strategic plan, with the goal of enabling technicians to complete their work more productively and efficiently.


“Our shop is extremely busy. We’ve been booking a week out for a few months,” Caleb Norgaard, the NTS service manager who helped plan the changes, said when the upgrades were introduced. “The shop is crowded and we need more space to accommodate the workload.”

National Tank Services employed Green Belt LEAN/Six Sigma methods to improve efficiency through what it dubbed its Shop of the Future project. Employees such as Cowling were instrumental in identifying bottlenecks and coming up with ways to eliminate them. At the beginning of the process, the step counter on Cowling’s iPhone noted he was walking about 15,000 steps a day while at work. About half of those were spent walking to and from the parts room Cowling would have to trek to every time he needed so much as a bolt.

“We moved the bolt bins,” he said. “Instead of having them in the parts room, we moved them out onto the floor so you’re not walking all the way to the parts room for a nut or a bolt.”

That was just one of the changes — but one with a very tangible benefit. The floor was tidied. Benches were moved and new homes were found for larger items that were rarely used. The front offices were renovated and the tool and parts rooms were both reorganized. Peg boards were installed and labeled so tools were returned to their rightful home after use.

“We put things where they made sense,” Cowling said in an interview with Today’s Trucking. “At one point in time the leveling gauge was in the back corner, nowhere near anything with air.”

One goal was to reduce the time technicians and welders spent rifling through drawers and looking down aisles for parts. The organizational efforts extended to the yard as well.

“The yard was becoming a disaster,” Cowling admitted. This was improved by setting up a staging area, marked by jersey barriers and signage for booked-in vehicles.

Key improvements in the shop included: adding a driver’s room; investing in a Lite-Check Verifier to speed up tech inspections; centralizing tools and parts; reducing the number of tools and equipment at each workstation; reconfiguring the tool shed; converting a wash bay to a ‘flex’ service bay; and installing overhead air, electrical and oil lines to clear the floor of moving carts and trip hazards.

While Cowling saw his daily exercise reduced by about a third, he now spends more time working on equipment and less time being frustrated while looking for tools and parts.

“We wanted the team to know that they could spend more time fixing vehicles, turning wrenches and being mechanics, and spend less time with all the problems that get in the way,” said Andrew Sweeney, manager of National Tank Services’ transformation, who also brought similar improvements to the company’s Mississauga, Ont., location. Similar work was conducted at the Laval, Que., shop.

Before diving into the project, NTS found that technicians were walking an average 12.8 km a day to retrieve tools and parts. The company estimates it reduced this wasted time by 78 hours a week – equal to the work that can done by two full-time technicians. And it is using that improved efficiency to bring more work, previously outsourced at a higher cost, in house.

After shots of shop
(Photo: National Tank Services)

The project also aimed to improve throughput by 30%. And Cowling said most of the technicians bought into the transformation – despite the loss of exercise.

“They’re staying on it,” he said of his colleagues. “They’re cleaning up after themselves, putting things away. If they see something out of place they’re trying to put it where it goes so it’s not on the center of the floor anymore.”

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