VKS Logo
VKS Logo






VKS Kicks Mobility Worldwide’s Performance Into High Gear

February 20, 2023

VKS Kicks Mobility Worldwide’s Performance Into High Gear

When skilled labor is on a volunteer basis and revenue streams are nonexistent, it’s almost unthinkable to set a goal of doubling capacity with lean production standards – but Mobility Worldwide undertook and achieved the unthinkable.

Mobility Worldwide is a charity that builds carts for individuals with physical disabilities in resource-poor countries where wheelchairs are neither affordable nor equipped for rural durability. These carts and accessories provide independence by gifting mobility as well as opportunities for inventory storage for small vendors. Mobility Worldwide’s founding site in Columbia, Missouri, is only one of 30-40 affiliates worldwide, and it still produces the majority of carts deployed across the world.

We spoke with Steve Andriano, a process engineer volunteering at Mobility Worldwide Columbia, about the state of the shop floor after introducing VKS work instruction software.

His decades of experience in industrial manufacturing have instilled within him guiding principles for measurable success based on Lean and Six Sigma methodologies. “I’m there as a force multiplier for the volunteer teams,” Andriano says. “I don’t have all the answers but I’m here to help our improvement teams avoid false starts.”

Upon arriving at the Columbia facility, you are directed to one of three functional areas, depending on your preference: wood shop, welding, or assembly. From there, another volunteer will get you oriented and ready to go. The Columbia site is a learning experience for everyone, including Andriano. When he first started volunteering, he gravitated toward the welding department because it was a good opportunity to learn a new skill while making a positive impact in the world.

“VKS has become our de facto quality system. It’s a quantum leap’s difference in our training process.”

Steve Andriano

Steve Andriano

Volunteer Process Engineer, Mobility Worldwide

But with no prints, no bills of materials, no standardization, and a workforce made up entirely of volunteers unfamiliar with lean manufacturing, Mobility Worldwide found major hurdles while scaling up quality production to help those in need.

Columbia has a 12-month deployment plan, with the goal of doubling capacity from 2000 to 4000 carts produced per year. And because volunteers typically only volunteer 3-4 hours at a time, the site operates at only 50% utilization. Therefore, Andriano identified that they needed to build a workflow system that could handle a production rate of 8000 carts per year.

“I’m here to clear the obstacles in the way of expanding our capacity,” Andriano says. “Things like, what do we need to make and how many units? The what, the when, the how – all that stuff.”

And every aspect of “all that stuff” eventually moved to within the charity’s grasp after implementing one key difference: standardized work instructions.

Here’s how they did it.

Solving Logistical Challenges At The Source

Product Deployment Constrictions Based On Location

Andriano started by considering the practical limitations that first spurred the charity into existence and which were also beyond his control: the rural difficulties of supplying life-changing mobility aid.

In the rural areas of Sierra Leone or Kenya, where carts are often sent, it is difficult to find a replacement part, especially one that fits the correct specifications. There are some components that, unlike the occasional broken axle, require medical-grade performance. For example, seat backs and seat bottoms need to be medical-grade because people who use the carts can’t shift as freely in their seat due to various physical limitations.

A major challenge for Mobility Worldwide is the impossibility of supplying replacement parts for broken carts. Ultimately, says Andriano, “We’re deploying things in an environment with no maintenance capabilities. It’s hard to fix a broken cart with no resources.” Quality is of utmost importance. Without verification of proper builds, the charity is unable to meet the long-term needs of its recipients.

Introducing Quality At The Source To Limit Defects

The solution Mobility Worldwide adheres to is a Toyota philosophy called quality at the source, meaning that they embed all inspection criteria into work instructions. “We’re striving for that quality,” says Andriano. “In order to have quality, we have to have specifications. In order to meet specifications, we have to embed them in our work instructions.”

assembled pull carts in the warehouse

Therefore, the first step for expanding Columbia’s capacity was to introduce work instructions. In the beginning, the first draft is rarely the perfect process – it’s the current best practice; it’s a method of discovery, revealing gaps in the current state of tribal knowledge. The next few drafts are where things start to come together to resemble best practices.

Andriano says, “There’s software out there that says, ‘This is how you’re going to do it.’ What I like about VKS is it doesn’t try to make me do things I don’t want to do, but it allows me to do what I want to do.”

Andriano claims there are three factors necessary for success in manufacturing: production identification (including product identification, design and bill of materials prints, etc.), workflow systems (triggers such as replenishment models and kanban), and work instructions (including definitions, SOPs, etc.).

In Columbia’s case, the third element is bearing the weight of the other two elements while the details are being ironed out: “We’re using VKS as a foundation and building the other things around it. It became a discovery tool as well as work instructions.”

Lean Methodologies: Which To Implement First?

Columbia is just beginning to apply lean methodologies like kanban, but they have seen impressive results so far in these early stages since flow problems are preemptively smoothed out in the work instructions.

Says Andriano, “Before you have a kanban system you have to have part numbers and you have to know what parts are on each cart. We’re figuring out material flow, CAD models, cloud modeling, all starting from the work instructions. VKS has been the foundation supporting our other success metrics – it’s defining the process.”

One of the biggest practical challenges was time waste through uneven workflow. Being an industrial engineer, Steve Andriano couldn’t help but notice that from the moment he walked into welding to the moment the first piece was completed fresh off the line was 40 minutes. Given that most volunteers were present 4 hours at a time at most, and a large portion of that shift was spent on just-in-time coordinating and herding volunteers through workstations, there wasn’t much time left in a shift to complete more than a couple parts needed for assembly.

This discovery pushed Andriano to integrate light-duty cloud-based execution technology to streamline those actions. As well as work instructions, VKS now doubles as a manufacturing execution system (MES): volunteers are directed through the workflow by the work instructions, eliminating the need for a heavy-duty onboarding and training process.

volunteer uses VKS work instructions

After applying lean principles like introducing quality within the source via VKS work instructions and eliminating waste through workflow consolidation, capacity increased dramatically.

Just-In-Time Training for Volunteers in the Workforce

Establishing KPIs for Workforce Training

The vast majority of volunteers at the plant are retired. Scheduling shifts is difficult – this group prefers to keep things spontaneous. And with some volunteers well into their later years, it’s not advantageous to require extensive training. Things need to be intuitive, ready-made for success.

There was too much scheduling variation at the heart of operations to accurately target cycle time metrics, realized Andriano, “But learning curve reduction? Definitely doable.”

“Our philosophy is that a work instruction guidebook should follow every part made from cradle to grave.”

Steve Andriano

Steve Andriano

Volunteer Process Engineer, Mobility Worldwide

He continues, “Prior to VKS, it was all purely tribal knowledge. There were no process specifications, no prints, no part numbers. Some parts look just like other parts, so you had a really good chance of welding the wrong parts together.”

Kaizen teams were formed from each of the 3 departments and team members became the VKS authors, helping to standardize processes via VKS software. The standardized changes are simple enough yet provide a big impact.

“One of our core guidelines is that the pictures should tell you what to do. If you have a step that dictates ‘install as shown’ and the picture is of a completed installation, that doesn’t show you what to do. You need pictures of someone actually performing the installation. Our philosophy is that a work instruction guidebook should follow every part made from cradle to grave.”

Andriano is confident that the learning curve has been significantly reduced. Despite the lack of hard stats, the difference between then and now is palpable enough to be at least 75% reduction in training time, he says.

Identifying Process Gaps For Continuous Improvement

“One of the things I like about VKS is it’s an evolutionary tool,” explains Andriano. “You go out and grab something that becomes a baseline, and you move from there. It becomes a vehicle for long-term improvement because it identifies holes in your process.”

For example, one hole in Mobility Worldwide’s process was defining “perpendicular” for quality standards in assembly. A volunteer may come across this direction and wonder about the margin of acceptable error: was a discrepancy of 5-10 degrees okay? What about 10-15 degrees?

volunteer follows VKS instructions while working

VKS authors revisited the instruction and found a square tool that measured the proper 90 degrees. They took a picture of someone applying the tool for visual confirmation, and uploaded it to the work instructions. They photographed a properly completed measurement, and also juxtaposed it with a poorly completed measurement to plainly show the difference in quality for the next volunteer unsure about the next step.

“VKS has become our de facto quality system,” he says, “It’s a quantum leap’s difference in our training process.”

When a new volunteer walks in, they can be oriented at a station immediately instead of having to be hand-held throughout the whole process. Remember that 40 minute estimate Andriano made for when he first walked on the shop floor to when the first component came off the line? He estimates it’s now only about a 10 minute process, an impressive 400% increase in productivity.

Building Confidence in a Shared Mission

Expanding Horizontal Capacity Through Skills Sharing

The volunteers thrive off of standardized work instructions because it gives them the confidence to do new things. At the same time, clear instructions remove that burden where they’re wondering about their performance, hoping they got it all right.

Andriano has noticed that volunteers have spread out more widely across the shop floor instead of sticking at one or two stations where they’re most familiar. This confidence in approaching new areas of production has allowed Mobility Worldwide to coordinate more entry level jobs overall, thus expanding horizontal capacity.

“VKS is how you build a team. You overcome obstacles together. You evolve.”

Steve Andriano

Steve Andriano

Volunteer Process Engineer, Mobility Worldwide

Instead of the same regulars volunteering at the same stations, individuals from other departments can expand their skill sets by trying out something new. In this way, standard work instructions have addressed the extra challenge of maintaining a keen, up-to-date labor force – the fact that it’s really a volunteer force is all the more impressive!

The big benefit that the workers perceive is eradicating the stress of performing. Andriano explains, “When you don’t have anyone around to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, most volunteers are very hesitant to do anything that is complicated because they don’t want to make mistakes.”

With VKS taking on the burden of error-proofing, volunteers are confident in their abilities because their actions are confirmed as they move through standardized work instructions.

Maximizing Manpower Potential

A group of ten volunteers dropping by the Columbia site used to require an extra ten seasoned volunteers to help the group get oriented on a workstation, for a total of 20 manpower being spent on first-time onboarding. With VKS freeing up the load, the same ten volunteers would require only an extra one or two team leads to get oriented, for a total of 11-12 manpower. Work instruction software can almost halve the manpower spent on onboarding, freeing up labor to achieve higher production goals.

Work instructions perfectly fill the gap between one-one-one onboarding and throwing workers in the deep end to learn by doing. It’s the best of both worlds – step-by-step and immersive instruction.

The couple times that Andriano has noticed assembly errors – like the wrong type of lumber used for a seating component – they’ve been easy to identify and also doubled as good learning moments for catching defects and fixing quality specifications.

“That’s why we want the team members to review the work instructions every time,” Andriano stresses, “We all make mistakes.” By eradicating unnecessary wastes through standardized instructions, Columbia has reduced its defect rate.

volunteer and disabled person in a mobility cart

“Most of their questions are already embedded in the work instructions, so they start to gain that confidence,” says Andriano, “It’s like self-checkout. That’s the biggest benefit.

“VKS is how you build a team. You overcome obstacles together. You evolve.”

Looking Down the Road Ahead

Mobility Worldwide Columbia shows no signs of slowing down. They’re at approximately 65% completion of their growth mandate, with about 150 guidebooks walking volunteers through the details of woodworking, welding, and assembly.

“I think the biggest problem we faced before VKS,” he says, “Has been limitations on what people can do.”

The impact of VKS reaches far beyond the minutiae of part traceability and standardization. Andriano describes the exponential good radiating from team efforts, “Maybe you’ve been building these carts for nine years. But now, with VKS, you’ll be putting your stamp on how they’re built in the future, too.”

With such unyielding optimism, it seems the limitations of what these volunteers can do really are truly miles away.