Bob, The Team Builder

As we approach the intermission in our current sales season, we wanted to showcase one of our stars behind the scenes. 

Meet Thwin Naung Soe, aka Bob.  Proximity's manufacturing manager.It'll be all-white on the night.

Bob left Myanmar 11 years ago at the tender age of 22.  Having finished university, and eager to make his mark, Bob left home to join the management team at a leading manufacturing firm in Singapore.  He sought a better quality of life at a time of scant opportunity in his native Yangon. 

Climbing the corporate ladder by day, Bob walked the boards by night, performing for a Singaporean/Myanmar creative arts community.

Bob's communication is always very clear. Photo © Kyaw Lu Lu Min

Slapstick, drag shows, dance routines, stand up comedy, you name it -- if you can do it on a stage -- Bob can do it.  He’s good too.  The hysteria levels at Proximity staff dinners and retreats have hit an all-time high since his arrival last year.  Give the man a microphone and he’ll keep an audience rolling in the aisles for as long as you’ll let him.  Even a Monday morning meeting can descend into near anarchy if Bob’s in the mood.

He’s also a natural man-manager.  He wound up running the community of artists back in Singapore.  If managing a manufacturing plant wasn’t hard enough, this was like herding cats.  No, it was worse than that, it was like herding artistic cats. A disparate group of about 90 people from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities, they participated in the group on a voluntary basis. This meant Bob had to manage people without the usual managerial tools.  No pay rises or redundancy, no hiring and firing, Bob had to rely on his charisma and a natural flair for leadership.  Luckily for this elusive mob, and our manufacturing team, he has both in great measures. 

After ten years in Singapore, Bob was living a very comfortable life.  He had achieved much of what he wished to achieve.  In a decade he grew into a skilled manager, on and off the stage, an expert at running a lean shop and a happy team.  However, as he reflected in his air-conditioned cocoon of an office, his mind turned to his home.  With Myanmar in state of flux, it seemed that it might be time to return, to play a role in the rebuilding of a nation.  He could take the skills he had acquired and use them to positive effect.  

Bob had the manufacturing team polish up his teeth for this one © cismithphoto

Bob does admit that he had some initial fears about returning to Myanmar after 10 years abroad. The sweat of Yangon’s industrial zone was a far cry from the impeccable Singapore factory he oversaw.  He allayed his fears, however, with the knowledge that he could make a positive impact.  

“I want to be a system maker and a team builder,” says Bob. “I’ve experienced a comfortable life and I have seen how much better working conditions can be.  I want to help my country by training and teaching people. I can give people exposure to systems and practices in other countries. At Proximity I can do all of these things, and in the knowledge that the products we are producing are helping the people of my nation.”

Like the team of artists in Singapore, our manufacturing team is more than happy to perform under Bob.  A recent satisfaction survey amongst staff scored his team at an average 4.4 our of 5 for pride in their work and 4.44 out of 5 for trust in their leader. He has also made great strides overhauling the health and safety standards in the workshop.  All in all, it’s quite an act.  

Take a bow, Bob.  Your audience is on its feet. 


Reimagining water storage

The perfect partner to the world’s most efficient low pressure drip irrigation system.

A new irrigation sales season has just begun.  Our sales demonstrators are out there, dodging potholes and exploring the dusty dirt roads and villages across Myanmar, seeking farmers that could do with a leg up the irrigation ladder.  Many of our customers earn as little as a couple of dollars a day, so buying one of our products is never a decision taken lightly.   

Luckily for our sales team, our designers have thrown them a rather large bone, in the form of the newly designed ‘Sturdy Boy’ water tank.  Designed to hold 250 gallons of water, it’s half the price of alternative storage solutions such as a 55 gallon drum or cement tank.  It’s also completely freestanding.  That’s due to an ingenious geometric design, which supports a ton of water with no smoke or mirrors.  No ropes, no hidden support structures, just a few hundred grams of PVC coated nylon.  Magic. 

It has also been tested within an inch of its life.  Our design team has been bathing it in UV light, hanging weights from outlets.  Pushing, pulling, twisting and contorting.  Filling it, emptying it, filling it again. Goading it.  Asking every tough question in the book.  Daring it to answer back.  By the time they have finished, they have simulated two full seasons of heavy use.  Still it stands fast, staring back at them, without a word, sturdy to the end.  If it were to say anything at all, it would probably just whisper, “I’m beautiful, too, you know”.

 Sturdy and Beautiful.Its newly refined outlet pipes have increased flow rates.  If a farmer wants to connect a drip irrigation set, they now only need two feet of elevation - half the height of previous models - to achieve the pressure required to water their plot.  That makes our drip set just about the most efficient, gravity fed, drip irrigation system in the world, and it’s available in over 10,000 villages across Myanmar. 

The lightweight nature of the Sturdy Boy makes it preferable to the traditional 55 gallon drum option.  Once it’s empty, you just pick it up and take it somewhere else.  It’s that simple.  At $25, it’s designed for ultimate affordability and it turns irrigation into a one-person job. Sturdy Boy users are free from the burden of arduous trips up and down the plot, watering cans weighing heavily on their shoulders.  Simply connect a pump, a hose, or a drip set, turn on the tap and you’re cooking on, well, probably a wood-fired stove.  But that’s another design challenge.  


The safe journey

Safety - a 'way of life' at Proximity. cismithphoto

Walking around Yangon’s industrial zone is a mind-expanding experience.  Especially, if your idea of manufacturing consists of acres of factory floors, mile-long conveyor-belts and robots aplenty.  Here in South Dagon, where our own factory resides, heat blazes from open furnaces, sparks and debris fly in all directions, thunderous mechanical volume and the boiling stench of industry penetrate your skull.  Hard-hats, overalls and safety glasses are as rare as Irrawaddy dolphins.    

Sparks fly in this workshop, not far from our own factory. cismithphoto

In our own factory, convincing staff of the importance of health and safety has been an uphill struggle.  Todd Murphy joined Proximity four years ago as Manufacturing Advisor and it was one of his first priorities to instill some disciplines in the health and safety area. 

“Getting a system in place was the easy part.” Todd says.  Appropriate equipment was purchased.  Signs were designed and hung on walls.  More lighting was added and everything was given its place and well ordered.  Workshops were held about the dangers of the workplace and, after everything was set in motion, very little changed; a few people donned the overalls but the wholesale changes required to avoid danger never came.  Boots remained un-scuffed on shelves, goggles stayed on their nicely designed racks.  Welding and hammering continued with gusto and heavy objects just got carried straight past it all.

A hard-hatted Proximity manufacturing team member contrasts with a flip-flopped contractor. cismithphoto

So, what was missing?

“Most Myanmar industrial workers have only seen Myanmar industrial standards and you don’t need to go too far from our door to see what the ‘norm’ is.”  Says Proximity’s Manufacturing Manager, Thwin Naung Soe (aka Bob).  When Bob stopped to ask staff why they weren’t wearing the gear, they told him that the safety equipment inconvenienced them. Goggles were interfering with vision, boots were hot or caused mobility issues and “that guy over there took my earmuffs.”  So, they invested in better gear and more rigid rules and regulations and this helped move things to the next stage, but Bob knew this ran deeper than the quality of the equipment.  This was entrenched mentality and habit.  Not everyone was following protocol.  Ergo, an accident was waiting to happen. 

Bob decided to take the personal approach. He wanted insight into why many workers would still not wear their safety gear, despite availability and ease.  Some of the workers explained that industrial workers don’t believe they are more special than the next guy.  Why would they protect themselves more than the others? There is little awareness of a safe environment so the standards in the industrial zone have been accepted as normal.  People just expect to get injured; it’s what this type of work leads to. The mentality is: “I’m a man working in this industry, it will happen someday.  So why should I inconvenience myself everyday?”   

Safety mindset in our workshop. cismithphoto

So, Bob became a counselor.  He approached this mindset with an attempt to explain to his employees that they should not just see themselves as an individual.  They should also see themselves as a family member - someone who brings home income for their family to survive.  They should see themselves as a co-worker, sharing the load with the rest of the team.  We should always be thinking of our environment and how we fit into it, and not just thinking about ourselves.  Slowly, steadily, workers gained more pride in what they were doing.  They felt more valuable.  They started to protect themselves.

The safety journey is not yet complete.  We have a way to go but Todd and Bob’s approach is slowly changing the mindset of the team.  Day by day, safety is becoming a way of life.  Who knows, maybe there’s even hope for the Irrawaddy dolphin?


Proximity Wins 2013 Curry Stone Design Prize 

It was just announced that we've won the 2013 Curry Stone Design Prize!

The annual prize, in its sixth year, recognizes designers who address urgent social issues and was established with the belief that design can be a critical force to create positive social transformations and empower local communities. 

“The 2013 Curry Stone Design Prize winners illustrate how to address some of the most dramatic challenges of our times: building sustainable habitats for low-income communities, designing affordable products for rural families, and providing health care in war-torn countries,” said Emiliano Gandolfi, Prize Secretary. “Each of these practices brings forward valid design tools, strategies, and inspirations to face current world inequalities.”

Proximity Co-founder Jim Taylor is participating in a two-day awards ceremony and presentation in partnership with Design Like You Give A Damn Live!, a design conference.  The two-day event focuses on humanitarian design and community development through discussions, presentations, and workshops. 

"All of us at Proximity are deeply honored to receive the 2013 Curry Stone Design Prize in recognition of our social design work in Myanmar over the past nine years,” said Jim Taylor, Proximity’s co-founder. “Tackling the complex problem of rural poverty takes deep knowledge and empathy. From the beginning, design principles have guided our work and equipped us with insights and understanding of our rural customers. This has helped us create better products and services that have the power to transform lives."

As part of the prize, we'll receive a no-strings-attached grant and be the subject of a short documentary film produced by the Curry Stone Foundation. The film was premiered at the awards ceremony and released online on digital channels including the Prize’s website, IDEO, Public Interest Design, and YouTube. 

Other organizations to have won this year were Hunnarshala (Bhuj, India) and Studio TAMassociati/Emergency(Venice/Milan, Italy).



Nuts About Oil

U San Lwin has been milling peanut oil for 55 years. Iterating everyday to ensure the best possible quality.

As his assistant drives a cow around a large mortar, 75-year-old U San Lwin scrapes peanuts into the bowl where they're grinded into cake and drained for oil.

The process takes one and a half hours per batch, which is 16 kg of peanuts. For U San Lwin, that's $12.25 per batch-- a significant amount in a country where the average salary is less than $2 a day. And when he's not using his machine, the farmer rents it out to other villagers and collects rental fees.

Little by little, U San Lwin modifies his machine to produce more in quantity and quality: adopting better quality wood, carving it for smoother consistency and changing the shape of his grinding pole and bowl are just a few design tricks up his sleeve.

Now that's entrepreneurial spirit. It's innovative people like U San Lwin who inspire us. Rural entrepreneurs being inventive with the little that they have.

And it's people like U San Lwin who continue to fuel our drive to offer well-designed products and services that help solve our customers' everyday problems, so that they can boost their incomes and reduce daily drudgery.