Learning From Others: Matt Lee Visits Proximity Designs in Myanmar

I had a great opportunity to visit Proximity Designs and see the work that they’ve been doing in Myanmar. I got to spend time with the design group, led by David Klaus, which is now busy producing a new plastic pump and water basket for farmers there. This group performs needs finding in the community, develops products based on their findings, and manufactures and distributes them at a rate of about 30,000 products a year. They focus on products that increase a farmer’s income, so most of their products deal with irrigation and ways to increase crop yields. Proximity has won several awards for their work and we were of course interested in learning about how they are able to deliver outstanding products that impact the lives of their customers.

Although David manages the group there, each team member has bought into the goal of becoming a world-class design firm and takes ownership of Proximity. By following the simple idea of improving something small each day, the team at Proximity has transformed both their workspace and products. In one example, their commitment to bring the best products to their customers pushed the team to develop plastic pumps for their customers. In thinking beyond the metal-based pump that Proximity had been selling, they were able to significantly bring down the price point of their product so that more farmers would be able to increase their incomes. It was great to see how the “improving something small each day” philosophy is actually implemented by Proximity. As I referenced earlier, the team has all bought into the goal of becoming a world-class design firm, and David has noted that that was key in building the culture at Proximity. However, David has also made the philosophy very tangible for his staff. Once a month, the staff stops work on products and just goes around the factory to improve something. It could be as simple as streamlining how the tools are organized in a certain workspace, or adding pictures to a construction guideline.

Then, the staff gets together and votes to see who has come up with the best improvement for the team. These very simple, yet concrete, actions have formed a culture in which the whole team pursues excellence.

I was also able to see how Proximity ensures the quality of the products coming from its production line.  As I discussed with Todd Murphy, who is in charge of their production, a lot of the policies and procedures that they instituted might seem basic and obvious, but that’s what allows Proximity to ensure that they are delivering quality products. For example, Proximity physically separates the area where they receives parts (such as injection moldings and welded parts that have been outsourced) in order to inspect each part according to a guideline that is in a logbook for the person receiving to check. That way, they ensure that the production line only receives parts that have passed inspection. Once again, it’s a very simple and logical process to have, but it was helpful to see how Proximity has thought through each of these processes and implemented them. We learned a lot from how Proximity has been running their operations and as we continue to scale up ours so we’ll be keeping in touch to continue to learn from them. We’re also excited to see how the team at Proximity Designs will continue to grow and innovate in order to serve the people of Myanmar.

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