Co-founder and CEO Ken Tomita explores our adventures in running a small business and the journey to understand the meaning of it all.
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Grovemade is located in a former auto-shop in Southeast Portland, Oregon. Inside, bare bulbs hang from exposed rafters, and the poured cement floors are pocked and scratched after decades of use. The shop houses two CNC mills, two Trotec laser cutters, a table saw, a couple miter saws, two drill presses, a handful of routers, several hundred yards of uncut maple and walnut, and all the other essential hand-tools found in a traditional wood shop.
The workshop is a space of constant activity. The chop saws buzz, the sanders hum, and the mills churn. It’s loud and often dirty. The accumulation of sawdust, offcuts of wood, and used sandpaper is perpetual, the chaotic byproduct of labor. Adding to the disharmony is the hand drill set hastily aside, the sanding block or hammer misplaced when the workday comes to a close.
In the early days, spending a couple of minutes searching for a tool didn't seem like too big of a deal. It was just part and parcel of working in a busy shop. Yet, as the years went on, we realized that those minutes were adding up to hours, even days of lost time. We’d always prided ourselves on being productive, on getting things done in a prompt and efficient manner. We knew we could do better.
We started by taking an exhaustive inventory of every last item stored in the shop. It took weeks, and the final list read like a rummage sale. There was an antique dust collector; an unused air conditioner the size of a washing machine; a laminator that had never, to anyone's knowledge, laminated anything.
The inventory also exposed the slipshod organization of our raw materials. Cuts to be used for keyboard trays mingled with the wood that would be trimmed for planters and lamps. Leftover material from discontinued products still commanded shelf space. Defunct supplies stagnated in cardboard boxes. What's more, when the useful supplies would run low, we had no reliable system to ensure that they'd be restocked.
There was a breakdown to how we were doing things on a grander scale than we’d initially thought. While our designs and final products were simple and clean, and the processes to make them was done with care, the anarchy in our shop was putting a strain on everyone. The problem was greater than squandered shelf space. We needed a game plan to reorganize from the ground up.
What followed was a months’ long transition from clutter to order. Entire unused shelves were dismantled, along with the ceiling-high scaffolding that had been erected when our CNC mills needed servicing. All tools and materials were sorted into their own designated bin. The towers of lumber were also dealt with: in lieu of the vertical forest, the cords and planks of wood were chopped in half and neatly stacked in newly constructed shelves, and any wood once used for discontinued products was given away. Unused tools were sold online and to colleagues. Group feats of strength were pulled off as our drill press and wood planer were lifted off the ground by hand and placed onto casters for easy movability. And the pièce de résistance: wheeled shelves with stacking trays to keep all of our products, regardless of their stage of development, in tidy, easily accessible arrays.
With everything in its right place, systems to keep it that way needed to be put in place. And there was still the issue of keeping track of our inventory. Our operations manager, Jim Hassert, tackled the problem with Grovemade's web engineer, Yuji Tomita. Together, they constructed a customized, online inventory system from scratch. Our previous process relied on a monthly hand-counting of each and every piece of material and product, from large pieces of lumber to thousands of tiny magnets. The same went for reordering new materials, with scraps of paper filled out and dropped into an "order more" bin. It wasn't exactly bulletproof and often left us running low on anything from sandpaper to printer paper.
In contrast, the new system uses QR codes linked with every material and product type. As a batch of iPhone cases is moved from the handwork department to the finished goods shelf, any team member can scan the associated QR code with their phone and punch in the addition to inventory. With a glance at our system, we can now see in real time the number of products we have, what stage in production they're at, and the levels on our raw materials. Using forecasted sales data, it even projects when we'll be likely to run out of any given material, reminding us to restock weeks in advance.
Our new pledge to order has made for a workshop that’s easy to navigate and a snap to maintain. It was a massive project that spanned months and required the help of everyone on the team, but the new system has already afforded us the peace of mind to more fully focus our energy on the act of making.