Even though lean techniques have been around for many years, companies are racing to adopt “lean” at a faster rate than ever before. And because of the amazing productivity gains seen in manufacturing, companies are now applying lean principles to areas that have nothing to do with the shop floor, such as human resources, financials and the entire supply chain, in order to achieve similar results throughout the enterprise.
What Is Lean Anyway?
Despite the sometimes-mind-boggling jargon associated with lean, the principles of lean are surprisingly simple: Create a product or service that has value to the customer, is of perfect quality and is delivered in the right quantity neither sooner nor later than the customer wants it. This sounds simple in definition, but in practice it requires constant vigilance to root out the culprits of waste and inefficiency.
A key principle of lean manufacturing is to eliminate wasted motions and waiting time. In support of these principles, workers have all the materials and tools they need, including blueprints and work instructions, in place before beginning a job. Another key principle is called “poka-yoke,” which means error-proofing processes as much as possible.
E-learning can support all of these principles. For example, one way to eliminate wasted motions is to ask workers to scrutinize a demonstration of the proper work methods for the operation they are about to perform prior to beginning the job. Since after training the worker knows how to perform the operation most efficiently, there is likely to be little wasted motion. Mistakes also will be reduced, resulting in higher quality, and the worker will not need to search for blueprints or assembly instructions, so a potential source of time waste due to waiting is also eliminated.
This is especially helpful in today’s manufacturing environment, where product mix can vary hour by hour and where workers are often rotated among several jobs in a cell to prevent repetitive motion injuries. In these conditions, frequent refreshers on proper methods can pay off in big savings, but most companies can’t afford to have a trainer available for each change in the production schedule.
E-learning can also play a role in new engineering change notices (ECNs). As production or assembly methods change to reflect the ECN, affected workers can be easily trained about the changes through the use of e-learning techniques the next time the product is manufactured.
For example, Toyota Manufacturing, which invented the lean concept, uses e-learning techniques coupled with its product lifecycle management system to ensure that employees are up-to-speed on all manufacturing operations and the latest engineering changes to the products. The result: a global workforce that is fully aligned and trained on the company’s lean initiatives.
Aligning the Workforce
Most people can easily see how applying the principles of lean can create improved operating results from the manufacturing process, but it is often more difficult to grasp that these same techniques can be applied to business processes throughout the entire enterprise with similar improvements. Yet, combined with e-learning, lean techniques can contribute just as much to a company’s bottom line when applied off the shop floor.
One of the major benefits of lean is its ability to help a company ensure that its strategy is reflected in any decision made on the shop floor and throughout the enterprise. This is a practice known in lean as “policy deployment.” As anyone who has ever tried to manage a diverse group of people knows, coming up with a strategy is actually the easy part. Ensuring that the company strategy is understood throughout the organization, and that employees are aligned with company goals, is one of the hardest tasks a manager can face.
Despite all the ways managers communicate–face-to-face meetings, companywide meetings, newsletters, intranets, etc.–many employees are either unaware of the company’s business goals or misinterpret them. E-learning provides an excellent tool to communicate company strategy and to provide practical examples of how decisions on the shop floor or in the back office can support the strategy. E-learning can help explain executive-level strategies clearly and consistently to both new and long-term employees, ensuring that each individual is cognizant of his role in executing according to plan.
For example, if a company’s strategy is to be known as the best at customer service, employees need to know how it applies to their everyday tasks. E-learning can provide practical, real-life anecdotes and help employees in the decision-making process by providing hypothetical cases and opportunities for role-playing.
To shop floor employees, being the best at customer service might mean breaking down a production schedule and changing to another job to meet a customer’s delivery needs. To a person in after-sales support, supporting company strategy may mean authorizing the overnight shipment of parts to meet a last-minute customer deadline, not necessarily going with the lowest freight charge. Knowing the company’s strategy makes these decisions within the bounds of the employee’s authority easy, and the opportunity for role-playing helps make day-to-day decisions more clear.
A key principle of lean, “poka-yoke” is a Japanese term for error-proofing. This involves creating processes that flow perfectly from step to step, with no opportunity for errors to creep in. On the shop floor, this principle often takes the form of tools and jigs that make it impossible to assemble a product in any way other than the correct one. This method cuts down on rework and scrap due to faulty manufacturing techniques.
Unlike a manufacturing environment, it’s not really possible to create a jig that prevents errors in an information process. But it is possible to design processes that eliminate wasteful steps that don’t add value and to ensure that employees understand the process well enough to keep it flowing smoothly.
It’s not practical to have a set of work instructions for every front-office procedure or customer interaction immediately available when the employee needs them, but it’s important that these procedures are as error-proof as shop-floor procedures. There are many techniques for business process modeling, but few of them address the most critical issue—employee training.
Reinforcing Lean With E-Learning
After conventional training, even in-person training, employees typically forget about 50 percent of what they’ve learned after the first week. When companies rely on employees to train each other in business processes, the collective level of knowledge and adherence to proper procedures inevitably declines with time and employee turnover, as each subsequent iteration of the training loses some of what was known before. Inevitably, as errors creep in to the process or steps are forgotten, the company becomes less lean.
E-learning can fill the gap by providing on-demand training in procedures and policies, as well as refresher training, as re-quired. This ensures that employees understand and follow the correct methodologies for accomplishing a given task. The ideal solution for major process overhauls might be in-person training conducted by a professional trainer, followed by on-demand e-learning. The ability to repeat the training as needed ensures that employees can brush up their skills or return to areas that were not clear to them at first. It can also help them understand downstream or upstream operations, so that they gain a clearer appreciation of their co-workers’ needs, without tying up key individuals in endless training.
For example, assume that there is a new employee in an accounts payable department. Traditionally, the employee would be given a brief training session by another employee in the department and then left alone to do the job. For the first few days, the employee would have many questions, perhaps interrupting a co-worker to get an answer to each one.
With e-learning, the new employee would be trained electronically on the precise procedures that the company follows, and could be given live examples to get familiar with the processes and tools used in the actual job. A good e-learning tool would enable the company to leverage its business systems inside the training, so employees see the exact screens and steps they will be using in their job.
Additionally, role-playing examples could help the employee understand the decisions that best support the company’s lean strategy and the limits of his or her authority in making decisions. Once the initial training is completed, the employee could return for refreshers of any areas that are unclear or to gain a deeper understanding of the role. The initial 50 percent retention rate improves dramatically, as the reinforcing examples and the ability to return to the training periodically provide additional “layers” of learning.
Extending Lean Across the Enterprise
Over time, as employees become proficient at their jobs, they may begin to wonder about downstream or upstream operations. Our hypothetical accounts payable person, for example, may begin to wonder about the purchasing or receiving processes that feed into accounts payable. E-learning provides a unique opportunity to familiarize the employee with these areas of the business. This deeper understanding will pay off in more effective communication between the two groups but, more importantly, will help the employees make more practical business process improvement suggestions.
“Continuous improvement” is a key lean principle. Companies aiming to be lean constantly look for ways to eliminate waste or unnecessary steps. This is typically accomplished through what is known as a Kaizen event, a staged attack on a particular process to develop ideas for improvement or waste elimination. When employees are not familiar with processes outside their area of expertise, they tend to optimize the performance of their own group or department, rather than optimizing the company’s performance as a whole.
E-learning can serve as an excellent tool in the lean arsenal by training employees about the entire business process and how their job affects it. A company can hold a Kaizen event, confident that employees understand the entire process under consideration, and that it will be streamlined in accordance with the company’s overall strategy.
Another area where e-learning can help a company get lean is in human resources and corporate governance. Mandatory training on subjects such as ethics or preventing sexual harassment can be easily administered to all employees shortly after the hiring process, without requiring a live training event that may require travel or disruption to employee schedules. A good e-learning tool can monitor compliance, send out reminders when refresher courses are required and check that employees have taken all courses appropriate to their responsibilities.
For example, Oracle requires all employees to take multiple courses on ethics and company policies, with periodic refreshers. Employees in sales, purchasing and other potentially sensitive areas are required to take even more courses to ensure that they have a precise understanding of acceptable behaviors in any situation. This process is managed with e-learning technology.
More mundane procedures, such as expense reporting, are also good candidates for e-learning. Although it’s necessary for affected employees to fill out expense reports, companies usually don’t spend much time training employees on how to do it. At best, employees are handed a manual with the company’s reimbursement policy. How much simpler and less stressful for the employee would it be if they had an e-learning course on how to fill out the form, how to present the documentation required and what expenses may or may not be deducted?
This is equally true for other universal procedures, such as vacation requests, travel arrangements and time and attendance reporting. Having a trainer repeat classes on topics like this for all new employees would be duplicitous according to lean dogma because it creates redundancy. And since the live classes would likely be scheduled at a time convenient for the trainer, an employee may not yet need the information, further decreasing the likelihood the information will be retained until it is needed, another example of waste. The e-learning option “poka-yokes” the process by ensuring that all employees get exactly the same training using the same words and examples.
E-learning, with its ability to precisely replicate instructions over time and to allow periodic retraining and refreshers as required, can play a key role in any company’s lean enterprise strategy. The examples given here are just the tip of the iceberg.
Joel Summers is senior vice president of human resources management system development for Oracle Corp. For more information, e-mail Joel at email@example.com.