When problems crop up, as they always do, there are steps you can take to maintain and improve the speed and efficiency of workforce operations. Facts and data can help you make informed decisions to drive Six Sigma use, or the actions taken in one all-important project. CLOs can employ new on-the-job procedures to ease skill and knowledge absorption and, consequently, aid job performance. Processes and techniques can be implemented to eliminate waste and keep costs down. Whichever road is taken to optimize productivity, it requires organization, consistency and the continuous application of relevant, timely and easily accessible learning.
Written Procedures, Organization and Follow-Up
Regardless of the industry or size of the organization, companies that have ordered systems of operation, complete with written procedures and multi-step processes to help them operate at peak efficiency, will reap the rewards of high productivity. Paying particular attention to the procedures employees use to complete their tasks, regardless of pay grade or development level, allows any learning organization to address productivity issues efficiently and effectively as they arise.
“Regardless of what position you’re in, if you’re a leader in the industry today, you also end up being a teacher of sorts, because as you try to improve the operation and get people motivated and get them to buy into what you’re trying to do, you have to teach them along the way so that they understand why they need to do the things that they do,” said Michael Towner, corporate quality and engineering manager, Erie Plastics.
Erie Plastics, a custom injection molder of plastic packaging, also is an ISO-compliant company. Defined productivity goals associated with reducing costs and minimizing wasted materials for work done primarily on the factory floor are par for the course. “When you look at a manufacturing environment, you’re always looking at producing at the lowest cost possible because that’s the bottom line,” Towner said. “One of the big drivers is profitability, and then you’ve got all these supporting key process indicators that support that profitability goal. When you’re on the production side, you’re looking at things like downtime, our scrap or what we’re throwing away, and our cycle times, which is how long it takes for a mold to produce a part. All of those things roll into your cost structure.”
Cost structure is directly related to an organization’s productivity levels, and these levels should be measured to ensure the workforce is performing at an optimum level. Erie Plastics uses trend charts to establish metrics. If the company is trending in the right direction, it is meeting its goals. If the company is not trending in the right direction, Towner and his team collect and crunch data, and form teams to address the issue. These teams are made up of production members from various areas on the factory floor to offer a range of relevant perspectives. Non-manufacturing organizations also can benefit from this approach, since a dearth in perspective could lead to an oversight. Hence the phrase, “It (the solution) was right under your nose.” But it has to be the right nose, so the more noses, or reps, from different business units, the better. In the case of Erie Plastics, a team formed to address a productivity issue, such as an excess of scrap material, might include representatives from tooling, operators, inspectors and quality management so that these varied viewpoints can collaborate to find the most time- and cost-effective solution. As soon as the concern has been resolved, the team can be disbanded if they are not part of the follow-up, which is necessary to gauge impact and ensure that any future learning initiatives are on target with job needs.
“We formed a team, looked at the collected data and where was the scrap coming from,” Towner said. “We keep track of what products are being scrapped and why. Then we broke that down into a chart of what the issues are, and we attacked via the 80/20 rule, which is, you go after the biggest bang and work solutions for that using input from members of the team. We define the solution or an idea. We then implement that with action owners and dates. Once that action has been completed, we follow up with our data from the floor to see if it actually had impact and then move on to the next item. Slowly but surely, you see the issues going away, and as a result, the scrap would start getting better.”
Having a comprehensive, multi-step process or a set of “emergency” procedures to follow that are specific to the organization’s needs, the industry’s demands and other particulars that encompass common productivity issues and concerns can enable a company to deal with problems quickly and without disrupting normal business operations. Process improvements occur naturally as problems arise and are resolved, and written procedures should evolve as well. “When you’re in a manufacturing environment, you’re constantly confronting situations that require you to adapt and overcome,” Towner said. “Having written documentation and procedures allows you to hardwire your solutions into the DNA of your organization. When you train on that, it helps to reinforce that DNA.”
In other words, mistakes should lead to lessons, not recriminations, because each error is really a disguised opportunity to learn and improve processes. The key to continuously high levels of productivity is to create a system that can engineer improvements from failure, as well as replicate success.
Accountability and Technology in the Learning Environment
Transferring the responsibility for learning into the hands of the learner was a natural progression that followed the widespread adoption of online learning. No more could the learner point to the classroom instructor and say, “It’s his fault I can’t do my job. He’s a bad teacher!” Now organizations leverage technology to create expansive knowledge systems that offer learners everything but the kitchen sink to promote productivity and aid job effectiveness often right at the desktop. Turner Construction Company’s Knowledge Network has one- and two-dimensional online communities of practice that provide relevant content. The ease of use and the availability of this content make learners accountable for their own success, and they must determine their own learning needs based on self-assessment or performance reviews.
“We measure productivity as a function of how much work one person can put in place in one day,” said Jim Mitnick, senior vice president, Turner Construction Company. “That productivity factor has probably gone up, I’d say, maybe 15 to 20 percent over the past maybe five years. It’s attributed partly to how we’ve been able to engage workers so that we’re not doing the same redundant tasks manually.”
The Knowledge Network automated a lot of processes, such as filling out change orders and other forms. “We’re doing a lot more with a lot less people, there’s no question about that,” Mitnick said. “From a productivity standpoint we’re trying to utilize as much technology as we can so that people can do their job a little bit better. They don’t have dead time, and we can eliminate a lot of the redundancy. That’s what technology really should do. As people become more attuned to the various systems and project management systems that we have, it is much more efficient in terms of getting that end result.”
“Productivity at NEC is just like any other company,” said Wim Wetzel, director of The National Training Center and Employee Training and Education, NEC Unified Solutions Inc. “Today we are all very stressed about downsizing and so on. There’s no company that is immune to downsizing. I have found that people who are given the tools to train while on the job are less likely to leave a company on their own. They are less likely to be laid off when everyone else is being laid off, because they took the initiative to make themselves more productive and more useful, which ultimately helps their company’s bottom line.”
Learners may hold a great deal of the responsibility for their own education, but that does not mean the organization’s role in the learning function is diminished. Content must be available in a way that eases work processes. It must be easy to navigate and search, it must be relevant, and it must be maintained.
“Originally when we developed our Knowledge Network, the concept was to be convenient,” Mitnick said. “The reality is that as these systems grow, you end up having so much content, so much learning and so many different types of objects that it almost becomes overwhelming to the individual. The question is, ‘What do I do with the limited amount of time that I have so that people can still try to have lives?’ We’re already busy just doing our normal jobs. We have to find ways to embed learning in the work so that it isn’t such a formal task any more. This is where technology can be helpful. You need to do a task, and what’s going to pop up based on your role or what you’re searching for, is going to be maybe some learning objects that teach you how to do something better.”
It certainly won’t boost productivity if an employee turns away from your knowledge systems because the content they need is too hard to find, the system itself is ungainly and hard to operate or the content, once found, is out of date. Productivity gains will only be realized if learning is embedded in existing knowledge systems and becomes a natural compliment to daily work processes. Learning must have a purpose. It must be easily accessible to maximize impact and ensure knowledge and skill absorption and application—the two A’s that can have measurable effects on productivity.
“I don’t believe that employees should be given fluff training. Employees need to be given training that is directly related to the job skills that they are fulfilling on a day-to-day basis,” Wetzel said. “When I say ‘fluff training,’ I mean information that they do not necessarily need in order to do the job better. Adult learners want to get in and out of training as quickly as possible. They want to be productive and be able to use the tools that they have to learn. Productivity goals are basically to stay ahead of the competition, beat the competition where we can, and that means getting training and education to employees as quickly and effectively as we can.”
Building the right type of learning culture can boost workforce productivity and enable an organization to respond quickly to problems. Unfortunately, culture is one of the most difficult things to change since it is frequently well-rooted and insulated by existing methods of practice. Technology and mentoring are two ways to ease a cultural transformation.
“I’ve said from day one: Never underestimate how difficult it is to change a culture,” Mitnick said. “There’s no question, even in our industry, which is very structured. We’re very formal in terms of the tasks that we do when we build any project. Culture is a big issue because it’s worked very well: This is the way we’ve done it in the past, this is the way we’ll do it in the future, and this is the way we’re going to teach it. That’s fine, but there’s a big generation gap between our younger staff and our older staff. Our older staff figures, ‘I’ve just got to get five to 10 more years, and I don’t necessarily have to learn all this stuff.’ The reality is they do have to learn it to do their job. We have a lot of reverse mentoring going on very subtly, where the younger staff is mentoring the older staff to transfer the knowledge or learn the new skills that they need to learn on how to utilize technology and systems to do their job.” The younger staff also are being mentored by the older staff who have tacit knowledge and experience to share.”
Productivity goals can be as simple as beating your competitors and growing the business. Or they can be itemized and grouped to address specific targets or problems. But learning and development components must be present at all levels to ensure that these goals are met quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively. Being extremely organized, having written procedures to follow and building the type of culture that promotes learning and working as a package deal can boost productivity and the bottom line.
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