Are Your Factory Workers Know-it-alls

We all know the factory environment is changing. But what about the factory worker? Worldwide markets, national and international regulations, and technical innovations are combining to redefine manufacturing effectiveness and create a new way of life in the factory. In today’s high-performance plants, manual labor is becoming obsolete. Even today, however, the worker is still the most important partner in the process—and, regrettably, often the least-tapped source.

The age of knowledge workers—employees willing and able to make their own decisions—is here. Yet most industrial enterprises give short shrift to training. The most important consideration, often the only one, is cost control. According to The American Society for Training & Development, American companies spend less than 1-1/2% of payroll on training. Experts estimate European and Japanese companies spend three times that much.

And the training that is done is often ineffective. Traditional programs—classroom training, most on-the-job training and vendor-sponsored workshops—have been widely used for a long time, with their value never really questioned. But it should be.

For employees, classroom instruction may seem remote and unrelated or lacking applicability to real work, which hinders follow-through on the factory floor. Most on-the-job training, with higher-seniority workers teaching new hires, can perpetuate bad habits, blunders and irrelevant skills. Instruction provided by vendors—the people who supply the machines—is often too generic and unrelated to the needs of the specific workplace and the specific worker. None of these approaches fully addresses training the worker as a partner in the factory’s changing operations.

A more successful approach may be functional training. Functional training focuses on the work that is to be done. It trains the worker to know exactly what is required to do the job—no more, no less—so training is relevant to real work. In addition, employees learn the job by doing the job in the actual job environment—involvement is key to ensuring the training will be usable. But functional training also provides context for the workers’ jobs—they know why they do what they do. Only then can they fully participate as problem solvers, decision makers and change agents. Functional training’s goal is that everyone knows not only what to do, but why it matters.

The ’90s have created a particularly pressing need for functional training in manufacturing. First of all, employees must be able to do more on their own. At the same time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration process-safety management regulation, enacted in 1992, has placed new demands on workers. The OSHA rule, which regulates the management of chemical processes for the first time, requires training of operators, mechanics and contractors, as well as certification of demonstrated ability as a result of training.

With its focus on certification of skills by demonstration on the job, functional training has assisted companies such as Aristech Chemical Corp., Amoco Chemical Co. and Monsanto in training their work forces while staying in step with the work to be done. Functional training provides a clear route to meet OSHA requirements while teaching employees to do their jobs well.

A plant discovers functional training is a good fit.
What does a company do when a union not only supports training, but bargains for it? Unions, too, know that their members have a vested interest in upgrading the work force, and it has become fairly common these days for unions to push for company-provided training in their contracts.

Aristech Chemical Corp., a manufacturer of industrial chemicals based in Neville Island, Pennsylvania, not only had to satisfy its union’s demands for better training, it also needed to meet OSHA’s process-safety management requirements, too.

“In functional trining employees learn the job by doing the job in the actual job environment – involvement is key to ensuring the training’s usability.”

The company saw this as an opportunity to improve its operations and process training. Primarily, Aristech wanted to improve its operators’ understanding of process chemistry, so they could handle more workplace situations without having to call in a process engineer or supervisor while still meeting OSHA requirements.

Aristech put together a plantwide team of supervisors and unionized hourly workers to search for an industrial-training firm. The team began its search by identifying three different training approaches:

Interactive Video: The firm promoting this process specialized in packaging generic material on interactive video. It would provide information on basic theory and equipment operation. But developing interactive-video modules customized to Aristech’s processes would be too costly. This approach was quickly rejected.

Classroom Approach: Professional trainers use traditional academic elements such as class discussion, testing and writing. On the down side, Aristech’s training manuals wouldn’t be suitable as stand-alone training tools, requiring additional on-the-job training.

Functional Training: Workers would play a central role in using available resources—trainers, supervisors, workbooks, mentors and group training—to meet agreed-upon objectives. Manuals were detailed enough to be used for formal documentation.

Both the classroom approach and functional training were competitive in cost and usage at other Aristech plants, and produced satisfactory results. To make a decision between the two, the Aristech team developed a simple matrix, which compared them on the basis of a number of criteria team members felt were relevant, such as the amount of on-the-job training required, the quality of the training manuals, culture fit and demands on time. Functional training, due to its flexibility in scheduling, its built-in documentation procedure, its ability to empower the workers and its time efficiency—workers are actually trained while doing their jobs—won overwhelmingly.

With the decision made, the company headed down the path of functional training—a route very similar to the one Amoco took.

Amoco meets OSHA standards and trains its workers simultaneously.
Amoco Chemical Co. provides a good example of a company that used functional training to meet OSHA standards—and won an improved work force in the process. Five years ago, the company’s Joliet, Illinois-based plant, which makes intermediate chemicals, initiated a new training system that prepared all operations employees to validate their ability to perform each task in their job classifications. The system improved the troubleshooting and maintenance capabilities of the workers and helped reduce the need for supervision. But OSHA 1910.119 and ISO 9000 standards require validated procedures and operators who are trained to follow them.

The validation posed a challenge, however, because over time, some employees had created undocumented shortcuts and built them into their processes. These appeared to be labor-saving but had a big drawback; workers were unable to develop uniform procedures for performing their jobs. Training became particularly urgent because many of the experienced people were reaching retirement age, and the plant was in danger of losing critical technical expertise. In addition, the plant was moving toward self-directed work teams, so using an external resource for training would undermine Amoco’s progress toward worker empowerment.

The solution? The plant adopted a three-phase functional-training system created by St. Louis-based Manufacturing Technology Strategies (MTS) that was designed to be totally Amoco’s own. The system encompassed everything required by the company and OSHA:

  • A needs analysis highlighting every task employees should be trained on
  • Documentation providing descriptions of processes and procedures
  • Actual hands-on training
  • Validation that each task performed by an employee is indeed part of his or her job, and reinforcement that the employee needs to perform the task in an approved method
  • Certification in which a supervisor attests, in writing, that the employee has been trained, has demonstrated ability and has demonstrated adequate qualification against job-performance standards
  • Computer-based tracking.

To ensure Amoco was fully involved, the system used the plant’s own production employees (who would provide the necessary documentation) as the manual writers, as well as the actual on-the-job trainers. This helped significantly in giving the plant ownership of the system.

The first phase began with an audit of the plant’s technology and equipment—the needs analysis. This analysis identified the training necessary for the plant’s 114 separate steps of operation in seven operating areas at three sites.

For phase two, 12 operations employees, mostly volunteers, wrote operations manuals for the complete manufacturing process. (None of them had previous manual-writing experience before participating in a two-week documentation- writing program that MTS created.) The drafts were circulated for review and editing by the entire 150-person operations staff. That way, the whole work force contributed to writing the manuals, which became the basic training texts.

In phase three, everyone was trained to participate in the system. The workers took a seminar called Learning How To Learn, which introduced them to the MTS approach to industrial training, and let them know what would be expected of them. Employees who were to be trainers took a seminar called Training Industrial Instructors, designed to enable the employees to plan, implement and measure the effectiveness of any increment of learning. Supervisors learned to manage the training through a seminar called Supervising Learning At-The-Job and Job Performance.

After the Amoco employees completed their seminars, the actual training began. The plant used a form of job-based training, created by MTS, called At-The-Job Learning®. The training was designed to be flexible enough to meet the needs of all workers, whether they were new hires or 30-year veterans. Each worker—together with the supervisor, a worker who was trained to become a trainer and, when appropriate, team members—determined what he or she needed to learn, the best way to learn, and what objectives needed to be met to show that the training had succeeded.

The primary tool is a Training Needs Analysis sheet that lists every skill needed to run, troubleshoot and understand each component in every machine the employee is responsible for.

Each worker rated his or her ability to perform each task listed in the analysis sheet. Workers entered a 2, 1 or 0 to indicate, respectively, whether they needed training for the task, weren’t sure or didn’t need it. Because it’s a negotiated process, a supervisor could require the worker to perform a given task to confirm the worker’s rating. The completed analysis sheet then became the master document controlling the training process. Each operations worker took responsibility for mastering all the tasks on the sheet. The actual training activities included self-study, classroom training, individual mentoring or team study.

As workers demonstrated competence, 2’s on the list were reduced to 0’s. As each worker’s training was completed, the worker was certified. After 2,700 hours of training, Amoco’s employees knew their jobs and could verify that they performed their jobs uniformly and correctly. The plant met the requirements for ISO and OSHA, and continues to use the same training system today.

Functional training at Monsanto promotes empowerment.
Although functional training is an effective method for meeting OSHA’s training requirements, a Greenwood, South Carolina-based Monsanto Chemical Co. plant used it to support and extend its empowered environment.

The manufacturer of nylon fiber and polymer-based products had introduced the team concept in 1986. Teams at the plant hire, fire, pay and promote, doing everything and more than management once did. The company determined that training was critical to the quality of the work force and the plant’s profitability. After all, if teams are going to run the plant, then team members must function at full potential.

As part of its empowerment process, the plant adopted a system of functional training that required workers to act as work-function trainers and documentation-manual writers. Logistically, this posed a serious problem when the system was to be implemented in maintenance. Senior-level workers couldn’t spare the time necessary to learn to be manual writers and trainers.

Instead, the Greenwood plant identified 25 workers who were given job training and in turn learned to be the trainers and writers. This group learned the job tasks hands-on, but also were trained in documenting descriptions and procedures for OSHA, as well as in how to train others in specific job procedures. In essence, the trainees became the experts, and have since qualified themselves for top technical jobs.

The emphasis on training is important because Monsanto-Greenwood promotes only from within. As a result, the effectiveness of a team is directly dependent on how well each individual is trained. And the workers have been trained well. According to the company, return on capital has improved from 17% to 36% since the implementation of high-performance teams. Although all of the additional profits can’t be attributed to the new training program alone, training has been an integral part of the change.

Functional training offers the new approach to training that today’s manufacturing environment needs. Ultimately, functional training is based on the realization that the plant and the products being made define what the workers must be able to do and what they must know. Functional training ensures that the learners and the technology work together as two sides of the same coin to reach the highest level of manufacturing effectiveness.

Personnel Journal, September 1995, Vol. 74, No. 9, pp. 128-134.