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HR Strategies Help Push New Razor to Number One

February 1, 1999
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, Featured Article
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All told, the Boston-based Gillette Company spent roughly $750 million last year to produce the MACH3 triple-blade razor, a major breakthrough in the shaving rituals of men everywhere.

But the real story behind the story, from an HR perspective, is how the company managed to staff and train 400 workers, and keep the entire project a secret from its competition. In fact, curiosity about the new shaving system was supposedly so high that the FBI investigated alleged leaks of information that resulted in an independent contractor’s conviction of industrial espionage.

The MACH3, with its extra-thin razor edge, was eventually tested by more than 10,000 men before it hit the stores in June 1998. It quickly became the top-selling brand in the "Blade & Razor" category, according to A.C. Nielsen data.

The idea for a triple-blade razor dates back to 1994. Gillette spent as much time and resources on developing the equipment to make MACH3 as it did on the product itself. The company then applied cutting-edge HR strategies, new technology and its own manufacturing resources to ultimately find a better and safer way to shave.

In the end, HR identified the technical experience necessary to operate the machinery, develop recruiting strategies for 160 high-caliber technical workers, and partner with a local university to fulfill the 20,000-plus hours of general mechanics and plastics training of employees.

So how do you develop a proprietary approach to training 400 workers to produce 1.2 billion new razor cartridges a year, and do it behind the backs of your competition? Workforce spoke with Tom Webber, Gillette’s director of human resources for manufacturing at the South Boston manufacturing center, for his feedback.

Gillette spent roughly $750 million to develop machinery and processes to produce 1.2 billion triple-bladed razors. How much effort was spent on hiring and training your workforce?
Approximately a year before the product was introduced, we put together a cross-functional team that consisted of manufacturing, engineering and human resources to look at our skilled-labor requirements for mechanics and operators. We conducted an assessment survey and looked at the experience of our current workforce. That gave us a picture of the skills we needed from our technical staff in areas such as sophisticated control systems, automated parts handling systems, pneumatics and hydraulics. Once we realized we needed to increase the skills of our own people in those areas, we looked to enhance the company’s technical education and machine-specific training.

How did you analyze the capabilities of your workforce before you decided the number and type of workers to hire?
We first looked at our skills requirements, and then we did a needs analysis—not only of what our current employees possessed, but of what our new hires needed to possess. We came up with a list of courses that we needed, like control systems, engineering, drawings and metrics, and even PC fundamentals. Some of the employees hadn’t used computers to the level we felt they needed.

What sort of strategies did you use to hire these new workers?
We used our own internal bidding processes wherein we looked at our current workforce and provided them an opportunity to submit their names if they were interested in working on this project.

We also used other fairly traditional methods, such as newspaper ads and employee referrals, but we quickly recognized that we needed to step up the process because the skilled-labor market was tight in the Boston area. We polled our current mechanics population and asked them what radio stations they listen to and what magazines they read. We then targeted those radio stations and magazines—ones we typically wouldn’t have used, for example, a magazine that targeted Harley-Davidson riders.

This process went on for pretty much the full year. On the final leg we had a two-day job fair in central Massachusetts. We needed to hire mechanics who had a plastics background and were within driving distance. In the end, all three phases of the recruiting campaign added to the success of hiring people.

How did you train workers on equipment that was specifically designed for the project?
We operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we needed training that could accommodate employees on different schedules. For example, we had a general mechanics program that included 125 hours of training per person and we had an additional 105 hours of training per person in the plastics arena.

We brought someone on board to manage the process. She juggled all the work schedules, figured out the needs of the production floor, determined who was available for training and who wasn’t. She stayed with us for about a year.

Who conducted the training?
The training was conducted through a partnership with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. We selected it because of its plastic engineering program.

A portion of the training dealt with mechanics working in a plastics environment. Courses revolved around such topics as injection molding and mold design and maintenance. We contracted with the university and its instructors to teach the programs. All training was done on site.

Employees also got paid during the period they were in classroom instruction. They ended up increasing their general technical knowledge. The machine-specific training was done by our internal staff and engineers. Overall, it was a successful program for everyone.

Secrecy was key to the MACH3 project. How did you develop a ‘proprietary approach’ to hiring and training workers?
As part of our normal employment processes, we ask everyone to sign an agreement that concerns inventions, patents and so on. We also had several security measures in place at the South Boston facility. We actually built walls around the equipment that makes cartridges—the biggest competitive issue. Every employee was assigned a badge to have special clearance to get inside the enclosed areas. We also had a security guard present.

During the interview process, we talked with potential candidates in general terms about the sophisticated equipment, but we didn’t talk specifics with them. It was a combination of Gillette’s reputation as a sophisticated equipment user in the manufacturing process that worked for us. We let everyone know we were going to be using high-speed equipment for the manufacturing process.

What were some of the logistical problems you faced?
The recruiting efforts were a challenge because we were looking for a large number of highly specialized people in a short period of time. Developing the training curriculum was less of a challenge in terms of just getting people together.

One of the greatest challenges in the training process was how the equipment evolved and how our needs changed. Machine-specific training needed to evolve because the actual design of the equipment evolved. We design our own equipment. As a result, we may design equipment a certain way and discover later it’s not meeting our production needs. During the manufacturing process of the MACH3, the design of the equipment changed and consequently the machine-specific training changed slightly.

What sort of emphasis was placed on teamwork?
We already had a total quality initiative in place, but with the launch of the MACH3, we needed to focus a little more on team dynamics. In this particular case, we used internal facilitators. We focused on problem-solving techniques, and there was talk about the different roles that people play being on the team.

Everyone was committed to helping us meet production goals. It required them to work together as a team, to share information from one shift to another, to undergo extensive training and instruction on how to use the new equipment. Employees rose to the challenge, and as a result, Gillette had a successful launch of the MACH3 shaving system.

Workforce, February 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 92-93.

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