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Software and Streaming Videos Let Companies Capture the Unwritten

After years of searching, George Faulkner at Kaiser Electroprecision found a way to inexpensively record critical knowledge held by a few key employees.

July 2, 2003
Related Topics: Training Technology, Training & Development
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George Faulkner was president of the aerospace division at Federal Mobil Corporation in 1989 when his group moved production of a line of fasteners for jet fighter airplanes from their California plant to a new facility in Tucson, Arizona. At that time, most of the technicians who worked the line were in their 50s and 60s. They had been with the company for years, and instead of moving to Arizona they opted to retire. That was fine, Faulkner says. The process for making the fasteners was documented, and they planned to train a new team once the facility was up and running. But there was one problem: the engineers at the new plant couldn’t figure out how the production process worked.

    "Over the years the original team found work-arounds and ways to tweak the process that were never recorded," Faulkner says. "Without their depth of knowledge about that process, the engineers couldn’t reproduce it." The company ended up rehiring the retirees and moving them to Tucson for three months--at company expense--so they could teach the new team how to build the fasteners.

    Problems like this are not uncommon for manufacturers that build highly technical products in very small quantities. Today, Faulkner is president of Kaiser Electroprecision, a manufacturer of defense systems and commercial aviation products, and he continues to face the same problem. When Kaiser wins a design/build contract, it becomes the sole provider of a customized product for the 15- to 20-year life of an aircraft, he says. Because the products are extremely complex, often having hundreds of components requiring detailed subassembly, but are produced only a few times a year, it makes sense for each member of the assembly team to take responsibility for one step in the process. "But if any of those people leave or get sick," he says, "the whole production cycle comes to a halt."

    Finding a way to solve the problem, however, is tricky. It doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars teaching the whole manufacturing team how to complete every step of every assembly process. At the same time, it’s dangerous to leave such critical knowledge in the hands of one or two employees. "Eventually, someone is going to leave," Faulkner says. "It’s the nature of business."

    Until recently, Kaiser relied solely on written documentation of the processes and drawings of the equipment to track production and train new employees. That’s all most manufacturing companies do, says John Walborn, manager of actuation operations, a business unit of Kaiser. But, as was proved at the Tucson plant, it isn’t enough. "So much of the process never gets written down--that’s what kills you." The technicians are expected to document any changes they make, but the paperwork frustrates them, so they don’t do it. "They know how to do their jobs, and in their heads they will be here forever," he says. "It doesn’t occur to them that someday they might leave."

    Over the years the company had found no alternative that could meet such specific training needs on a reasonable budget until Faulkner heard about QuickLearns, a customized training tool developed by The Performance Engineering Group, a consultancy based in Santa Barbara, California. QuickLearns are condensed computer-based training modules that feature streamed video of subject-matter experts performing specific tasks while talking their audience through the process. Text blocks and audio instructions outlining the steps are coupled with the videos, and there are short quizzes with feedback at the end.

    QuickLearns are appealing because they are tailor-made for each individual training need but cost much less than most made-to-order courses, Faulkner says. They provide technicians with standards for their production processes and tools that can be used to train new employees in days instead of months.

Lights, Camera, Action!
    Initially, Walborn was nervous about how his team would react to participating in the QuickLearns. He wondered if they would be camera-shy or not speak clearly. He also worried that they might feel threatened. "In a manufacturing environment, people are wary when you ask them to share their knowledge. They think, ‘This is my job, my security. Why do you want to know what I know?’"

    Walborn went to great lengths to assure his team that their livelihoods were secure and that the goal of QuickLearns was to safeguard the company and standardize the processes, not to replace them.

    In 2002, development began on the first QuickLearn, which covered the production of a Boeing F-22 uplock assembly. The component, which locks the aircraft’s tail hook in an upright position, is a four-by-five-inch box that contains a web of intricate wiring, Walborn says. It was chosen because of the minute detail that goes into building the product and the inconsistencies that resulted from a lack of standard procedures.

    The technician responsible for the mechanical assembly of the component had frequently complained that the case never came back to him wired exactly the same way, forcing him to make adjustments to the internal components before he could put the final cover on. The team in charge of soldering the wires had drawings to work from, but the routing and lengths of the wires weren’t clearly defined, so there was no benchmark to follow, which led to discrepancies, Walborn says.

    Before they began filming, the engineers who designed the component and the mechanical and wiring technicians met with Chris Butler, president of Performance Engineering Group, to storyboard the manufacturing sequence and define exactly what the end product should look like. "That’s when all the little details came out," Butler says. In fact, they relied very little on the formal documentation to produce the storyboards, focusing instead on what the technicians and engineers had to contribute. "We discovered a lot of little things the techs do that have never been written down," he says.

    Butler’s team filmed the mechanical technician and a wiring technician in their work environments building and wiring the component while they explained to the camera what they were doing.

    Since then, everyone involved with the uplock assembly has taken the training, and the component now comes back wired correctly every time, according to the mechanical technician. The first course was such a success that Butler’s team is developing more than 50 new courses documenting similar processes at Kaiser.

    As an unexpected bonus, Walborn also discovered he can use the very detailed QuickLearns to certify operators as inspectors of some of their outputs and sequence steps.

    And sticking to his word, Walborn hasn’t laid off anyone as a result of this discovery. "We are stretched to our limits and never have enough available manpower. By certifying operators to inspect simple steps in the process, we can apply our inspectors’ skills in more critical areas."

Workforce, July 2003, pp. 90-91 -- Subscribe Now!

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