Printing Lean

Training II: So what's your plan?

September 3, 2009

It seems as though I struck a chord in many people with my last column on training. "You hit on my biggest hot button" was one reader's comment. "An especially good piece," said another. "Loved the article, and share a common belief in the value of employee satisfaction to Lean success."

I appreciate the feedback and sincerely hope that these individuals and their companies are among those that follow through on providing all of their employees with the proper training, tools, tips and techniques that are necessary to perform their jobs correctly, safely and conscientiously.

On a number of occasions I have stated that proper training is critical to any organization if it wishes to grow and prosper, and that a well trained workforce will enable any business owner or executive to concentrate on the business and will let him or her allow the employees to take care of the customers.
It appears, though, that a well-trained workforce is sorely lacking in this country.

Skills shortage

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Manufacturers (US), 80 percent of companies report a severe lack of skilled employees. Lack of skills and the challenge of competing in a global economy have a significant impact on 75 percent of those who participated in the survey.

Ninety percent of survey respondents report a moderate to severe shortage of qualified, skilled production employees, and more than half of those surveyed listed front line supervisor skills as the most important factor in maximizing employee commitment and productivity.

People recognize the importance and see the need in their own organizations, and yet they are unable to put together a plan to remedy what they readily admit is a problem. Why?

Lack of Planning

In the October 2008 issue of Label & Narrow Web, I wrote about "Steering the Wrong Course." Here is an excerpt: "No one should start off on a journey without having at least some idea of where they want to go. You need at least to know the direction in which you wish to travel, and to have some idea of how you're going to get there. I often tell people to imagine having to play a football game and not having a playbook and not knowing which end zone you need to head toward."

Lack of planning, in my humble opinion, is singularly the greatest reason companies fail when they try to "go Lean" or implement any business transformation. They haven't done their homework on what it's going to take in people, time and other resources to properly train each and every individual in the organization. This lack of planning always results in training programs that are, at best, ineffective or, at worst, completely counterproductive. I say that because poor training results from poor planning. Planning is a management responsibility, and employees see through the smoke screen and inevitable excuses and recognize very quickly that they are being thrown to the wolves, all in the name of "making the numbers." The only numbers that will be made, though, are bad numbers: scrap, rework, expedited freight, accidents, injuries, and lost customers.

So any failure then, be it poor product, late deliveries, aggravated customers, or injuries to any employee, rests squarely on the shoulders of company leaders and not on the individual employee(s). I once worked for a person who, each year, would make it very clear to all of his management team that the safety and well being of our employees was a moral obligation that we could not shirk. It was always the first topic at any meeting that I conducted. Safety rules were inviolate, I would tell my employees, but how could I expect them to know what these rules were and abide by them if I failed to properly train my employees on how to work safely? I couldn't, not without planning on how to recognize hazards in the workplace, planning how to mitigate them, executing that plan, and then handling anything that came up unexpectedly.

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything

In a speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957, US President Dwight Eisenhower said:

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction, because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of 'emergency' is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

"So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning, you can't start to work, intelligently at least.
"That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve – or to help to solve."

You might think that I'm contradicting myself by printing this quote from Ike but I'm not. Planning is essential. Go back to the October 2008 issue of this magazine and reread the paragraph on planning. I talk about putting to sea but failing to chart a course. Charting a course is planning. Sticking to the plan that you created before you left port is what makes no sense, because there will always be factors that will take you off course, off your intended route.

The wind and tides will change and storms will form, forcing you to maneuver around them to get back on course. Poor maintenance of your equipment while at sea could endanger you and force you to deal with issues that impede your progress. All of these things can be dealt with if you've gotten yourself into the habit of planning on how to deal with such issues (the "emergencies" that Ike speaks of) and if you've properly trained your crew on what to do and how to do it when such issues and emergencies arise.

Your business is no different. You're planning right now – it's budget season. What are you planning for? Are you planning to provide training to every employee on critical problem-solving skills? If yes, great! When are you planning to do this training? If the answer is next summer when you're slow, then your plan is worthless because it will be too late. If the answer is no, my challenge to you is why not?
How can you expect your business, your employees to "solve – or help to solve" the challenges that you will face in the coming year if you fail to provide them with the proper training and fail to equip them with the problem solving skills and tools they might need?

Practice makes perfect

It's been said that 98 percent of (Lean) implementations are dormant after 18 months. (Training Within Industry, Donald A. Dinero, 2005). This is due primarily to lack of planning and, in particular, a lack of planning for who is to be trained, when they are to be trained, how they are to be trained, and by whom.

It's no wonder, then, that 80 percent of companies surveyed report a severe lack of skilled employees. Knowledge can be taught, but skills must be developed and practiced in order for any individual or organization to improve; and for that to happen we need to plan. Our people won't develop these skills unless we allow them to and unless we provide them with what they need.

If we give our employees, our crew, proper training, and if we give them the ability to hone their skills, then we will be giving them the ability to respond to any customer emergency or to any issue that threatens to take our business off course. If all we do is hand them the wheel then we have no one to blame but ourselves when we run aground.
Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with ConnStep, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, an SME Lean Bronze Certified sensei, and a certified TWI Job Instruction Trainer. He can be reached by email at

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