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Teaching Others Is Often the Best Lesson

Mon, 07/18/2011 - 6:17am
JOEL HANS, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

By JOEL HANS, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

Joel-Hans-LongI was recently tasked with training a new employee to take over my previous responsibilities with Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operations (IMPO) magazine. Everything has gone fairly smoothly, with only a few minor hiccups along the way (my fault, of course), but the entire process has given me a new perspective on the significance and investment that comes with properly training an employee, particularly one that will be taking over one’s current responsibilities as they move onward or outward. While everyone struggles with giving away responsibility, I’ve found that there is truly no better way to critique — and then perfect — old processes than teaching them to someone else.

It’s been said that manufacturing has a training problem. With more high school shop classes and apprenticeship programs being shut down due to slashed funding or lack of care, there are less people available to take the jobs being left behind by Boomers, who have certainly earned their retirement. Many companies that do need skilled employees — whether that be in CAD programming or the artistry of turning a lathe — are now less willing to conduct the training themselves, as it involves significant amounts of time and money. More often than not, they would rather leave a job unfilled than take on a new employee in need of training.

I know this isn’t a universal rule. Some companies I’ve dealt with have embraced the benefits of mentorship and apprenticeship. But just as often we hear about the lack of highly-skilled workers in America. This is a disastrous reality. In truth, the training process is an absolutely brilliant way to improve your processes. And there’s no lack of talent out there, either.

The first step in training another employee is breaking down any existing processes, which is a daunting task at times. It involves working through one’s day from a different perspective, which can reveal some oddities in itself. Sometimes, we don’t realize how much we “move” around our processes, whether that means dealing with Excel sheets and content management systems (like I do), or physically moving from one machine to the next on the plant floor. When we take stock of our time in order to train another, these sorts of inconsistencies become readily obvious.

When we do any job for a decent amount of time — say, a year or more — we develop our own sub-processes to make the task easier or more traceable. I tend to be extraordinarily organized, with spreadsheets to organize my tasks, and endless to-do lists. It’s filled with small checks and balances that I use to stay on top of my workload. An employee who needs to prepare a part for assembly to a car, for example, might have similar checklists, which have grown organically over time. When trying to translate these onto the new hire, I began to realize how many of them were unnecessary, or even harmful to the overall process. Needless to say, some haven’t survived the transition.

And the new employee can give insight, too. At times, it’s only a matter of them asking a question about how to complete a process. More than once I came to the realization that my techniques were flawed from the beginning. I’ve always been able to get my work done quickly and efficiently, but it was a good reminder that improvement is always possible, mostly because my “perfection” of these processes blinded me as to new ways of thinking. Now that I’m no longer doing the same work, I can’t benefit from this critical examination, but the new hire certainly can.

Now, this isn’t any different than the continuous improvement initiatives that many manufacturing companies engage in regularly. But we hear all the time about the various roadblocks that companies hit on their way to more efficient processes. They can’t get buy-in from employees. They don’t have the time to spend getting faster -- they’re already rushed enough to fill orders. They can’t buy new, more efficient machinery. The list goes on.

I think training could prove to be manufacturing’s savior, if given the opportunity. So, if you’re looking to fill a position, don’t just wait until a candidate comes along with every single skill that you need. Instead, it might be more beneficial to find someone who has the necessary determination and a willingness to learn.

My colleague, Anna Wells, offered some other suggestions in a recent editorial of her own: “As business leaders, perhaps you could consider ways in which you can lead the charge. Open up your business for tours and career days, mentor teenagers, or donate some money to keep your local high school shop program in place.” Clearly, none of her recommendations are too complex a task for any business.

Not only would increased training provide solid jobs for those who hope to replace the Boomer generation, but it would allow companies to further improve their existing processes. Can’t go wrong with either outcome, right?

Have a similar experience with training? Comment below or send me your thoughts at joel.hans@advantagemedia.com.

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