We all have folks like Jim in our plants - people with a tremendous wealth of experience and potential, ready to be tapped into. All they need is the chance to learn a few new skills, and after that, who knows how far that momentum will go. All it takes is one person to get it started, one person like Jim. Who is the 'Jim' in your plant?
I met Jim last year when I visited the plant he works at, near Ottawa. He’s a down to earth guy, about my age, (getting up there!), and has a knack for figuring things out and getting things done. He’s been doing it for 38 years.
At first glance, he’s the kind of guy you wish you had in your plant, or perhaps think you already have, but as you read on, you’ll see his story is much more than that. Jim is now intentional and committed to the continuous improvement process, but he wasn’t always that way. He started his first job at 9 years old – delivering papers – and he has worked every year of his life since. He heeded his mother’s advice that “it’s work and work ethic you need to worry about”, and for many years that was enough. In his youth and early years, he spent all of his weekends and summers working, and was never out of a job; from washing dishes, cooking food, stocking shelves, renting cars, and doing oil changes, to steadier and higher paying factory jobs, where he progressed to the point of operating the big machines.
About 6 years ago, 15 years into his job running the big machines, he reached the top of his pay scale as a “lead hand”; there was not much left to learn and nowhere else to go. After much reflection, and with encouragement and support from his wife, he decided to pursue other positions at the company, but it soon became apparent that his computer skills were inadequate. Excel and Power Point were a mystery to him, and Word was equally daunting. Younger people with more computer skills, but not near as much manufacturing skill, had the clear advantage.
At the time, his daughter was attending T.R. Leger (School of Adult, Alternative and Continuing Education) to finish her grade 12, so he checked in with them, and to his surprise found they had courses running that suited his needs. On his days off, and on his own volition, he enrolled. (It was, after all, his own personal continuous improvement initiative.)
He was nervous and intimidated at first, but he soon felt comfortable. There were about a dozen people in the class, including high school students, new immigrants, and other people his age there for a reason similar to his – to face their fear of computers and all things IT. After that initial course, he felt confident enough in his abilities to take a position within the company’s CI (continuous Improvement) department. He worked in a process technician role for 2 years, and then in 2012, moved into a management role.
That by itself would be a great ‘continuous improvement’ story, but this story doesn’t end there.
As a manager, he took a keen interest in the development of others, especially people around his age or a bit older – people that had been there for 2 or 3 decades; people with great working skill and experience, but little or no exposure to new technology. Some did not have cell phones or computers or experience with email and messaging systems. In my mind, this is perhaps the biggest single, lost continuous improvement opportunity in many manufacturing companies today. The tactile experience that our seasoned people have is overlooked and not taken advantage of because they lack basic computer skills – skills that are quite easily taught. Whatever risks there are to training them are quickly mitigated by the fact that most of these people have already demonstrated their loyalty and dependability – things that can’t be taught or calculated. (Someone that has been with you for 20 years, and still has 10 or 20 years in the tank, is a far safer bet to stay with the company than someone hired fresh.)
Jim had an individual on his team that needed to be moved to an office position to accommodate a health condition. The person was basically computer illiterate, but the new role was 80% computer related. Remembering his own experience, Jim recommended that this person be sent to a similar program he attended. The company agreed. A couple weeks later, the individual returned to work like a new man, competent and confident that he could find answers to any computer related issues that might crop up for him. More than new computer skills, he gained a confidence that transformed his attitude from fear of failure to one where new challenges were welcomed and learning opportunities embraced. He now routinely creates complex excel spread sheets, edits documents in the company’s document control system, and effortlessly communicates with coworkers electronically.
The change was so dramatic that it wasn’t long before other managers and coworkers started to notice. Some wanted to know where to send their people, while others wanted to go for the training themselves. Other departments began to send people, and the story repeated; every person that received the training became a more valuable employee of the company. Jim made sure that all employees in his department went through the program he did.
Every plant I visit has a lot of people with a tremendous wealth of experience and potential, ready to be tapped into. All they need is the chance to learn a few new skills. And all it may take to get started is one person like Jim to make it his mission in your plant. He may be your average guy, but he’s no ordinary Joe.
Paul Hogendoorn is co-founder of FreePoint Technologies. “Measure. Analyze. Share.” (Don’t forget to share!) For more information on this topic, he can be reached at paulh.com