by Dean Prigelmeier, President of Proactive Technologies, Inc.
As with any club or organization, a business operation can be a fertile ground for the development of “turfs” and inter-departmental rivalries. We don’t like to admit it, but we all know they exist. Just with individual temperaments alone, we can expect friction between people. When they collect around a discipline, well that is just organizational dynamics.
Traditionally, areas of responsibility are defined among career professionals in typical, traditionally territorial, groups – engineering, quality, operations, production, service, human resources, accounting. The division between these disciplines starts in college, with separate curricula, separate clubs and events, separate social groups. Courses are taught in different buildings, so even casual meetings are difficult unless the effort is made.
Some graduates bring that notion of independence, self-sufficiency and in some cases prideful superiority to the workplace, where they find the tradition has been institutionalized. Quality meetings are held separate from engineering meetings, and accounting and human resources are seldom invited. When a clear mission and strong leadership is lacking to encourage and enforce cooperation and communication, rigid departmental lines can emerge; hampering listening and communication, and leading to entrenched cynicism, misunderstandings of intentions and covert, then overt, conflict.
Some of the best leaders spend time in each discipline to experience what the role is and what cooperation looks like. The informed leader likely walks away with an understanding of potential barriers to communication and the benefits of cooperation.
One of Proactive Technologies’ clients, which started as a family run company and grew into a fortune 500 company, has strict rules for instilling this awareness in its youngest family members who wanted to join the company. First, they must graduate from college. Next, they have to start literally at the bottom of the organization sweeping floors, followed by a stint in each department with successful performance before reaching their final destination; the process taking 2 years minimum. These days, that type of organizational and cultural development is rare.
” The level of accuracy of the worker training/continuous training program at any business operation determines how efficiently the organization can run, how adaptable the organization can be to changes in technology, processes, standards and organizational structure, and how scalable an organization is when new opportunities emerge. Leaders ensure that training isn’t an afterthought, but it is built into every operational objective.”
Without this “cross-department” experience, programmed biases are left unchecked. Each discipline becomes rigid in their view of the world, which can narrow to include only their perspective; concerned only with solutions that affect them directly and originate from them. Legitimizing that single-mindedness by allowing it can fuel misperceptions and misunderstandings that grow to be barriers and meaningless conflict.
When it comes to worker development, this phenomenon manifests itself as “Monday Morning Quarterbacking,” “Back-Seat Driving,” obstruction, blatant neglect and denial. But this assumes an effort is being made at worker development that can be subject to criticism. While worker training is reduced to “step-child” status, it is vulnerable from all directions. If no effort is made, then this takes care of that nuisance…right? Sadly, I have been told on many occasions by managers who should know better, “We do not want to be too structured in our training, because that can attract more opportunities for an auditor to find something wrong.” Wow, really? That is like saying we shouldn’t make an effort to maintain accurate accounting because the auditor might find an error.
“Training sounds so simple. Put two people together and have one train the other to do what they do…as fast and as good as the trainer. But we all know, from our own experiences, this is a crap shoot. The trainer may not want to share what they have learned for any number of reasons. Even if they do, they have repressed the nuances of learning the proper task procedure…The trainee doesn’t know what they are not learning, and are totally dependent on what the trainer demonstrates, what they think they see and what they hear. They wouldn’t know if anything was left out or taught incorrectly, and may be afraid to ask for fear of being judged…Especially for employers who have depressed wages for technical skills, a lower offered wage attracts more workers who need extra help in mastering the tasks, or live with the consequences.”
Manufacturing is not an operation that runs well in an insular mode. A company is series of connected systems that succeed or fail collectively based on how well they cooperate. Read More
by Stacey Lett, Regional Manager – Eastern U.S. – Proactive Technologies, Inc.
It is fun to watch a popular TV show on CBS called “Undercover Boss.” Watching a CEO or executive of a major corporation slip into disguise and enter the world of their workers is interesting and entertaining. Sometimes they find the organization needs a little “tweaking,” and sometimes it needs major rethinking.
The entertainment value, I suppose, comes from watching these individuals being tossed into a job classification – alien to most of them – and, while cameras are rolling, receiving a crash coarse in performing various job tasks. Some are performed close to the customer. Not only do leaders get a rare look at what it is like at the lower rungs of the organization, in some cases they get a look at the sub-par performance most of their customers experience and how tenuous the corporation’s existence is – sustained only by the initiative a few loyal, but mostly self-interested, employees who try to make up for the corporation’s short-comings as if their job and future depend on it…which they do. If the company fails, they lose their job, plain and simple. Some put up with the company’s shortcomings in pursuit of the next opportunity.
It is interesting to see CEO’s marvel at how difficult it is to learn the job tasks they previously thought were inconsequential and not worthy of attention. Previously known only as a word on a report, the fact that how the tasks are performed by these neglected employees are the reason the corporation exists goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Some look like episodes of the popular television shows of the 50’s and 60’s, “I Love Lucy.”
A typical Undercover Boss episode might display:
- Unstructured, inconsistent and incomplete training;
- Uneven and uncertain motivation;
- Conflicting operating orders;
- Unexpectedly outdated or inoperable equipment;
- Unclear standard practices;
- Unexpected lack of leadership at the local level spawned by unexpected lack of leadership at the upper levels;
- Unvarnished displays of workers rising above these organizational inadequacies and their own personal challenges to ensure product gets out the door and services are performed with pride.
Focusing on one aspect, in each case the resident expert was selected to train the covert executive. These attempts at unstructured, task-based training give a vivid picture of the limitations, risks, and failures of foregoing a deliberate training strategy. CEOs, who previously were told that the corporate training programs proliferated to each facility were “state of the art” and “working quite well” are now exposed to the end-users perspective. In a typical episode, if you look past the entertainment factor, one can easily detect: Read More
Some Community Colleges Moving Back Toward 70’s Approach to Vocational Programs; Why Did it Take So Long?
Dr. Dave Just, formally Dean of Corporate and Continuing Education at Community Colleges in MA, OH, PA, SC. Currently President of K&D Consulting
In a recent article in the Community College Daily News entitled, “A Shift Back to Trades,” , which is an excerpt from an article by Matt Krupnick entitled, “After Decades of Pushing Bachelor’s Degrees, U.S. Needs Mores Trades People,” it appears that many in institutions of higher learning are accepting the realization that not everyone is suited for college or a career requiring 4-year, or more, college degrees. Some people learn better, faster and become more productive from a program focused on training rather than the conveyance of knowledge.
Societies have always had a natural division of labor, represented at one end of the spectrum by those who predominantly work with their hands (e.g. craftsman, builders, fixers) and those who primarily work with their accumulated knowledge (e.g. managers, lawyers, teachers). Closer to the center of the spectrum, some of these types of labor overlap, requiring the application of knowledge in practical uses, such as doctors, accountants, software programmers. Traditionally, careers in the latter required a 4 -year education or more and experience in the field since the positions were heavy on knowledge requirements and industry-general standardized practices.
At the other end of the spectrum, training is focused on tasks routinely required of the worker – this becomes the focus of mastery of specific tasks of the job area. This is what an employer values and which make workers valuable. Knowledge conveyed at the point of utilizing it in the task, coupled with the convergence of core skills and core abilities, followed by repetitive practice of precise procedural steps develops trade-specific, higher-order skills. These skills yield a meaningful unit of work that is marketable to an employer in the industry. While one can say that occupations at the other end of the spectrum perform units of work as well, the type of work performed is more “situational” and less repetitive the higher up the organizational chart.
Leading up to the 1970’s, this was understood. In fact, many high schools around the country had very effective “vocational” programs, in many cases as good and relevant as the local community colleges. Competitions for students to show off their trade skills were held in each state and nationally by the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, which was replaced in the 1990’s by SkillsUSA. But as the movement that “everyone needs to go to college” grew, schools cut these vocational programs from the budgets and education systems pushed more of the responsibility for these programs on the community college that served high school graduates, the transition lasting from the 1980’s through the early 2000’s. In some states, “Regional Career Centers” were established in an attempt to provide a bridge of access for high schoolers to vocational education for “paying” member school districts.
The 1990’s emphasis on “college education for all,” lead to a K-12 education focus on coursework to prepare students for college entry. The “No Child Left Behind of 2001” and similar measures emphasized standardized testing in K-12 as preparation for college entrance examinations. Community colleges tried to fill the void in vocational instruction with their packaged programs that had not changed all that much since the 1970s. The repeated criticisms during this time of radical technological advancement (e.g. computers and microprocessors changing all aspects of work, trade agreements changing the availability of jobs for which these programs were training workers, Wall Street’s insistence on increasing shareholder value – driving constant cost-cutting leading to perpetual changes to job requirements) was that “continuing education,” “adult education” and “customized training” programs were out-of-date, instructors were ill-prepared, and community colleges were ill-staffed and under-funded to meet the constantly changing needs of employers. Most institutions turned inward and back to what they new; “credit courses” for college preparation and relied more on marketing their vocational programs than the quality and effectiveness of the content.
Trades have long been associated with apprenticeships but need not be, and apprenticeships that train workers generally for the industry but not enough for the employer paying the wages fell out of favor. While institutions were trying to find their role in workforce development, employers – often not clear themselves on what they needed in skilled workers and that have cited the “skills gap” as a major concern since the early warnings in the 1980’s – cut their internal budgets for the task training that only they can provide. The hope is that the educational system will find their way in time to provide them the workers they need, ready on day one to be 100% productive.
So, it makes sense that some semblance of a movement is appearing to take us back to a clear dichotomy between vocational training and traditional education. But it is important to re-institutionalize the difference, allowing for overlaps only to the degree they are relevant. It doesn’t mean institutions, employers and agencies shouldn’t cooperate; they should. But cooperation should never lose sight of each player’s strengths and honestly weed out the weaknesses.
We should Read More
Appreciating the Value of Labor
by Dean Prigelmeier, President of Proactive Technologies, Inc.
For expanding and improving businesses that have the capital for the investment in new equipment or processes, attempting to become or remain competitive, the level of investment is not as important as the return on that investment. This consistent practice of determining where to best place capital for the highest return should apply to labor. What is “paid” for labor is not as relevant as the value it adds to the operation and, ultimately, profit; the return on worker investment.
The lack of appreciation for the difference in “training cost” and “training investment” is understandable because it is rarely contrasted. The college textbook entitled Financial Accounting: An Introduction to Concepts, Methods and Uses, defines “direct labor cost” as the “Cost of labor (material) applied and assigned directly to a product; contrast this with indirect labor cost.” Indirect labor cost” is defined as, “An indirect cost of labor (material) such as supervisors (supplies).” There is no mention of an expected return on investment. Generations of cost accountants have been taught that there is no good that comes for higher labor costs, which to them is determined by the level of staffing and wage levels. There is no differentiation between strategic labor costs and uncontrolled labor costs.
“The profit from, and value of, most worker’s labor comes from task-based work, so all inputs that drive workers to high-performance, high-capacity output are investments.”
As discussed in many articles in past issues of the Proactive Technologies Report, although labor costs are considered direct costs from an accounting standpoint, they should be more importantly considered as an investment in the operation’s overall level of competitiveness. Operations may vary as to the level of return on investment from labor, but each worker’s cumulative expertise gained while employed becomes an asset to the operation akin to intellectual property and, therefore, wages and compensation paid to develop a worker are an investment.
As many operation managers have found out, drastic moves like reducing the wage rates by 20%, 30% or more, while expecting to maintain the same output quantity and quality, chases off the workers with the gained technical expertise…because they can leave. The investment is lost and so are any returns. Furthermore, it is difficult to find new candidates who are willing and able to “hit the ground running” for an unreasonably low wage rate. And if a good candidate for employment is found and selected, bringing their productive capacity up may be delayed or hindered by the fact that the remaining “subject matter experts” are not as capable of transferring expertise as the technical experts that were driven away.
Scores of competitively run global corporations in the past few decades have withered away chasing short-term numbers to appease shareholders and activist investors, which in the longer run undermined their capacity, purpose, level of service and brand. Read More
Read the full October, 2017 newsletter, including linked industry articles and online presentation schedules.