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 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,” and/or 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.
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. “Enterprise systems” are meant to bridge those turf lines and force communication of operational data regardless of personalities and individual focus. Often ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems are met with a similar reception if management tries to soft pedal the notion of better departmental integration – perhaps naively believing it is something that should already exist or from an apprehension to confront professionals with a topic that seems not needed to be discussed.
In one example that affects worker development, the human resources department typically does the hiring of workers. This step seems simple enough, but in reality it requires accuracy and cooperation between each department impacted by the success or failure of the selection process. Each new worker is expected to learn and master tasks required by their role in the operation. These tasks are sometimes defined precisely by engineering and formalized in writing, sometimes they are loosely defined and left open for interpretation and sometimes they are not defined at all and workers operate on “tribal traditions.” Yet, the expectations for each new-hire are high all around, and success or failure of a new-hire depends on whether they can – within the 30-60-90 day probationary period – interpret what they see and hear and process it into enough of a credible performance to survive. In fact, new-hires are confronted with so many variables it is a wonder that even a small percentage of them make it through the probationary period in organizations without a clear, deliberate training strategy.
New-hires are expected to perform tasks in compliance with:
- ISO 9001:2015 and AS 9100 requirements for worker training and documentation,
- state and federal laws regarding employment,
- sometimes in compliance with a labor bargaining agreement,
- internal engineering, quality and production processes and specifications (always changing),
- the immediate supervisor’s notion of “competent performance,”
- and in compliance with safety standards and regulations.
Each variable is determined, maintained and enforced by a different department – with areas of overlap. When an organization doesn’t establish and strategy and infrastructure that forces collaboration on this critical effort, they most likely do not have a recognizable concern or strategy to train workers to perform the tasks competently, consistently and in compliance with the department and aggregate standard sets either… but they should.
In some companies, Quality Control tries to set parameters that lead to repeatable, high-quality performance, but it isn’t easy with this mix of variables and inputs. When cooperation, tools and strategies to develop the precise skills needed by the employee are spotty, at best, inevitably quality control loosens its standards so that products are shipped and services are conducted – the source of revenue and reason for the businesses existence. Attempts at worker certification are weakened if it, in any way, slows or weakens output.
On top of this, organizations “leap-frog” past ensuring workers have mastered the tasks as they exist to process improvement and LEAN, which changes the nature of the task being learned out from under the worker and can even change the core skill requirements needed. These changes cannot be incorporated into a training effort if best practices are not formally standardized into work processes and no training infrastructure exists. Even good workers are unnecessarily rendered obsolete.
In other companies, trendy and well publicized “training” approaches get implemented since there is no one informed and self assure enough to question them. There is comfort in numbers, and upon returning from a seminar or conference, or after reading a New York Times best selling self-help management book, a manager might concoct some parameters in a matrix or pie chart meant to represent attributes of the job that a new-hire should be able to perform. Colorful scales are added to subjectively rate the new-hire on levels of competency. In every model I have seen in this category there really isn’t any training, and the attributes supposedly being rated are a hodge-podge of abilities, core skills, advanced skills, competencies, aggregate behaviors – with no tools to consistently develop them and concretely measure them.
These types of approaches are obviously suspect to me since workforce development is my area of expertise. I often ask the host of these methods, “what does this really represent?” The response is usually innocuous, but clear to host who relies on faith and “name dropping” of the author. My efforts to explain the flaws in the approach are rejected, which is ironic since I wouldn’t dare argue with an engineer about engineering matters since that is their area of expertise, not mine. But often an engineer has no qualms about arguing worker development methodology theory with me when workforce development is my realm. Sadly, when these type of over-marketed approaches fail, any notion of “training” will be tarnished until memory fades. Then someone repackages and re-brands them, and we start over with the same “doomed to fail” approaches.
Most managers are focused on meeting their departmental goals and lacking a clear understanding of what it takes to quickly and completely develop a new worker, and most departments intuitively see the need to completely develop each human resource input but rates it as “not my mandate.” A few may perceive this as a critical need and may “take a stab” at training program and certification standards development but they, too, attract criticism and conflict even before their efforts are able to fall short.
“Education (e.g. classes, webinars, online training) is seen as only a “cost” by accounting when the “benefit” isn’t clear. Training, if done right, exhibits no doubt it is an investment, not a cost, and may be spared the budget ax if proponents can, and do, make a case.”
And yet other employers actually setup a training department, with training personnel, but design the organization based on their limited knowledge of worker development. They turn to the local institutions that are there to educate workers to be trained, but may be disconnected from what worker training is either by design or by the same type of discipline bias that is described above. The fact that over 30 years of the perpetual skill gap and the solutions they propose remain the same ought to prove that.
But when companies make the effort to establish a training department, but with a flawed or non-existent strategy and accountability, it is doomed from its inception by the same criticism and cynicism described and at the next opportunity it is cut from the budget. The decision-makes have to see clear value in the training approach and how it affects the bottom line or it gets the act. Education (e.g. classes, webinars, online training) is seen as only a “cost” by accounting when the “benefit” isn’t clear. Training, if done right, exhibits no doubt it is an investment, not a cost, and may be spared the budget ax if proponents can, and do, make a case. This decision comes up, ironically, during an event which should have signaled training is needed even more (e.g. layoffs, Lean reorganization, reaction to negative quality control numbers, indiscriminate quarterly cost-cutting to maximize shareholder value, business expansion and rapid hiring, or business contraction-which is followed by work reassignment).
Demoralized, employers pull back and return to waiting for a solution from educators. Educators feel pressured to come up with answers, so they scramble to repackage old ideas, or create flamboyant products and services with fancy names supposedly strengthened with certificates. Manufacturing centers spring up around the country, outfitted with expensive “state-of-the-art” equipment that is meant to represent the training needs of all manufacturers in the area – quickly becoming obsolete with the next technology shift. Or they are stocked with outdated, donated equipment that means only one thing; anyone learning how to operate that equipment will find employers in the area, in the industry, have moved on and their skills are obsolete at graduation. Once again, employers find worker development a matter either to be avoided, ignored or self-help attempts are tolerated that further alienate those who truly believe accurate, task-based training is mission critical. Any attempt at training that is not well-thought out and unrecognizable for its value paints all credible approaches at training with the same, unforgiving brush.
Next installment: Understanding the Resistance to Training: Part 2, Meeting the Challenge