Pursuing Excellence Through Workforce Development

In an article published by SC Manufacturing Magazine titled Quality - A Top Business Priority for Manufacturers[1] spoke to me as a quality and process improvement practitioner. One statement that I had earmarked was, “Manufacturers across value chains face competitive and market pressures, customer demand, and complex products and value chains that necessitate a broader approach to how products are designed, delivered, and serviced.” A focus on cost reduction or product quality alone is no longer enough to compete in today’s global market place. Just as cup holders and electric windows are no longer enough to win you over as an automotive consumer, organizations must pursue excellence in more aspects than ever in their quest to produce happy and loyal customers. What is the key to quickly improving organizational performance you ask? Optimization of the performance of each player on the team.

I remember as a kid reading about how a man literally ate an airplane[2]. How did he do it? One tiny bite at a time. This same concept can be applied to the sum of individual performance and its effect on overall organizational performance. The bridge that connects individual performance to optimized process performance, and on to overall organizational performance, is workforce development. Figure 1 illustrates the path from individual development plans (IDP) to organizational excellence (OE).

Figure 1 - The Road from IDP to OE by focusing on workforce development

Workforce development is the study of the people within an organization and the resources needed for those people to do their jobs. But how do you “get there” if you don’t know where you’re going? I was onsite with a client a few years ago who’s Plant Manager actually said to me “sometimes you just have to walk around and blast a shotgun in the air”. Umm... no. I can tell you that this is NOT the correct answer, at least in the various instances I saw him using this horrible approach to leadership tactics. Soon after the meeting in which he taught me his motto, I met with various other top level managers who were frustrated and unhappy with their current work situation. Understandably so. The #1 cause of management frustration was feeling out of control. The #1 cause of feeling out of control was employee turnover. The #1 reason for employee turnover was lack of proper training (i.e. workforce development) prior to getting yelled out, therefore there was a culture in place of “hurry up and do something!”. This work environment led to accidents, quality issues, broken machines and various other wastes throughout the operations.

Through a little research and making some connections within the state and regional workforce programs, I was able to assist the company in enrolling in a skills enhancement grant through their state and another similar program at a federal level. One grant was aimed at enhancing technical skills for existing employees while the other was used to help fund new employees with onboarding and initial job-specific skills that they typically did not have past experience with. In parallel to the grant application process, I also worked with each key Process Owner (most were managers) to define an Individual Development Plan (IDP) process. The questions “What path would you like to take within the company?” and “What resources do you need to do the best job possible?” was completely foreign to them.

Step 1 – Create Individual Development Plans (IDP): Create a document process that promotes the gathering and analysis of employee opinion. Ask simple questions like “What tasks are more appealing to you? What additional classroom or on-the-job training would make you perform better, save you time or improve your work environment?” Think of IDPs at the survey that simply asks “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Hopefully the answer includes a plan to stay with the company. If not, then at least you’ll know up front and can plan on a transition. The IDP should be a plan that is created between the associate and his or her supervisor. This exercise should feel a bit like working with your high school or college guidance counselor. Documenting this plan, and visiting it on a regular basis (i.e. monthly or quarterly), will create a better sense of control and predictability between you and your supervisor. This will also give the opportunity to identify where requests from leadership and insufficient resources collide. 

Step 2 – Create a Workforce Development Plan (WDP): Analyze feedback gathered from individual employees and create a scoring methodology (1=low and 5=high). Look for low cost (time or money) and high impact opportunities such as job shadowing, cross training or sponsoring a membership to a professional association that may be of interest to the employee (most are <$200/year). Quick wins are important. This will convey to your entire organization that leadership is listening and willing to invest in individual improvement. The aggregate of IDPs and associate feedback can be the starting point for a formal WDP. Use the company’s strategic plan to look for win-win opportunities where individual and company growth interests are aligned.

Step 3 – Find money in the couch cushions to pay for quick wins: Set up an easel pad in a central meeting spot (i.e. cafeteria or breakroom) and ask for quick cost-cutting ideas. Be it energy efficient lighting, recycling ink cartridges, changing the default printer setting to black and white only or printing on both sides, ideas for quick cost 

savings to overhead expenses can be found in any level or function of the organization. Set up a progress tracker (think United Way thermometer thingy) and commit to reallocating 50% of the savings back into your workforce development plan. Knowing that savings will be reinvested back into career advancement, skill enhancement and employee retention is typically a welcomed initiative.

Step 4 – Explore Local, State & Federal Resources: You don’t know what assistance may be available to help fund workforce development initiatives if you don’t do the leg work. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Sometimes there are funds available and sometimes there are not. Get to know your local and state economic and business development liaisons. Understand the mission and resources available in each agency and state through their respective MEPs (Manufacturing Extension Partnership such as SCMEP in SC or NC State in NC). Connect with local universities, technical and community colleges for opportunities to work with interns on special workforce development projects. I was once paid $8.50/hr as an intern to secure state funding that was used to match employee training events, dollar-for-dollar, up to $500,000. The process was fairly simple once I was connected to the right decision makers at a state level.

Each associate brings his or her unique education, skills and experience to the collective organizational knowledge. The gaps between current individual performance and an optimized individual performance can be filled through a defined workforce development plan. As consumer demand continue to evolve, so does the definition of quality. Organizational excellence now requires a conscious focus on elements such as safety, speed of delivery, cost, environmental impact and morale, to name a few. Those who optimize the potential of each player on the team, by connecting individual performance to organizational excellence, will be the champions.

[1] https://southcarolinamfg.com/quality-a-top-business-priority-for-manufacturers (July 12, 2015)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Lotito