Firing up the training

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

Building a multi-skilled workforce is a tough, demanding, long-term proposition. Annie Gregory asks if it’s really worth it

Sites with a multi-skilled workforce talk not just about productivity gains but flexible labour deployment, reduced dependency on temporary labour, improved OEE, increased responsiveness to customer demand, leaner operations and devolved decision making. But they also talk about painful restructuring, high training costs and increased wages bills. And some go through the pain only to lose their best people through poaching. So is it as painful as people say and, ultimately, is it actually worth it?
Let’s look at it from the opposite end – what you are left with if you don’t do it. Andy Lawson, senior manufacturing specialist for London MAS, was involved in introducing lean to a 250-strong company. The start point was old-fashioned batch production: one person fixed at one workstation on just one operation, building up a stock of parts for the next stage. The problems were clear: departments didn’t speak too often; and since operators only did a limited range of jobs, sickness hugely affected productivity. Lawson says it also caused resentment since operators were graded and paid by how many processes they could handle. “The oldest serving and more knowledgeable workers would pick the easier processes and give the more labour intensive, or processes that had a higher risk of producing poor quality material, to newer and less experienced workers.” Over time, it impacted both productivity and quality.
Recognise the situation? It’s common enough. Now look at the multi-skilled side of Lawson’s picture. Primarily, because people can move where the effort is needed, the business is finally able to keep pace with the rise and fall of customer demands. “Yes, you have to train everyone,” he admits, “but this is usually on the job [OTJ] training. Yes, you should expect some slower throughput rates for a time, and there may be the need to pay overtime to recover the backlog.
But you will end up with a motivated, trained workforce which does not argue over who has got the best job because no-one does the same job every day. Yes, you may have to upgrade everyone, recontract and pay a little more because they are more skilled. But these costs will be recovered as you do not have to pay huge overtime bills because someone was off and no-one could perform that role.”
Of course, multi-skilling has long been the rule at big manufacturing companies. Even those who were once constrained by restrictive demarcation agreements have today taken it on board, often with active support from the self-same unions which once fiercely defended entrenched roles. It is not, however, nearly so widespread in smaller companies.
Ian Wilson, senior practitioner at MAS NW, says multi-skilling is a vital element of any business: “In most sites I go to, I look for visibility in their training matrix that they are trying to build up flexibility. You need it to achieve lean even in its rawest form.” Nonetheless, he doesn’t underestimate the difficulties experienced by smaller companies: “Initially it can actually create a problem during the period when everyone is learning new ways of doing things. And it can mean a hiatus in production rate and sometimes you have to live with going back to the old way just to get things out to the customer.”
There’s no shame in introducing multi-skilling pragmatically. Few who have done so doubt the benefits. Take New Balance Athletic Shoes (UK) for example. This 210-strong site, based in Flimby on the Cumbrian coast, is part of a US-owned company producing innovative footwear. It is a flagship for success in a once highly depressed area. Two years into an ambitious five-year plan, it is on-track to increase turnover from £70 million to £250 million by trebling its original output of complex, highly customised shoes. After a farreaching lean programme, undertaken with the guidance of MAS NW, throughput is up from one million to 1.2 million pairs; output has risen from 10 to over 13.5 pairs per person per hour; manufacturing lead time has fallen from an average 10 days to five; WIP is down from 18,000 pairs to 10,000 and space utilisation is up from 40 to 80 per cent. It now beats the Far East on cost. It proves the value of lean techniques but, equally, it vindicates the effort involved in multi-skilling.
The first changes were relatively simple. As part of its lean adoption, the site restructured its assembly operation from five to four-person cells, rebalancing the work between them. Now, after inhouse training, each person (respectfully known as an ‘associate’) is competent in at least two of the four skills within the team.
Elsewhere, there are sufficient people now trained in both computer and manual stitching to provide full cover in each area. It has, however, recently started experimenting with single piece flow, moving from separate stitching and assembly work centres to two new teams of 20. It’s making new demands upon all concerned: “If you only have one pair of shoes between each operation, a problem can stop the whole line very quickly,” explains manufacturing manager Andy Okolowicz.
“We used to be able to hide behind the inventory – it’s a completely different way of working.” The situation is currently managed by having a supervisor and a flow co-ordinator to cover for rests and toilet breaks. The latter can also nip onto the line to give associates a quick problem solving exercise where needed. There are also two associates on the line who can do all the assembly process jobs and two who can handle all types of stitching.
This illustrates the slowly-slowly approach that many smaller companies have to adopt to dovetail the time taken to teach multi-skilling with the pressures of production. “Ultimately, it would be good to push the training so they can all do all the jobs and that might well come.”
In the meantime, the whole training load is being handled in-house with two full-time trainers: one for assembly and one for stitching. A training cell duplicates shopfloor working, used not only to teach existing associates the new, lean ways of working but also to start new recruits off on the right footing. Ian Wilson says this approach is refreshing and a much better way to deploy knowledge: “Most adopt the ‘sit with Nellie’ approach. But if A trains B, B will only get 80 per cent of what A has told them. And when B trains C, C only ends up with 64 per cent of what Nellie knew.” Okolowicz, however, still sees an occasional role for buddying people up (his elegant substitute for poor Nellie): “It helps them understand the pace of work as well as how to do it.
They can see the effort put into the role and the productivity necessary once they have had their training.” Training is topped up by an opportunity to earn NVQ2s in Business Improvement Techniques, assessed in the workplace by an external trainer. So far, two groups of 17 people have qualified and there is a 38-strong waiting list with a third group starting shortly.
So how much has it all cost? “A lot,” says Okolowicz. He points out that training one person for one job takes as little as four weeks; crosstraining a four-person team for every job can add as much as 80 weeks to the training load. But he is adamant it is worth it. The rewards accrue at both business and personal level. For a start, New Balance is rare in now offering flexible holidays where it used to have a summer shutdown. Associates certainly appreciate it but it also means customer demand is met year-round. Sickness is a low two per cent but outbreaks of, say, flu can raise it to three to four per cent. At peak holiday time, it used to have real impact on production.
The situation is very different now. “It’s tied to improvements we made in 5S and workplace organisation,” says Okolowicz, “but training everyone in the same standard operating procedures means they can slot into a new team a lot better. Historically, moving people from one team to another was a nightmare – we lost a lot of productivity. Now there might be some early settling in but, within 10 minutes, they have got going. It’s made a massive difference.” He also points out that job rotation alleviates the monotony of the same job all the time and, most importantly, cuts out any risk of RSI (repetitive strain injury).
But there is another aspect of multi-skilling that goes far deeper than immediate day-to-day benefits: “The more you get people to understand all the jobs, the more they understand cause and effect. It creates a kind of empathy: ‘if I do this that way, I may give someone else a problem. I’ve done that job and I know that’s not going to be right.’ It’s a massive, massive bonus.”
Okolowicz has no sympathy with the view that training people just provokes poaching. “If we lose some, we lose some – but it’s a risk we want to take. Not to train through fear of losing them is completely the wrong way to go about business.
We want 200 people contributing, not just three or four at senior level who will never get it right all the time. But, if we can get everyone contributing, that will help the business be successful in the long-term.”