With continuous upskilling a no-brainer if the UK is to compete in world markets, a move towards linking sound theory with effective application is gaining ground among leading universities and trainers. Colin Chinery reports.
Training for Success and ‘Business as Usual’ are incompatible statements, says David Wright, director of strategic developments at Coventry University and former CEO of the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) West Midlands.
“One of the things that surprises, frustrates and even amazes us when visiting factories in the region is how few companies are genuinely committed to training and developing their workforce.” And Wright is not alluding to the sanctity of theory or training for the sake of training.
“Training needs to be considered in exactly the same way as the investment in a machine tool – in short what is the return on investment?” Three years ago a survey by the charity Young Enterprise showed that two thirds of young employees believed universities placed too much emphasis on theory rather than practice.
But a movement towards applying theory in action is gaining pace. For one major British company, having “diverse and talented people to come and integrate into your department while delivering a fresh eyes approach to the planning of a new facility has been of great benefit in terms of identifying issues, presenting solutions, and achieving deadlines.” This was Ford Motor Company simulation technical expert John Ladbrook’s comment on Cranfield University Masters courses, with their focus on the applied learning, working in conjunction with manufacturing.
Industry sponsored group and individual projects are well established at Cranfield. But now industry has been brought into taught modules.
Manufacturing shifting not dying
And rather than having case studies to demonstrate theory, the theory is taught using the application. And Cranfield’s feedback shows that it is experience as well as qualifications that is getting the jobs.
Britain is struggling for engineering skills, says Dr Benny Tjahjono, lecturer in Manufacturing Systems Engineering and director of the Manufacturing Masters Programme at Cranfield University. “But British manufacturing is not dying; it’s shifting.
“As a manufacturing nation we cannot compete in the ways we used to, but we can compete in areas where other countries may not be able to catch up, such as creativity, design and high value.” There is manufacturing theory and there is manufacturing application, and British academia is sometimes censured for inclining towards the former. In contrast, Cranfield positions itself ‘close to practice’, developing market leading methodologies by building on the synergies of the two. The results are impressive.
Ford Motor Company, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, and BAA Heathrow are among the dozen or so companies involved in Cranfield’s postgraduate programme. Cranfield graduates 22% of Britain’s production and manufacturing postgraduates, and central to this is its focus on impact through knowledge application.
Manufacturing Masters Programme students work within industry through research ventures, knowledge transfer partnerships and other key collaborations.
The one year programme is split into three components; October to January teaching, February to April group project, and May to September individual projects. Classroom lecturing makes up for just 40% of the Cranfield Masters; the remaining 60% is instruction from within industry and projectrelated work.
“I’m not saying we are better, but I think this feature distinguishes us from other universities,” says Dr Tjahjono. “When we do the group and individual projects our students are tackling real and specific industrial projects brought by the company involved.” Among Cranfield’s continual partners – 2010 is its 11th year of collaboration – is the Ford Motor Company’s Dunton Technical Centre in Essex. Benny Tjahjono, who is closely involved, says the group project is highly focused on tackling a specific problem within a short time period – three months.
Real life is messy
“The student’s role is to look into the shop floor, learn how to propose improvement. It’s always good to have a fresh pair of eyes to see improvements that might not have been thought of before.
“Although in the past we used class-based case studies, now, instead of us preparing a case study, I take a student on a week long module linked to a manufacturing company. I start with a lecture on Monday and next day I take them to a local company. I want the students to learn from this company, learn from their successes, failures and so on.
“Our visit is a tour but with a task – to model the manufacturing facilities and see how we can first improve and then propose them to management. The difference between this and the old style of industrial case study is that this one is messy. Real life is always messy and I want the students to realise that.
“Everything you learn at a university is very easy, with lecturers preparing the case study with all its nice numbers. Now they have to go to the company and within a single day meet with people, get the data, be able to interview and get the right questions. When they return to Cranfield they have to be able to share their findings with their group, and for the remaining three days they are working here with computerbased modelling and so on.
“The main thing is that if they do not have the data they have to make assumptions, whereas in the theoretical case study there will be no assumption; everything is given by the lecturer, everything is smooth, and everything is nice.
“The following week we go back to the company and present the results of what we had learned the previous week. We learn whether the assumptions we have made are acceptable – and in many cases the students have to defend and accept the accountability of their assumptions.
Now I don’t think this is common, particularly at the Masters level.” The benefit for students is “the experience that records on their CV, and unlike working in traditional universities they have had exposure to the real problems.
“The participating company benefits from the extra resource made up of both the students and the university. Cranfield academics and students work as a team, a team that also includes the company. And these benefits can come in a very short period of time.”
Warwick and Catch 22
At The University of Warwick, the Professional Programmes team at WMG is working to resolve a Catch 22. The beneficiaries here are individuals identified by their companies as senior management material.
But – and so the Catch – these potential flyers are barred from taking a traditional postgraduate route at a university because they lack the pre-requisite of an initial first degree in a related subject.
This is the gap WMG is addressing with its ‘Post-Experience Route,’ making it possible for individuals to progress on to a post graduate programme.
“There are many out there working in key positions in very large companies who have never had the opportunity to attend the traditional university route. And it’s only now at this stage of their careers that a progress route has been identified for them,” says Paul Butler, WMG Professional Programmes Manager.
Warwick’s Post-Experience Route enables individuals from 20s to 50s to progress to a post graduate programme via a curriculum devised to fill the capability gaps identified by sponsoring companies.
“These are the softer skills – working in teams, developing people and so on,” says Butler.
“People who are very technically experienced but don’t have the management skills to move on to more senior roles.” Modules – which can be started at any time of the year – last 2.5 days, and to achieve the Post- Experience Certificate nine must be completed in addition to a work-based project. For the Post-Experience Diploma the requirement is 16 modules and two projects.
The Professional Programmes have been designed, developed and delivered by the companies involved. And company feedback says Paul Butler is “very positive because they are closely involved not only with the development of the material but also in working groups”.
“From participants the response is that it’s valued very highly and can make a massive difference to the confidence of an individual. It’s been an opportunity to get into a university environment in a way they never thought possible – never mind The University of Warwick, one of the Top Six in Britain. It opens up a whole near area of development and potential for individuals.” Other universities offer very similar projects, but Butler says the WMG programmes are exceptional. “Each individual is almost on a unique education programme both in terms of modules picked and when they attend them. The routes we offer are about giving you the skills you need to fill your gaps when you need them.
We sit down with individuals and their business and say ‘What is it you want?’. And then we try to tailor the education to suit”.
But employee release is often very difficult for smaller companies – the definition here is less than twenty. The WMG Post-Experience modules are two and a half days in a block out of the workplace, and the Masters module five days. “This does cause an issue for very small companies,” says Paul Butler. “So we are looking at e learning and blended learning options as ways of working with smaller companies.
“But whatever courses we put on, it’s about adding value – immediate value – back into the businesses and making a difference. It’s not about education for educations sake.”
Big, untapped potential
How would he assess the untapped human potential in UK manufacturing? “Absolutely huge. To put this into some kind of perspective 98% of our intake is from companies with over 250 employees.” Effective theory into practical action is also a forte at the Lean Enterprise Research Centre at Cardiff University. While the concept and practice of lean is universally celebrated and widely employed, in the field of lean education there is no accepted qualification structure around which an individual can organise a programme of learning.
Also absent is a framework within which a lean practitioner can formally identify his particular level of lean knowledge and competence. And while many employees have undergone extensive training and have wide experience of implementation, they have nothing to show to existing or prospective employers.
In contrast Six Sigma has a well accepted and recognised structure of ‘belts’ (green, black, etc), to indicate an individual’s level of knowledge and competency.
As a remedy, the Centre has developed the Lean Competency System to promote and develop lean knowledge transfer. The aim is to provide a structured lean qualifications system, offering a practical oriented hierarchy of lean qualifications – or ‘learning ladder’. Around this employees can develop their lean thinking skills, and organisations develop a competency strategy for its workforce.
Implemented but not sustained
“There are many examples of lean practices being implemented but not sustained effectively over a long period,” says Simon Elias, director of the Lean Enterprise Research Centre, Cardiff Business School. “Engagement and effective ingrained knowledge transfer are part of that mix. There are also soft factors, people factors, around leadership, communications, engagement, change management, a lack of strategic integration.
“Your lean-ness needs to be aligned to the overall strategy of your organisation. These softer factors are the ones that tend to cause lean initiatives to peter out or falter. We refer to them as the ‘below the water line’ elements of the lean iceberg; those that are hard to see and get to grips with.” The Competency System consists of three main levels – Fundamental, Technical and Strategic – each with two or three sub-levels.
The outcome is seven stages, acknowledged academically with a recognised qualification.
The MSc in Lean Operations is a two year part-time programme, modular in the first 15 months (part 1) when students attend eight one week modules, most of which take place at participants’ sites throughout Wales and England.
“Lean is very much learning by doing, and the Competency System has both a practical and a knowledge dimension,” says Elias. “As well as the academic role of education in the effective use of the principles of lean tools, the system is attempting to put some organisation and structure to the body knowledge around lean; trying to make sense of what’s happening out there, understanding and reporting.” While there are many impressive examples of lean implementation across most manufacturing sectors, the challenge, says Elias, is to figure out how to integrate this through the whole organisation rather than seeing lean as a toolbased, piece-meal approach.
“And importantly, it’s not just about looking at the shop floor; it’s about going straight to the customer. Unless you understand customer value, and producing products and goods that people actually want, then no amount of lean manufacturing assistance will work for you.
“Never forget the first lean principle – understanding value from the perspective of the customer. There are some organisations that haven’t reaped the full benefits because this is a long-term undertaking – and there is a short term mindset in the UK.
“Toyota, in spite of their recent problems, is still seen as the lean, exemplary organisation. Starting back in the 1940s they are still going strong in their journey. I think this is a key message.” Feedback is “very positive. Companies are reporting that when a formal qualification structure is added to their own initiatives, they are seeing an improvement in the way staff approach lean. It improves their engagement and enhances the likelihood that they will use lean ideas more consistently as part of their jobs. And sustaining lean initiatives and ideas and making them part of the culture of an organisation is the secret of having a continuous improvement ethos which is the goal of any lean organisation.”
Hands-on best for retention Studies prove that the retention levels of students are highest with ‘hands on learning,’ says Martin Bevan, UK business manager SMC International Training, Darlington. “Over 75% of retention level is achieved when hands on practical skills are used in conjunction with a good applied curriculum base.” SMC International Training is the educational division of SMC Corporation, world leader in innovation and the sales of pneumatic and electro pneumatic components for industrial automation.
“The approach we take is that many skills are needed to be developed inside a subject area of ‘automation.’ This is broken down into five levels of learning, from base technologies such as pneumatics, hydraulics, motors, drives, etc on a shop floor, to enterprise resource planning and manufacturing execution systems at the higher levels. This produces a full portfolio of products that can assist every sector in their hands-on skills delivery.”
The SMC programme is as much about training teachers as it is training students, says Bevan. “We offer CPD courses and bespoke teacher training on all equipment to keep lecturers abreast of the latest technology and applications, with regular master classes run on our equipment to ensure these skills are transferred.” Without these facilities and equipment much of the learning would have to be covered by PowerPoint slides and site visits. “All important areas of delivery,“ says Martin Bevan, “but this now provides a ‘hands on approach’ in a controlled area an employer can join in and interact with, and not interrupting their own shop floor production.” Similarly SMC supports many of its customers directly, working to develop skills with clients inside their own training facilities. Examples include Toyota and Unilever. “In all cases, measurable differences to output and confidence levels on breakdown and root cause analysis show proof that hands on learning applications provide the best return on training investment and time away from the production environment.”
With its New Industries, New Jobs strategy, the Government is looking to move the manufacturing base up the supply chain in terms of added value, says Simon Griffiths – chief executive of MAS West Midlands. “When you are doing this you can only expect to have more complicated products and processes.
And unless you are continually up skilling your employees, how can you expect them to complete more complex tasks, work more efficiently and produce higher value products?”
Griffiths suspects that only the top 20% of manufacturers are committed to training their workforce, “with the rest not as proactive as we would like them to be. Some are doing a reasonable job, while for others training is an easy budget hit during a recession.
“It’s nonsense to expect the same guys to do more complicated jobs without training. It is absolutely critical that they are being continually re-trained.
“So the message is ‘Wake Up!’. Unless you are training and upskilling your workforce to be the best in their class then your business long-term will struggle.
“I heard a great quote the other day. ‘What happens if we train people and they then leave?’ And the answer to that is, ‘What happens if you don’t train them and they stay?’”