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The work force transformation

By Chris Harris and Rick Harris

Executive Summary
When orders are high and business is good, many organizations can’t find the time to run their businesses and develop a lean work force at the same time. That makes these trying economic times a perfect opportunity to develop and follow a comprehensive plan to transform your work force for the better times to come.

A common difficulty in developing a lean work force comes from the fact that organizations have to run their “normal” business while simultaneously implementing lean enterprise systems. This has proven difficult for many organizations, especially when volumes are high and business is good. Because of this, properly preparing for a change to lean enterprise is pushed to the back of the priority list. However, with the economic downturn affecting many organizations, now is an excellent time to develop a lean work force that is knowledgeable enough and flexible enough to improve a lean enterprise system and react to changing customer demands when the high volumes and good business return.

The work force in a lean enterprise system can and usually should be the catalyst for continuous improvement once the system is in place. However, without effective preparation, it’s not realistic to expect the work force to play this role. So instead of just trying to survive the down business cycle, this may be your organization’s best opportunity to transform its current work force into a lean-thinking work force.

When developing a lean work force there are two areas to consider. First, employees need the necessary knowledge to improve the lean enterprise system continually. Second, a lean work force needs to be flexible enough to provide opportunities for continuous improvement and provide consistent efficiency in reacting to a changing customer.

Developing the knowledge

For employees to improve the lean enterprise system continually, they need to understand that system. Answering five questions will provide information to help you start developing a lean work force that can improve the system continually.

1. Who needs to be trained? Who in your facility needs to have a good understanding of the lean tools within the lean enterprise system so that they can continually improve that system? In many organizations, training is lacking for two groups: the production associates on the floor that add value to the product and frontline supervisors. These two groups likely will play an important role in the continuous improvement of the lean enterprise system once the initial push of implementation has begun. If we are going to rely on these two groups, it is very important that we provide them with the tools that they need to be efficient and effective.

2. When should the training take place? If you believe that many people learn best by doing, then you should consider training just before the implementation. For example, if your organization is planning on implementing workplace organization in a certain area on Thursday, wouldn’t it be best to train that area a couple of days beforehand so employees can be better prepared? This gives employees the opportunity to ask questions and better prepare themselves during the two days leading up to implementation. Traditional mass training before implementation likely does not provide the intended results, whereas training in conjunction with implementation provides two types of learning: in the classroom and on the production floor.

3. What information should be covered in the training? The management of the facility, in conjunction with the training department, needs to develop a curriculum that explains the lean enterprise system to the work force. This curriculum likely will follow a progression of trainings based on the implementation of the lean enterprise system. Figure 1 provides a generic sample of some of the training that can be used to help develop lean knowledge. Your curriculum may very well look different than the one that we provide, but to get the most out of your efforts, it is probably best that your curriculum follow your implementation plan.

4. How will the training be administered? There are many questions about the administration of the training that need to be answered. There needs to be a determination of how long the training will be, where the training will be and how the training will be scheduled. These areas deserve some thought. For example, it is probably easier for your organization’s operations to remove production associates and supervisors from the production floor for an hour of training instead of a whole day. If that is the case, then why not schedule all training in one-hour blocks and not place unneeded stress on the production system? It may be easier for everyone involved to digest one hour’s worth of information instead of the customary eight hours.

5. Who will facilitate the training? There is a relationship in a facility that needs to be understood. The plant manager is responsible and accountable for the lean transformation, but many times a lean coordinator, change agent or other individual is the face of the transformation. It is probably best if that person facilitates the training. However, to get the biggest bang for your buck, having the plant manager kick off the meeting may be a good idea because it shows the work force that the organization is serious about the transformation.

These five questions don’t guarantee you a comprehensive program to develop a lean work force. Hopefully, they spur your thinking toward developing your comprehensive plan to develop your work force into a group that is consistently striving to improve the lean enterprise system. That leads to the second attribute of a lean work force – flexibility.

Developing a flexible work force

“Flexible employees are those with the capability to perform at many different workstations in a manufacturing area.” Many organizations do not make it a priority to cross-train their employees effectively. The benefits can be numerous. There can be better flexibility to produce to demand, ergonomic benefits, better efficiency, frequent job rotation, more opportunities for continuous improvement because of the job rotation, better capacity planning and quick response to demand spikes and drops.

For example, let’s say a person has worked 30 years to get a specific job in your facility. She works that job every day, but she also has four weeks of vacation. Her backup cannot do that job nearly as effectively because he only does the job four times a year. In this example, the facility probably will not be as efficient during the four weeks out of the year that the normal person is on vacation. If the site had a flexible work force, it would operate normally year-round because multiple employees would do that job on a daily basis due to frequent job rotation.

Flexible work forces also can handle frequent job rotations based on ergonomic movements. A cross-trained work force can rotate jobs at break, lunch and second break based upon the different muscle groups that workers use. Capacity planning also can be easier for organizations with a cross-trained work force because production associates can be moved to and from production areas based on whether demand goes up or down. A work force can rotate in this way because the employees are cross-trained on multiple workstations.

There are three keys to a flexible work force. The first is an organizational structure that promotes flexibility. The second key is a training matrix system. The final key is a structured plan to train the work force continually to obtain the desired flexibility.

An organizational structure that promotes a flexible work force is needed to get the benefits of a flexible work force. The organizational structure of team member, team leader, group leader shown in Figure 2 has proven to be an effective way to develop and use a flexible work force.

Due to size restraints, this chart only shows two team leaders. Normally, one group leader can have between four and six team leaders that report to him. Each team can have between four and eight team members. In this format, it provides for an environment to develop a flexible work force.

The group leader is a salary person who deals with issues such as vacation days, discipline, etc. The group leader has to be able to do every job in the group correctly according to standardized work.

The team leader is the designated trainer of the team. The team leader position is an hourly position that has no discipline responsibility. The team leader must be able to complete every job on the team according to standardized work and prescribed time (often takt time). The team leader’s responsibility is to train and support the members on the team as well as fill in on the production floor as needed due to absences, emergencies, etc.

The team members are the production associates who add value to the product. Team members’ goals could be to become qualified to perform every workstation in their team and eventually in their group.

This goal leads to the second key in developing a flexible work force: a training matrix system. Once the organizational structure is set, a training matrix is needed to show the current and ongoing qualifications for each team member. If the goal is to have every team member proficient at every workstation within the team and eventually the group, there should be a tool that provides necessary information to achieve that goal.

The training matrix shown in Figure 3 shows the entire group. The left side of the matrix identifies all employees by name. The top of the matrix identifies each individual process. So by finding a person’s name on the left and following the row to the right, you can quickly see on which workstations a person is adequately trained.

The term adequately trained is subjective, so each quadrant of the circle in the training matrix indicates specific milestones in the training process. The first means that the person has begun the training on that workstation and understands basic things such as safety, exits, what to do in an emergency, standard work, etc. Once this is accomplished, the first quadrant of the circle is filled in. The second quadrant of the circle means that the team member can correctly complete the process according to standardized work, unassisted by the trainer, and can reasonably recognize quality problems. Once the team member can do these things, the second quadrant of the circle is filled in.

The third quadrant of the circle means that the team member can do the process to standardized work within the prescribed cycle time and successfully has completed 20 consecutive cycles without a problem. Once the team member has gotten to this point, the third quadrant of the circle is filled in. Finally, when the fourth quadrant of the circle is filled in, that means that the team member has done the process correctly, without defect, and unassisted for a sustained amount of time and is capable of training another team member. When a team member gets the entire circle filled in on a workstation, management can rest assured that the team member is proficient at that workstation. Now, the issue is how to train a team member to become that proficient at every workstation in the team and eventually the group.

The third key to developing a flexible work force is a structured plan to train the work force continually to obtain the desired flexibility. To train team members so that they are proficient at every workstation within their team, a plan needs to be developed that includes who will train, when they will train and how they will train.

If the structure is developed as discussed earlier, the team leader is the trainer. Team leaders have to have certain qualities before they can be a team leader, such as excellent attendance, good communication skills, the ability to work with others and the skill to train other team members. However, it is not enough just to have a good trainer, there needs to be a plan of when that person will train.

If you can designate a certain day and time of the week that the team leader will train, planning can help reduce the negative impact of not having the team leader performing his normal duties. For example, if your group has four team leaders and team leader No. 1 is planned to train from 10 a.m. until lunch every Tuesday, the other three team leaders can support him by taking care of his normal responsibilities. The same situation can occur for the remaining three team leaders on different days and times so that training does not interrupt the production system. To plan the training individually, the team leaders will utilize the training matrix to determine where training needs to take place to achieve the goal of getting every team member proficient at every workstation in the team.

Finally, a method of training needs to be chosen that is going to be the most effective. For example, in some training methods the trainer shows the team member how to do the job using standardized work first. Then, the trainer allows the team member to do part of the workstation while the trainer looks on to ensure that there are no quality problems. Next, the trainer allows the team member to do another part of the workstation while the trainer does the first part of the workstation. This type of on-the-job training is continued until the team member can do the entire workstation to standardized work and within the prescribed cycle time. This is a method that we learned at Toyota. You may have a different method, but we suggest that you settle on the best method to train your team members.

By answering the three questions (Who will train? When will they train? How will they train?), you will likely be on your way to developing a work force flexible enough to react to a changing customer.

A good opportunity

During this time when business has slowed and many organizations have hunkered down into survival mode, it may be one of your best opportunities to concentrate on developing a lean work force. We hope organizations can use this plan to develop a lean work force of employees who have both the knowledge and flexibility not only to compete in an ever-changing global marketplace, but to excel by continually improving their lean enterprise system.

This article is adapted from the book Developing a Lean Workforce - A Guide for Human Resources, Plant Managers, and Lean Coordinators by Chris Harris and Rick Harris published by Productivity Press ©2007. Figures 1 and 3 are reprinted with permission: Productivity Press – From: Harris, C. & Harris R. (2007). Developing a Lean Workforce: A Guide for Human Resources, Plant Managers, and Lean Coordinators. New York, New York: Productivity Press. 

Chris Harris is vice president of operations at Harris Lean Systems, where he has worked since September 2001. He focuses on helping organizations implement and improve their lean enterprise systems. Harris has written many articles and was awarded the Shingo Prize for co-authoring the book Making Materials Flow. He also co-authored two other books on lean enterprise principles and has a new book due out this year on lean supplier development. Harris holds a doctoral degree in business administration. 

Rick Harris is the president of Harris Lean Systems and has been helping companies become lean for the past 15 years. Harris co-authored two Shingo Prize award-winning books, Creating Continuous Flow and Making Materials Flow, published by the Lean Enterprise Institute. Harris also has co-authored two other books and many articles with his son, Chris Harris.


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