Training Employees

A rambling brainstorming thread about how to teach complex tasks to workers. December 2, 2006

Funk and Wagnalls dictionary defines elegance as "being marked by completeness and simplicity". If you think about it, this is pretty cool word. It describes something as having everything it needs but nothing that is unnecessary.

I'm trying to figure out how to develop an elegant training system. At our shop we build our own drawer boxes. We build enough of them to justify a certain amount of dedicated machinery. During the course of this next year we will spend a bunch of hours (dollars) fabricating these drawer boxes. Some of these hours will be spent just training someone to use those dedicated machines.

The focus of this question is to ask what the most effective way to impart the training is. There are approximately 18 separate procedures and each procedure has a certain amount of nuance. Imagine if you will, a quart full of training that you have to pour into a Dixie cup worth of retention. How do you get the guy up to speed quickly and ensure that his lessons are elegant?

Part two: How to measure the efficacy of a training system.
How about this:
1) Needs to be trained.
2) Has been trained, needs supervision.
3) Can do it without supervision.
4) Can train others.

I think it would be easy enough to objectively grade all of these categories. You might even be able to use this as some kind of benchmark for salary increase. You could easily identify strengths or weaknesses in an organization. It doesn't do any good to be the low cost producer of buggy whips however; it might be a good tool for getting our costs down.

My industry is completely driven by feel good. If people don't feel confident about their house they probably don't feel confident about remodeling their kitchen. This gets me back to lowering costs.

Lowering training costs and increasing training quality should be big on our minds. It might not be a bad time to work on the infrastructure and keep an eye on the overhead. Getting the logic under control would probably help leverage investments in machinery if it looks like the market is still there next winter.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor F:
I am far from being the most experienced person to answer your question, but I'll throw out a couple thoughts. When training at the shop I started at you were basically given a task, taught how to do it, and then did that task repeatedly until you were quite proficient at it. At that point you were taught the next phase or step. The thing is, some people get it, and some don't. Some people will pick up on the nuances to a procedure whereas some will just go through the motions repeatedly until the end of time.

So I guess the point I would make is if you have someone who is trainable don't overwhelm them with the whole quart at once. Just give them little sips as quickly as they can handle them. As for the market, what I have noticed in my very limited experience is that when the housing market is booming developers are very busy, meaning lots of new cabinetry. And homeowners are buying and fixing bigger houses. When the housing market slows, people shy away from selling and instead try to fix up what they already have, meaning lots of new cabinetry.

From contributor B:
There is an excellent article in the latest Scientific American called, I believe, 'The Expert Mind'. It details studies of people - especially chess players - who are experts in their field; how they came to be experts, and how their minds work. The things that are being learned from these studies have significant implications for teaching.

I'll try to summarize a few of the article's salient points. The preponderance of the evidence indicates that a person's mastery of a task or skill is not based on 'talent', or mental capacity or ability. It is based on time and effort spent on internalizing the volume of information needed to master the skill. Those who become experts are not necessarily smarter than those who do not; but they had the will and the interest to keep challenging themselves to learn new information about that skill.

From contributor A:
I definitely think everyone has brought out some good points and I also think the answer is right in front of us. You can hire people all day long, but the trick is to weed out the have from the have-nots. For example, I started playing guitar when I was in the sixth grade. I played all through high school and was quite good, but not great. I still struggled to teach myself any new songs, I couldn’t play by ear and, all-in-all, the guitar just never made sense to me. I didn’t have the sense for it and it felt clumsy in my hands.

Likewise, there are people, and we all know them, who have been practicing our craft all of their lives, yet still struggle to make sense of it all. I agree wholeheartedly that the way to find the best employees is to ask them to do something that you are sure that they cannot, and see what happens. Take mice in mazes. They don’t ‘spoon’ feed the maze to the rat. They put it in there and it either gets to the other side where the cheese is or it doesn’t. Electro-shock helps, but I think worker unions would have something to say about it.

If an employee has what it takes, they will figure it out because it makes sense to them. If they can’t, it is because they cannot hear the music. How many times have all of us on this forum been asked by a client to do something that we have never done before? What did we do? We did ‘it’. We found a way to make it work because, for most of us here, it makes sense. We don’t know how things are going to come together, but at the end of the day, everything is right in the world. Jimmy Hendrix couldn’t read music. It just made sense to him. Beethoven was deaf when he wrote some of his best music. It just made sense to him. If all you need is someone to make drawers, fine, teach them to make drawers. If they have the will and the spirit, at the end of the day, they will begin to hear the music. After that, the rest is easy.

From contributor P:
To the original questioner: Just a quick shot at it - can you make learning a form of play? I met a psychologist who studied how people learned, and his angle on it was that game playing was one of the most powerful ways to learn. It’s an interesting question, in any case.

From contributor L:
If anyone really ever gets the perfect answer to this they will make a million. From a nuts and bolts approach to training, we've been documenting the processes with a camera. Then we assemble the photos with a short explanation and notes about why on to a few pages. We try to get it all on two pages so both can be showing in a tabbed 3 ring binder that is kept at the work station. There is a blank page for each newly trained operator to make himself notes.

Each newbie is shown the process along with an explanation by the best we have. Then the new guy gets to do several repetitions with the instructor looking on. Any adjustments to the newbie’s processes are noted and more watching by the good guy. When the process needs to be done the next time the good guy supervises the relative newbie for a few cycles. This has worked fairly well. It takes time to make all of the instruction pages. We keep the pages on the computer and can easily up-date them as things change. The digital camera and color laser printer have made the production of the pages fairly easy. But still keeping everything up to date hasn't always happened when needed. I've found that employees that can't become motivated aren't much helped by information they don't use.

From the original questioner:
I agree with everybody that says these are great responses. It might have helped a little if I would have been more focused in my questions. As it has turned out, there are three or four topics here. The economy is a big one but probably irrelevant to the other ones. Suffice to say we should get better at what we do so we can make more money during the good times and just stay alive when times are tough.

There's been some input here into what kind of characteristics the optimum candidate should have. I would go with those who advocate for less experience and more passion. If you want to build a systems based organization it is probably easier to establish best practices first, and then recruit for people who will follow those practices. The role of the craftsman here is to help you establish and define best practices.

Contributor L's idea about the digital photography is a great one. A step by step delineation of how it is you do things, in combination with an analysis of when and where you do those things is probably the most effective training tool. I say this because it also trains the managers.

Imagine if you had a list of every activity that ever occurred on the altendorf. If you were to rank these activities according to the skill required to perform them you might already have a map for how you are going to train the new guy. You might even have this map before you hire him.

One approach you might use to augment Contributor L's visual emphasis is batch size. Rather than give a new guy a stack of 10 drawers to shove from station to station, you might want to give him just one. Have him take it through the processes one at a time. Each time he is complete, it becomes his job to go find the supervisor and show him the finished result. If he does this start to finish, one at a time when he is complete, he will have been up to bat ten times. I think if you gave him 3 or 4 drawers a day for three days straight he would, at the end of the week, be as good as your best guy at the task.

1) Lists:
2) Visual Information
3) Batch size

If you stay on this you will also notice over time a cultural change in your organization. You will evolve from a craftsman's based company to a systems based company. Systems based companies focus on the customer's needs. Any organization like this is bound to have more customers than one that is only concerned the craftsman's lifestyle. This could even turn into a win-win deal for the craftsman as well.

From contributor L:

There is a world class Japanese manufacturer here that we do work for and I have had the opportunity to see all of their operations. The 3 ring binder thing we use is an adaptation of theirs. At each workstation they also keep samples of the finished product. Their instructions/photos have examples of the correct and "not like this.” It’s an impressive operation, absolute organization, everything in its place - always. You could eat off the floor and there is nothing ever parked in the aisles.

There are big monitors in every area showing the work to be done for the shift, how many are complete, % of work and time remaining. They deliver several times a day, at an exact time, for the units to be manufactured at the Kawasaki plant. The parts are arranged in wheeled carts in the order they will be used and rolled right up to the assembly line. I've also toured the Kawasaki plant; the organization detail is amazing. Training on the assembly line is such that anyone can stop the entire line if they see something wrong.

From the original questioner:
To contributor L: Your comment about everything being orderly and predictable is very telling. Not every shop that is extremely organized will be successful, but there are probably not very many successful shops that are not extremely organized. How long it takes you to find something in your shop is probably a good index of how long it takes to accomplish other things as well.

From contributor O:
I would like to add several recent observations about employees in the wood industry. No matter how much patience and training some people will never learn the task at hand. Training is only valuable to someone who wants to learn. If you spend the time and effort to train an employee are you prepared to do what it takes to retain them? While the kid at the fast food place down the street can flip a burger he may not be able to build cabinets, no matter how well you train him.

Sometimes the best person is not the best looking, best dressed or smartest person but the person that understands what it takes to get the job done. If you need a team player you must have a team to play for. In order for a leader to be successful there most be followers. I know some of you are asking what all this has to do with training. The point is, to have a perfect product you must start with the best materials, this is true for cabinets as well as employees.

I think Contributor A said it best. “If an employee has what it takes, they will figure it out because it makes sense to them.” This goes on to Contributor L’s training method. I found even if you document every step from start to finish some people will still not understand how to read. Is it economical feasible to keep training throwaway workers.

Another point to consider is what are the expectations of the employee? It is very easy to train a person to do one task but is a more difficult to train someone to accomplish multiple interconnected tasks such as the difference between training an employee to build a single door or drawer and building a complete entertainment center. The sad fact of this industry is that training is not keeping up with the needs of the employers. I have been building cabinets and millwork for over thirty years and I still learn something every day. I have a personal commitment to continually improve my skills and knowledge. Do all the people we hire have the same?

Years ago I met a man at a trade show; he recently took over the HR department of his company (a large store fixture company). He was talking about all the effort taken to hire “the right people” emphasizing personal qualities over raw skills. At the time I was looking for anybody that could read a tape, an example of my short term thinking at the time. Well that man now runs one of the largest fixture companies in the country.

To summarize, training is one of the most expensive things we do in this business. Poor training can lead to excessive waste and productivity. To elaborate training results in a loss of focus of our core business building cabinets

From contributor G:
Terminology is a factor, pictures are better. But then what do all of those little symbols mean on the plans let alone the contracts. Then the terminology from the customers also, they have their own esoteric (only understood by a few) words that mean something different to them than the rest of world.

A measurement system is important. How do you really know how a guy is doing if you don’t have an objective (unbiased) measurement system? This allows you to target or predict jobs and tasks. Then the worker knows how he is doing.

An organizing chart (with his name on it) also tells a guy where he fits in the big picture. I also think it is good to have a bench or station that is that worker’s, he then takes ownership for that job. I have heard others say they don’t like it because of tendency to feather the nest. But I think the ownership idea trumps that. I have started new guys with doing this and not doing this. I noticed guys that I didn’t do this with would take lunch in their car, a place they own. The guys I did give a bench to would take lunch at their bench, their spot. Good management starts with the owner caring about what goes on

From contributor L:
I had a helper a few years back who was punctual, neat, did what I asked, and the clients liked him. It took me a few weeks to realize he couldn't read a tape. When he had to cut something he did direct measurements and everything was fine (except that I hadn't noticed his methodology).

It wasn't until I started calling out numbers to him and the stuff was coming back not even close that I realized there was a translation problem. I liked the kid and my Spanish is adequate (barely) so I decided to invest some time on him to give him a leg up on wherever he ended up (because his future with me was looking to be short-lived). No amount of discussion or diagrams or simple homework problems made a dent. The relationship between an eight, an inch, or nine sixteenths was a complete mystery to him. I was very frustrated, not at him for not knowing (well, not entirely), but at myself for being unable to enlighten this guy about something we all take as second nature. I still turn this problem over in my mind and have yet to find a solution.

From contributor H:
A simple thought - McDonalds has a manual that explains how and when to mop the floor. It works, or at least it helps. I thought Contributor L's 3-ringer and the subsequent embellishments by others were excellent. It helps both employer and employee (hired or prospect) to understand the job more fully, and I think it adds to a shop's image of professionalism, especially for a prospective hire.

From contributor K:
To the original questioner: What are you looking for? Are you looking to improve operators' ability to perform tasks, or do you want to equip staff to run the shop more efficiently? When I first read your post, it appeared that you were looking to impart skills to operate machinery. But now it looks like you want people to be more productive.

From the original questioner:
What I am trying to do is lower my costs of training and make the dollars I spend in training more productive. My ultimate goal is to make a new-hire show a profit for me after three days on the job. He will not, of course, be able to do everything after three days but there are very few individual tasks he could not become competent after three days, with proper training.

We all have a certain amount of investment in systems to manufacture our product. Very few of us have much investment in how we train people to use those systems. This is probably the main reason it takes so long to make a new person productive. I've got some great craftsmen. They really know how to build the stuff I sell. What I want to do is glean from them the very best methods and use these methods to train the new people.

I would like something better than brute memorization. I would like something that rises above politics. I would like a method that gives us some way to measure success or improvement. We've already got craftsman down. We're trying to get professional down. I think this all pretty easy to accomplish but just like the methods you use to make a door, you need a method to train a door maker.

From contributor G:
Here is an idea. Make a list of every task in your shop that needs to be learned. Take a look at an upcoming job that requires the skills that you could put a new guy on. Have the new guy practice that skill. Until he can do that task at a predetermined quantity within a predetermined time frame.

You would have a checklist of tasks. In the Union apprenticeship program this is more or less what they did. The key to learning a skill is practice and repetition.

I guess this could get a little hard to define what the skills are when it comes to doing this for a draftsman who is supposed to detail a super custom whatever. But I think with some focused thinking this could be worked out. I have done this on a limited basis in the past and it worked out fine.

From contributor K:
Let me tell you, training is tough. Not only do you have to communicate effectively, but you are also working with an employee's skill and confidence, or lack of. In other words, you might have faster progress if your new hire has been working with hand tools, or has great special ability. Get someone who has never driven a nail and is intimidated by new things, then you have further to go before you see profitable progress.

What kind of tasks are you wanting employees to learn, simple or complex? Simple would be how to cut stock on a chop saw - basically involving a few movements and little reasoning. Complex, on the other hand, would be building a drawer box. You must do math, machine parts, assemble, etc. Granted, you can teach a complex process by stringing simple tasks, but this produces a robot - incapable of thinking outside limited perimeters.