Best Practices and Training Systems

A brainstorming session about systematically training wood-shop employees. February 6, 2007

All of us have systems for manufacturing our cabinets. The amount of resources we have committed to any given process is usually commensurate to how often we do that process and how complicated it is to set up. We are perfectly willing to make tremendous investments into technology to make things simpler, but we donít seem to care much about how we train people to use that technology. Training in most shops is usually done via the tribal elder method. How you are trained often depends on whom you were trained by. Different elders within the same tribe may use different methods or they may use the same method but explain it differently. The only thing that is predictable about the end result of this approach is inconsistency.

When people come to work for you they want to be successful. They want to grow their skill-set and they want to make more money. If this can happen, it is a win-win situation for everybody.

Lean Manufacturing emphasizes the concept of Best Practices. While it is true there are ten good ways to do anything, it is probably more truth that one of those ways is the best way. The criteria used for evaluating Best Practices is pretty simple.

1) Nobody and nothing can get hurt if we use this method.
2) We will meet the customerís expectations if we use this method.
3) Anybody can use this method and achieve a similar outcome.
4) Speed will take care of itself after the first three criteria are evaluated.

The obvious benefit of Best Practices is that the results will be more predictable and take less time. A benefit that is harder to quantify is that the shop will have less politics. Thereís a bunch of times when you see something going awry in the shop but you conclude itís probably cheaper to pick a different battle than to try to change a method someone is using. A lot of times the new guy will be caught in the middle. One elder will tell him to do it one way and another elder will contradict the first one. This posture either confuses the new guy, or worse, starts him down the path to a bad habit.

The best place to use the different perspectives of experienced people is in the development of Best Practices for your firm. Best Practices should also develop a consensus of where to do the procedure, when to do the procedure and what rate to do the procedure at.

Here is an example of messing with the new guyís head: At my shop, the new guy was taught to spread glue with his finger. I showed him how to do it quicker with a stick of wood. Another guy told him it doesnít need to be spread at all, just let the pipe clamps do the job, but make sure thereís at least 1 Ĺ hours left in the day so that you can scrape the excess glue before it becomes as hard as a rock.

The Best Practices approach to this would be to rule out the finger first. Too slow and too messy. Try the clamps only method, then break the joint apart to evaluate glue saturation. Compare glue saturation with the stick spreading technique. Solve the excess glue problem at the source. Develop a system to spread the right amount of glue so that squeeze out is not an issue.

Now you have to get this technique into the new guyís head. The repetition from smaller batch sizes will help here. A good trick is to make the new guy responsible for some of his training. Instead of showing him once and walking away, make him responsible for finding you and showing you the finished product. Have him wheel over the clamped up panel so you can evaluate how much is too much glue squeeze out. When he is done with the next one, have him come find you again. And again. Eventually you will be able to check this part of his training off the list.

Key here is the list. If it doesnít make it onto a list, it canít be crossed off the list. If you donít put it on a list, you have to rely on brute memorization. We call this the ďIíll tell you when you failĒ method. Not good.

The new woodworker comes armed with only a Dixie cup worth of possible retention and even this has a certain amount of evaporation. Filling up this Dixie cup with a fire hose is probably not going to work. Poking holes in the bottom of the cup isnít going to help much either. If you let him sip from a list, he will probably learn quicker.

If you build a training system for how to build your product, you open up the universe of viable candidates for your firm. If it becomes easier to find appropriate talent, it wonít be so necessary to squander hard earned capital on technology. A trained work force will help you leverage the technology that is appropriate.

An emphasis on training will also help move you from a craftsman based company to a systems based company. The discipline that this injects will make your company a richer one during prosperous times and a tougher one during tougher times. End of rant (for now).

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
Good points, but let me add some comments. When you are training someone, let it be clear who is responsible for what. In absence of a formal training session, guys will want to impart their knowledge. This may conflict with what has already been covered. This is both good and bad.

Bad in the sense that it causes confusion in the trainee's mind. When this happens, the trainee should be conditioned to respond, "He told me to do it this way. What should I do?" This forces Trainer #2 to evaluate and decide. Maybe there was a good reason you told him to use a stick of wood instead of a finger. Trainer #2 should find you and resolve this issue.

This brings us to the good part of the situation. You all are able to evaluate this practice. In your list of Best Practice Evaluation Criteria, you give broad topics. I would say that, using your gluing example, any of these would qualify as a Best Practice. I have seen guys use fingers, sticks, and I prefer just squeeze the two together. All will work and satisfy your customer. However, it is missing the evaluation phase. Which one requires more cost generating features? Do you have to sand more thoroughly when you use your fingers because it may leave glue prints that won't stain? But is the extra sanding faster than finding a clean stick every time? (A stretch, but I hope you get the drift.) If all of these provide satisfactory results, strong joints, then which requires less overall effort? This training exercise (two different ways to glue) has provided an evaluation opportunity. You test and decide. Write it down. Shop Law!

Another part of training that I did not see here, is the ability for the trainee to self-evaluate. How does he know when he has performed the task correctly? You give him objective standards with limitations. You show him how it is done right and examples of it done incorrectly. The second part is probably most important. He now knows what a failure looks like, and should know (because you covered this in training) what to do to prevent it or fix it. An example of this might be, "You should have excess glue that squeezes out. The beads should be less than 1/16" in size. More than that, too much glue was used. Less than that, too little glue was used." The fixes, "Too much glue, wipe it off with a wet toothbrush or wait until it skims, about 30 minutes at this temp, and remove it with a putty knife. Too little glue, break apart and add more glue. Use more glue next time." Now then, have your trainee demonstrate too much, too little, and the proper amount. (This works good with some things, but not all. For example, don't ask him to demonstrate hands too close to the blade!) Now, he is able to experience this process. Far different than cognitive dump. This is also the time for you to evaluate his skill and redirect if necessary.

Using this process, you have given the trainee tools for success. He can be self-reliant instead of depending on you. He performs and evaluates instead of waiting for approval. Now you will need to monitor until you are comfortable with his performance, but you have empowered him to succeed.

Now, just to make sure, please put these ideas in your own words and tell me how it should and should not be done. What are examples of poor training procedures? Just kidding, but you get the picture.

From contributor S:
In order for training to work in any case, the trainee must be willing to be trained. My policy has always been that I don't care where your skill level is right now, whether it's high or low, so long as you show a steady improvement. Low skilled workers can pretty quickly evolve into productive and profitable workers. And I have no use for people with "x" years experience if they are not willing to continue their education.

The trouble I've found is that if you don't have your Best Practices pretty well worked out, then they can perceive that as indecision or lack of commitment. I have been willing to let people do things the wrong way so that they can experience the reason that it is wrong. But if they are not in a self improvement mindset, this can backfire. I would like for us as a team to try different methods and evaluate together, which is the Best Practice, but it seems most people are more comfortable with doing things the way they've always done them, or how they were trained however many years ago.

The best success I've had is to write down the procedure for a given task from beginning to end and try not to leave out any detail. And by God, I had better be right when I write it down, because for one, they actually follow the instructions, so if I had made a mistake, that mistake comes out in the finished product. And for two, if they discover the mistake, then I never hear the end of it, and/or they lose faith in the instructions. It's surprising how much more seriously they take instructions if they are done in a computer and formatted and professional looking, rather than hand written. And verbal instructions sink in about as well as what my wife says to me as I leave the house at 5:30 a.m.

I think it's up to the employee to recognize that wherever they are in the learning curve, there is still a lot to learn and many ways to improve on what they already know. If they do recognize this, then training can be as easy as answering a few detail questions about where the glue bottle is and when the product is due for delivery. If they don't recognize this and think that they have been trained and they know everything they need to know, then it will be a never ending battle to get them to tell the difference between cherry and alder, or paint grade quality from stain grade quality, or how long a panel needs to stay in the clamp in the winter compared to the summer.

If you want to train a person to have a broad based understanding of cabinetry and business, then I think most of that responsibility is on the trainee. If you want to train a grunt to glue up panels or assemble box parts, then you need to write down every step and say "this is how it's done" and leave no room for discussion.

This is where I'm losing faith in Lean manufacturing. It seems that one of the tenets of Lean is that the people on the line have input, and sometimes final say on Best Practices. I used to think that the people doing the work would evaluate what they are doing and why they are doing it, and have good input on what would make their job easier, faster, better. But what I've found is that people are just as willing to do things upside down all day long if you don't set them up right side up.

From the original questioner:
Contributor M, your point about self-evaluation is a good one. All workers, especially the inexperienced ones, need some kind of criteria to know when they are performing properly. The best criteria will also tell them what to do if they arenít hitting that goal, (come find me if you are not done in one hour, else go do this).

Part of this training therefore requires a good system for process measurement.***

In a lot of woodshops, we try to turn people into problem solvers. We outline what needs to be done, then tell them to give it their best shot. We tell them to come find us if they are having a problem, but first we admonish them with the statement: "but I expect you to try!"

What we have just done here is make our least experienced person in charge of corporate policy. If the work around he comes up with is satisfactory to him, he does not need to come find us. This might be appropriate for one-of-a-kind pieces, but is just plain wrong for 90% of what we do. Anything that we do on a repetitive basis should be so simple and standardized that anyone with minimal experience can be successful. There are probably not very many activities in our shops that could not be mastered by a greenhorn in about three days. I'm not saying you could teach them everything in three days, but there is an awful lot they could be good at real quick if the training system was somewhat proactive rather than developed on an ad hoc basis.

For example: If you made a list of all the activities that happen in your shop and sorted them by workstation, you would easily be able to figure out all the things that happen on each workstation. From here it is a simple step to rank these activities from safest to most dangerous, quickest to longest, most often to least often. This approach will already have a training program in place before you even meet and hire Skippy. You will already know the first, second, third thing you are going to teach him.

A list like this will not only help with Skippyís edification, it will help you keep your more experienced people focused on activities that require more experience.

A lot of our missed opportunities simply come from the fact that our talented people spend too much time doing things that someone else with less skill should be doing. This does more than just raise your costs unnecessarily, it also deprives Skippy of some very important lessons. By using lists to manage task allocation, what you select for Skippy is automatically de-selected for Rex.

I'd rather have a talented woodworker investing his energies in developing a good looking furniture foot for a kitchen island. I'd like that foot to be able to respond to an out of level floor and be able to be installed after the Swedish finish is on the floor. Oh yeah, we're also going to need a way to explain it to the customer and a way to explain it to the installer (who is not at this meeting). When you are done with this problem, I will have another one for you.

***Itís been said that you canít improve something unless you can measure it. We knocked 30% out of our S4S time at the molder by simply changing how the outfeed was set up. It took an empirical measurement to convince everybody that the new outfeed was worth using. This is not just a savings in time, itís a savings in electricity and wear and tear on the molder! Our next foray here will be to set up the outfeed in such a way that you cannot run the machine without it in placeÖ (this would be *sustain*, the fifth S in Lean Manufacturing 5S programs).

From the original questioner:

Contributor S, "In order for training to work in any case, the trainee must be willing to be trained." This is a powerful statement. It speaks to what kind of people are the best to hire. (I sense a change in trajectory here.)

Mark Twain addressed this issue in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". When setting up his new culture, he found that he had to recruit the children at birth, else they would too quickly be inculcated into feudal society.

This is probably the best reason for having established Best Practices. By standardizing and simplifying your processes, you increase the pool of viable woodworkers. Instead of having to recruit for experience, you can recruit for good citizenship characteristics. These inexperienced people don't know any other way of doing things but your way.

Lean Manufacturing is about continuous improvement. People on the line having input is a good thing. What you just need to do is develop an acceptable protocol for petitioning change. This protocol might require some formal measurement benchmarks. It might even be paired up with some kind of reward structure... increased pay, time off, picture on the wall. If anybody can convince you it's a better way, you will make their day better too. That's the carrot side.

James Womack includes a chapter in his book about how to respond to people who won't buy in to the new paradigm. He divides the crew up into three groups. The early adopters, the fence sitters and the concrete heads. This last group, for a variety of reasons, will never get behind the Lean initiative. They will do everything they can to convince the fence sitters to not join the early adopters. These people, if they are in a position of leadership, must do their leading elsewhere.

Lean is a concept. Continuous improvement is the foundation. Getting to Lean is not easy. This is why it provides such lasting advantages to the companies who can do it. Work on that protocol part. If your guys are making suggestions, keep listening. They make these suggestions because they care. You just need to give them some structure to direct these improvements

From contributor S:
"Lean is a concept. Continuous improvement is the foundation."

I have personally adopted this philosophy of continuous improvement, but getting employees to do the same is a different deal. Egos are too much of an obstacle. In order to learn new things (willingly) you must first admit that there are things you don't know. This is especially tough with people who have been through a training program where emphasis is on company policy rather than what is truly the best practice. It starts with a school system that teaches children to memorize and hoop jump (No Child Left Behind) rather than think and problem solve.

In my Lean Never Never Land, employees would come to work regardless of skill level, learn something new every day, communicate with each other, try different methods just for fun, read, ask questions, be curious, not be satisfied with half assed (either quality or speed). And our combined experience would grow exponentially.

In reality, people seem to want to do things the same way every day. They get frustrated when I ask them to try something new or rearrange the setup to try to make things easier. I find that I have to test and prove new methods in the evenings and weekends before introducing them to the shop.

Woodworking seems to be a mix of about 10% to 15% highly skilled and difficult planning, to 85% to 90% grunt labor (sanding, feeding boards into table saw, rip saw, sander, or molder, more sanding, even more sanding). The people willing to do this grunt work day in and day out for $10 to $15 per hour aren't necessarily the people you can ask for input in system setup.

From contributor M:
Contributor S, how do you reward employee input? Do you have a formal procedure, cash prize for used ideas? I am not saying that I do, but I need to consider it. This helps the guys start thinking more about the process (think and problem solve) than just show up for work and perform the task (memorize and hoop jump).

Not all suggestions will be good ones. But you could ask why they think this would be better than what you are doing now. This could lead to some evaluation... and this is higher-level thinking, when you compare and contrast two different ideas.

From contributor X:
Just a reminder! There are people that are left handed and there are those that are right handed. Scissors were first made for right handed people. A specialty item of scissors for lefthanders is now being made. Lefthanders have to cope with the right handed world. What's good for one group of people may not be the best choice for all.