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People are your most critical resource

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email
People are the most critical resource in companies. We realize this especially now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink and readjust to how we work and how we keep distance from each other.
As we work through this crisis, we realize what we should have done a long time ago and where we have fallen short on dealing with our human resources. I hope, when adjusting to a new normal, we do not forget to address these missed opportunities. We should not go on with our life and deal with the issues day by day but rather make and execute a plan on how to improve the human factor in our companies.

Does the management team provide the required leadership?
Leadership is a skill that motivates employees and helps people reach their fullest potential. People often say that you are either a natural leader or you are not? It is true some people seem to be gifted with that trait. But leadership is also a skill, and as such, it can be learned. The same can be said if you are seven feet tall. That alone does not automatically make you a great basketball player. You have a good starting position, but you still need to learn and train.
Are you, as the owner or key manager, satisfied with your leadership skills? There are many ways of improving these skills. Peer group coaching, training courses and seminars are just some of the ways to enhance these skills.
Are you reviewing your team and recognizing employees with potential for leadership positions? Developing future leaders is not a short-term exercise. We have learned that the best worker does not always make the best supervisor and manager. To promote from within you need to think in longer terms and develop 
the employees.

Motivation is critical! Is there more than just monetary rewards/motivation?
If people just come to work for the pay cheque we know that this is not a long-term strategy. There is a saying that employees will start working with you for the money, but they will leave because of the manager. This means money is a motivator, but only short-term. After receiving pay cheque for a while, and the initial financial needs are met, other motivators must kick in. 
You can offer more money, but you might price yourself out of business. You need to align your company with the employee’s motivation factors. If you want more output or higher productivity, you can build incentive systems. Piecework worked well in the days of big production runs, but is difficult to manage in a Lean environment. Systems where the individual speed is encouraged (like in a traditional piecework system) will be counter-productive when you need to work as a team and be synchronized. More suitable monetary incentives are based on group/team performance and often based on reaching defined Key Performance Measurements (KPM’s).

What is important for the employee?
Do they need more flexible hours? If it can be incorporated into your processes, then it could be an easy win. Are they bored with their tasks? Moving employees around could improve that and increase cross-training. Sometimes, the implementation of morning meetings, where employees are given time to improve their own workplace can make their work much more interesting. When we think back to how difficult it was to hire additional staff, it should be worth spending some time and thinking about a way to find out what really motivates the employees. It will be a lot of small and simple things, and often not that expensive.
How well are your employees qualified and trained? Do you know who can do what and how well? Is there a qualification matrix documenting the skills inventory in your company? Such a matrix can be made in different ways. Some companies have a big chart and some just build an Excel spreadsheet. In the first column you would put all the names of employees and for larger companies all employees of a department. The headers along the top are specific skills, for example: operating edgebander, operating CNC machine #123, assemble cabinets on the line, operating a forklift (licence), etc. The Supervisor now gives a rating, for example:
1. In training (and can operate the machine safely but needs help in troubleshooting and setup)
2. Basic skills (safe and productive operation of the machine)
3. Skilled (can operate the machine, troubleshoot and perform regular maintenance
4. Instructor level operator (can operate the machine and train new employees in safe and efficient operation)

This evaluation can be done by the supervisor/manager or, even better, in cooperation with the individual as a part of the regular evaluation conversation. There might be some disagreement on how the employee evaluates themselves versus how the supervisor does. Generally, these discussions lead to a clear (or at least clearer) understanding of what is expected from an employee. The employee also has the chance to say he/she needs training in specific skills.
For the manager, the matrix will show the reality of the skills level. It will often show that the best and only operator of key machines only rated “1” or “2”. Intuitively, everyone knows what the skill level situation is, but nothing shows management the real picture better than this type of chart. Giving clear objectives to management and HR to address strategic shortages allows better management controls. Everyone wants and talks about cross training, but if the idea is not followed up by clear action items (and actions) nothing will happen. As you review this matrix periodically, you can see which supervisor took the time to arrange cross training in their department. We can all imagine how much more manageable a business is if the key machines have operators lined up “two and three deep”. In the long run, employees will be motivated by this because they can see how they are picking up extra skills and becoming more valuable.

As the skills matrix reveals where the demand is for additional training, the company needs to implement a system to cross-train. When companies are not committed to an actual cross-training plan, the only time they talk about is when they are missing a key operator – “We need to do more cross-training!” But when the crisis is over, we are ok with what we have and do not address it until the next crisis. With employees having the ability to work on different workstations the factory becomes more flexible. This means flexibility to overcome seasonal volume swings, and is much easier to do vacation and holiday scheduling. It is also much easier for the employees to avoid mandatory overtime 
as the company does not need to insist on specific workers 
to be present.
As a side note, flexibility and cross-training is helpful between office staff and plant employees. This also helps to reduce the cultural wall between plant and office.

Are employees trained 
in problem solving 
methodology and can they 
use these methods?
Many tools and methods are available and used in many companies. The Lean Manufacturing toolbox has many practical methods available: Continuous Improvement methods, KAIZEN, S.M.E.D. (set-up time reduction), Poka-Yoke (error proofing), bottleneck analysis, KPI’s, Value Stream Analysis just to name a few. Other methods are brainstorming, decision trees, statistical process control or even experimental design. It is not necessary to learn them all. Select and train on a few, and really use them as part of your company’s way of doing things.

When driving for excellence in all aspects of a company and applying leading edge technology, and when developing innovative products and drive for world-class manufacturing we must take management of the most important resource seriously. It is the human factor which is holding this all together.

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