Respecting Maintenance and Operational Skill

I recently read a fascinating article from Japan concerning a new “trend” at Toyota where they are reintroducing manual processes along-side their automated robotic processes. Essentially, they are putting smiths into their factories where workers are taught how to fashion something like a crankshaft by hand.

They are still making nearly all their parts by robots, and they always will. The point of these manual processes is so that employees can better understand what the robots are doing. What they have found is that their process improvement efforts were stalling without this process knowledge. Once they started building the hands-on knowledge, they experienced fantastic results:

Learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn’t get from picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on machines. At about 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota’s factories in Japan, these lessons can then be applied to reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes…

…workers twist, turn and hammer metal into crankshafts instead of using the typically automated process. Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.

What Toyota is rediscovering here is respect for actual skill. In the vast majority of refrigeration plants I visit, there is a pool of skill in the operating staff that is not being used properly. Worse yet, companies often are unwilling to invest in building skill into their operating staff. A common thought I hear from management is: “What if we train them and they leave?” My response to that is always: “What if you don’t train them and they stay?”

One place where I see this is in Operating Procedures. As a consultant, I am often asked to write Operating Procedures for clients. While it’s certainly possible that a consultant can write a compliant SOP without operator input, it’s extremely unlikely that the resulting SOP will be looked upon kindly by your operating staff. Ideally, you want operator input into the SOP itself so that it truly reflects the way they operate.

In any case, you are losing something when you have a consultant write your SOPs, even if you are getting operator input. What you are losing is the struggle to create them and the skill that the struggle builds. The next time you need a new or modified SOP, you are going to have to call another consultant because you haven’t built the in-house skills necessary to do it yourselves.

In the Toyota article, they discuss one of the practices that they stopped using in a rush to expand. As they explained it, when you were a newly assigned executive, they would give you a project with a three month deadline. Your immediate supervisor knew how to complete the project in three weeks and their bosses knew how to complete it in a matter of days. But at Toyota, they didn’t tell you how to solve the problem. They made you struggle and that struggle built experience in a way that just GIVING you the answers didn’t. They’ve reintroduced this practice because it built SKILL.

We can use this same approach to SOPs: If your people already have the operational skill to understand the process and only lack the skill to write the compliant SOP, you’d be better off investing your efforts in having someone to teach the operators how to write the SOP. Think of it as a training that allows you to “in-source” your SOP building.

I’ve done this all over the country now and in about three days I have always been able to train operators (some of which have very limited computer skills) to use my SOP format templates to write compliant SOPs. Most operators already possess the skills and process knowledge of how the process operates; what they lack is the skill to write the compliant SOP. They WILL struggle, but that’s what I am there to help them with.

Furthermore, the SOPs they build are THEIR SOPs and not some consultant’s. They are significantly more likely to follow the SOPs because THEY were part of their creation and THEY believe them to be accurate.

If you have a budget to get compliant SOPs, please consider training your own staff to create them. You’ll be respecting and utilizing the skill they have while building some new ones. You will not only build the SOPs, you will also build a better maintenance staff.

About Brian Chapin

PSM / RMP Compliance Consultant
This entry was posted in General Information. Bookmark the permalink.