The Skinny on Training in the Lean Organization
As the challenges of training evolve, so does the definition of lean.
An organization cannot become lean without tons of training.

Think about that oxymoron for a moment. It takes time to train, time that a lean organization cannot sacrifice. Training in this industry, which utilizes many varying yet intertwined processes, has traditionally taken the form of on-the-job training (OJT) versus a formal, classroom-style format. In any organization, especially a lean one, OJT is much easier to administrate and far less disruptive to employees and production than other types of training. In a service industry, even in support positions off the shop floor, it is much easier to take someone offline and plunk them down for formal training. In a lean manufacturing environment, however, excess resources in any given job function or department are rare. Hence, most training is integrated into the daily workflow as OJT.

But the type of training needed today is complicating this reliance on OJT. Owners or managers in manufacturing companies – regardless of industry – tell me the no. 1 issue they face is identifying, recruiting and hiring good employees. The subset to this challenge always mentioned by hiring managers includes themes along the lines of finding millennials who consistently show up for work; older people with skills or abilities; and anyone who is committed to a career versus a short-term job. Add language and legal status to the mix and hiring and retaining people – good people – becomes not just challenging, but almost impossible!

Increasingly, the type of training needed is changing and more time-intensive. For many these changing needs are far less intuitive. For older workers, learning to operate software-driven equipment that replaces an older electromechanical device (levers and knobs) can be time-consuming and daunting. Ditto for learning about cybersecurity, how to access encrypted, password-protected websites to gain access for, and then reply to, customer quotations, etc. For millennials who may have extensive computer, software and digital knowledge, learning to interact with different generations of people (without texting), being consistent in attendance and action so they can become a valued part of a team, or, for that matter, even knowing what exactly a true work team is, can be as intense as learning a foreign language. And speaking of language, harmonizing several foreign languages within a common work environment, especially in light of operating equipment, software and peer interactions, can challenge the most patient of us. Yet this is becoming the training norm.

Which makes OJT less viable when the subject matter to be taught is so generic, varied, and non-task-driven. Everyone in industry who relies on an older, soon-to-retire workforce, especially ours with its range of specific processes utilizing a mix of legacy and state-of-the-art equipment, needs to rethink training. That means rethinking not only how training should be conducted, but also what training is needed by which generation, level of experience, or tenure of employee.

OJT does not lend itself to instructing many of the needs we now must master. When so many need to learn how to manipulate a new software program, or master online tools to manage the onslaught of passwords, or become familiar with a new regulation or standard, it is best to commit the time and resources to train employees in a more formal classroom or online setting. Employees need to become comfortable learning in varied environments, including their workstation, machine, cubicle or even home.

The expectation of responsibility by employees, like training needs, may require a similar shift in thought within the electronics industry. In many other industries, employees are required to spend personal time taking assigned training courses to stay current on processes, equipment, and regulations that impact their work. Performance reviews and compensation are often tied to the employee’s completion and mastery of content, demonstrated by passing quizzes after each training segment. Our industry may need to adopt the same expectations and commit to investing in content and courses critical for success.

Online courses are currently available in many areas, from safety through quality analysis to specific administrative and operational process skills. Software and digital overviews and deep dives in training are available to assist employees transitioning from the electromechanical world to the digital age. Courses for certification to standards, as well as basic skills in how to interact with peers, are also well-suited to online training. The challenge for managers is to identify what is needed in the organization and by whom, and then overlay the available courses and optimal delivery methodology. All this is a paradigm shift from the familiar and much less disruptive training environment we are accustomed to with OJT.

Given all that, how does training contribute to a lean business environment, especially given the dynamic our industry now faces? As training needs and delivery methodology change, so too does the concept of lean. How employees interact with machinery, people and now even robotics is rapidly evolving. Knowledge that allows independence of action is increasingly more important. The days of a work cell being made up only of humans is giving way to smart machinery, requiring workers with programming skills, not just operations abilities. The definition of lean may soon have more to do with how thoroughly a person masters a piece of equipment, rather than how many different pieces of equipment they master.

Peter Bigelow
Peter Bigelow
is president and CEO of IMI Inc. (; His column appears monthly.