Settin' Some With Sonny

July 1, 2002
The dumbing-down of operator interfaces may be the result of reduced training, not bad people

When I wrote about the dumbing-down of operator interface two months ago, I didn't anticipate the volume of response it would generate. The reader mail in this month's Feedback section is a representative cross-section of the reaction we received.

While a number of you don't see the situation quite as perilously as I do, just about everyone agreed that this dumbing-down is real and probably growing in application.

Many of you argued that lack of training is perhaps the biggest culprit in this mess. Granted, you're not uniformly thrilled with the quality of your customers' operators, but, not surprisingly, I'm hearing that's the result of reduced training, not bad people.

So, with that in mind, what the heck did happen to training?

Most of us that have been around for a while recognize the cyclic nature of perceived training value. No, that's not right. Almost everyone perceives the value. The ups and downs come from training being a convenient line-item expense to reduce when times get tough.

I remember a trip many years ago to one of my company's factories. The local machine training program was referred to as "settin' by Sonny." A new employee was told by the foreman to go pull up a stool beside Sonny and do what he did. There wasn't much emphasis on what the machine did or how it did it. Sonny didn't know either.

That changed for the better over time. Regardless of whether quality circles or TQM or Management by Objectives was the pet culture of the moment, an overall better understanding of the machine, the process, and the goals was the result. Hardly perfect, but better.

The recessions of the early '90s and early '00s moved training back two steps for every step it took forward. We've not recovered from its effects yet.

Now, in fairness, one of the things that's made training more difficult these days is that technology changes so rapidly. Even 15 years ago, once an employee was well-trained in a function, that job wasn't likely to change much for a while. Now we're expecting operators, technicians, everyone, to learn as they produce.

In talking this up with people who should know, I find that some of the reduced-training rationalization comes from an understandable, though in some cases obsessive, focus on ROI lately. ROI is everywhere.

Return on investment is obviously the cornerstone of company profitability, so I'm not here to ridicule its value. But when a company gets locked into an ROI-or-else culture, there will be problems. "OK, Mr. Department Head, please demonstrate how you can guarantee a quantifiable, verifiable two-year (or less) return on your training dollars. You're competing for tight money here, so the numbers better be plenty compelling." Gulp.

The return on training is verifiable and it can be quantified, but operator effectiveness is linked to many factors; some are beyond the control of that operator, and some will result from other productivity initiatives going on in parallel. Find me a company that balances ROI demands with a fundamental core-value belief in an intelligent work force, and I'll show you a company that won't be asking you for remedial OI.

Some of you may think "That's nice, Joe, but this is my customer's problem, not mine." Maybe not entirely. It may make sense to start asking your customer how he needs to justify the control system he's thinking of specifying on that machine. The conversation may turn to the big payback that can come with well-trained operators.

You can help him more than you think. Even more than Sonny.

E-mail Joe at [email protected].

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