The Challenge of Lean Human Resource Development, and A Modest Proposal

Good question from Alberto about how Chinese companies who are pursuing Lean manufacturing are managing to invest in their people. There is a lot of truth to the stereotype of the Chinese factory worker doing very simple tasks, in a batch or on an assembly line, without the Lean mainstays of cross-training or creative problem solving and kaizen through QC circles or suggestion systems. I have seen few companies in China who have seen past the low cost of labor and the high turnover rates which create a double disincentive to invest in people.
How exactly do Toyota managers go about “building people before building products”? How feasible is it to copy this approach in a low cost, low skill, high turnover workforce? Before any company goes about copying tools or practices visible at Toyota, it is important to understand the underlying thinking or culture behind documenting work standards or developing a cross-training effort using the skill matrix.
The system at Toyota came about in part due to the vision of the founders and their belief in human development, but also by the social value placed on employment security of lifetime employment in Japan. Today Japanese companies may not realistically begin 40-year work plan for their new employees, but this thinking was the norm in the early decades after Deming’s ideas were combined with Ford’s system, the methods of Gilbreth and the philosophy of Smiles to form the foundational elements of the Toyota Production System.
Compare this to the United States where job mobility creates challenges for Lean human resource development, from the point of view of the employer doing the investment in people. According to facts from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website, one-quarter of all employees have worked at their current job for less than one year and the median number of years the average American worker has been at their current job is 3.5 years. Managers and professionals stay for an average of 4.8 years, the highest rate, while the least stable workforce is food service, averaging 1.5 years at the same job.
If statistics and averages are to be believed, it appears that in the United States the typical worker will not repay the employer’s effort to develop them with loyalty to the company. Perhaps this job-hopping behavior is a symptom of the American employer’s lack of effort at long-term development of their people, when compared to the typical Japanese company of the 1950s – 1990s.
One of our clients in China is a foreign enterprise with factories here. They have a Lean manufacturing program that is gaining momentum. This company has a good global reputation for quality and delivery, and a reputation locally in China for providing good training for their workers. This company also has excellent human resource development programs for salaried staff. Even though by Lean standards the training given to the shop floor workers is inadequate, many workers come from the countryside of China to work at our client’s factories, get basic training in factory work, and move on to another factory down the street for slightly better pay.
Why would an employer invest in people in this environment? If it takes 2 to 3 years to successfully change the behavior from traditional Lean management or from novice to experienced Lean manager, or from a relatively unskilled worker to a Lean team leader, why invest in hew hires who are likely to leave for other employment as soon as they are trained? This is a huge challenge of Lean human resource development.
Here is a modest proposal to promote human resource development and enhance job skills: replace the resume with the skill matrix. The skill matrix makes the development of work skills highly visible to both the employer and the worker. Problems with training, work standards, or turnover become quickly visible when you use the skill matrix.
If all employers contribute to the development of people who work for them even for a short time, the overall skill level of the workforce improves. Those employers that do not take part in skill development will be less desirable places to work, so in a free job market, good employers and good employees would win.
Prospective employers use various techniques to interview, profile and screen professional or management candidates in addition to reviewing the career achievements, memberships and certifications. Yet often these are end-result statements only such as “finished university” or “gained certification” or “reduced cost by $2 million”. What was the process used? Was it luck? Does this person bring a flexible set of skills to do it again, in a different work environment? A skill matrix would make this visual, and employees could tell stories about the results they achieved in terms of what they learned and portable skills gained.
In a future full of Lean employers, we should say “Don’t send resume, send skill matrix.” If we create a demand for documentation of skills, employees will demand training from employers It will not be hard to develop a simple, cross-industry standard for job skills. If a set of skills needed for a certain job is not defined, a job description or a work standard is a good place to start.
Many of us don’t even know what skills we have, how we measure up against the job requirements, or whether these skills are known or are desirable to employers. Can you read? Fill in part of the skill matrix. Can you type? Fill in another. Can you facilitate discussion? Color in part of the circle. Can you lead effective meetings? Run a CNC router? Use Minitab?
A “yes” or “no” is not enough, since on the skill matrix there is a big difference between a blank skill and a skill even partially filled in. The effort to learn, and admission that you still have much to learn, is the critical gap between “yes” and “no”. Motivating people to close this gap step by step, making the progress visual, and valuing people development as part of the bottom line is true Lean thinking.

1 Comment

  1. Alberto

    November 21, 2007 - 7:21 am

    Hi Jon.
    Thank you for tha answer. even though it was a bit long it is a quite interesting article.
    My guess of improving that kind of practices in China is with Lean Education adapted to factory workers, we have to remember that waiting times can also be used for training or education.
    Thanks for the tip on the skill matrix, it is really usefull for us that are barely beggining our professional careers, it is true that employers want to know more what skills do you have to acomplish tasks more than whichtasks have you acomplished.