How to Get a Skilled Workforce

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/

Image Courtesy of Gualberto107/

Right now we have a shortage of skilled labor in the manufacturing environment.  It is my observation that this shortage comes from three main areas: retirement of experience, educational demands, and an emphasis on college degrees.  But regardless of the reasons (and we will delve into that) I think I have come up with a solution.

So stop whining, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work.

The Reasons…

Loss of Experience

The Baby-Boomers are retiring.  This restless, workaholic generation is getting to the age where they can enjoy the golden years.  The baby-boomers were born from 1946 to 1964, putting the oldest of this group at age 68 and the youngest at age 50.  Many of those from this generation started working right out of high school with a company and, in the age of benefits and pensions, stayed with that company for the required 25 years before they could start drawing on their retirement funds.  That means that the earliest of the baby-boomers started retiring in the early 1970’s!  We have seen a decline in capabilities ever since.

Educational Demands

Not only have vocational training options been in a decline over the last several decades, but the technological requirements have been climbing exponentially.  Now, for a mechanic, not only does he need to understand how to turn a wrench, but also how to lock out equipment, interface with pneumatics, hydraulics, and even PLCs and light ladder-logic programming.

Electricians have seen their trade go from simple dry contacts and relay-logic to smart instruments, networking (Ethernet, ModBus, Profibus, DeviceNet), and a dominating world of micro controllers and systems such that even the simplest of machines have to communicate to another controller.

Machine operators are expected to understand how to work with HMIs (Human-Machine Interfaces) that are increasingly complex.  They have to troubleshoot on a daily basis with equipment that is both mechanically and electrically more complex than ever before.  Additionally, companies are trying to run leaner and have reduced technical support functions to a minimum, requiring that operators know more about how their equipment works and how to fix it for simple repairs.

Everyone has to go to College

Only 62% of college graduates are actually working at their education level.  Only 27% of grads are working in a field of their degrees.  So why is there such an emphasis on college?

We have been conditioned in my generation that we must go to college if we want to have a successful life.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of education.  But I feel that our educational system is broken as well as overstated.  We are being educated in the wrong things.  Some people are just going to college to get the degree.  I know of several people (and maybe you are one of them) that went to college before they knew what they wanted to do for a living.  Most people don’t even figure it out until they graduate.

However, college tuition is getting to a point that the average student will pay over $120,000 after 4-years (this is from the University of Illinois for Resident).  If that is taken out in a student loan and paid back over 10 years it will require a monthly payment of over $1,300 (from  The recommended annual salary to pay back this loan is over $100,000.  As a matter of fact, you have to extend the term to 30 years to get below a $100,000 annual salary.  Really?  Is this realistic?

The Solution?

Get your company to do some research on how you can tap into government funds.  There should be some options with your local government or state that can help you offset some of these costs.

Look into apprenticeship programs.  The oldie is a goodie.  You can pay a smaller wage to the inexperienced and incentivize them to take classes and perform onsite qualifier tests to move to the next wage bracket.  Get back to building your own trained workforce.

Develop your own training programs.  Stop trying to hire them in with the technical skills.  Teach them yourself.  Create a training program that is supplemented with community college programs.  You can even bring back that retired expert part-time as a trainer so that he can teach your young folks how to work on your specific equipment.

Talk to your community colleges about adding vocational studies.  Partnering with these schools can help to get your costs down and provides you access to additional resources.

In short, stop expecting to find the right person off of the street.  It is probably not going to happen.  Instead, stop complaining and make something happen.  Create your own talented workforce.


Ockham’s Razor doesn’t Always Work

Image courtesy of adamr/

Image courtesy of adamr/

The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

But this isn’t always true when it comes to people.  We are exceedingly complex; emotionally, socially, psychologically.  Humans are influenced by internal, unseen drivers just as much (if not more) than obvious external stimuli.

The problem is not that the method of Ockham’s razor is flawed.  The issue is that there is typically insufficient data to arrive at reasonable assumptions in the first place.

In Life

I love my wife dearly, but I just don’t understand her sometimes.  I’m sure she would say the same of me as well.  Most of the time we try to be honest and open with one another, but it isn’t always easy.

I have recently had to deal with the death of my dog, Sandy.  She was very important to me and it has been a difficult recovery.  I don’t always show things the same way that my wife expects me to, and she interprets that as a different emotion.  Likewise, she tries coping with the loss in ways that I can’t understand.

As a result, based on the data we have observed, we have made assumptions about one another.  Those assumptions led us to believe that our assessments of one another were accurate because they were the simplest of the solutions.  However, our assumptions were wrong, based on a misinterpretation of the data, and we have had to engage in more open dialogue to better understand one another through our grieving processes.

This is true in many personal situations when interacting with friends, family, and acquaintances.  We make assumptions that lead to judgment.  It is natural.  It’s human.  It’s complicated.

At Work

We often forget that people are people.  We try to separate work from home, but that doesn’t really happen.  We have a hard time relating to people that we simply don’t know well.  We may be having a rough day and then someone asks something of us that is troublesome and we immediately jump to conclusions about motive and method.

Solving problems at work is easier when it is about a machine, a program or a system.  Those things don’t muddy the waters with emotion and intellect.  They simply work.  People, on the other hand, react, anticipate, judge, emote, and in general, complicate the work environment.  This level of complexity can be a bit much and the data is too intricate to fully understand.  As a result we make assumptions about people, but our assumptions can lead us astray.

A Good Assumption

I have found my own razor when working with others.

This person’s intentions were right and good unless otherwise proven.

By using this razor I have simplified my life.  It has prompted me to ask questions, get to know people, and expect decency from others.  It has changed my perspective of people.  And I firmly believe it is true.

I challenge you to take one week and apply this razor to your life.  See if it changes you.

Placing Blame: It’s All Your Fault


It is easy to point fingers and highlight problems.  The difficulty comes with solving the issues.  If you find yourself finding problems more than you are solving them, you may want to change your approach.

The problem is perception.  While you may think you are doing a good thing, you are really just creating work for other people.  Granted, it may need to be done, but it creates a negative vibe and that doesn’t help to motivate.

What are Some Alternatives?

Instead of just pointing out the problems, try partnering the issue with a potential solution.  Take some time to work out a way to fix the problem before you tell someone about it, especially if it is something that is not directly under your authority to fix.

If you get into a finger-pointing match try to take the conversation back to a root-cause analysis.  Even an informal RCA discussion will start your conversation on the path of figuring out how to fix something rather than trying to figure out whose fault it is.  Blaming doesn’t do any good if the problem still exists.  Using 5-Why or Fishbone diagrams are examples of more formal ways to conduct an RCA and may be appropriate depending on the complexity of the problem or the audience you need to convince.

Be willing to own the problem, or at least help with fixing it.  It makes the pill a lot easier to swallow if you are willing to work with people to get things done.  You may make some valuable allies along the way as well.  Remember that you probably have some issues of your own that you haven’t identified that your new ally may be willing to help you with down the road.

Set aside personal agendas and do what is best for the organization.  Allocate some of your labor or budget to fix the problem if it is worth it.  Your generosity will help the organization and will earn you more respect in the long run.

Create a list and prioritize.  Stephen Covey, in his book First Things First, uses a quadrant approach to categorize items as Not-Urgent/Not-Important, Urgent/Not-Important, Not-Urgent/Important, and Urgent/Important.  Using this method is a good way to categorize your finds and determine the amount of effort that needs to be put to them.  Keep in mind, however, that your filter may not be the same as others and take that into consideration when working in groups.

If you are approached by a finger-pointer, guide the discussion one of the directions above so that you are talking solutions rather than taking the blame or retaliating.  Remember, it is easy to find problems, but it is difficult to find solutions.  The people that find solutions are the valuable people in an organization.

Survival of the Most Adaptable

be like water

I read an interesting blog post about the responsibilities of companies to change their views of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.  This article is about corporate social responsibility and the ways that we interact with nature.  While I think it is a great post, I would like to talk about the same concept, but on a level that is more for the manufacturing middle-management folks.

Let’s interpret the phrase “survival of the fittest” to be “the best at adapting”.  In business that means flexibility, versatility, and nimbleness.  But how can we influence these factors when we are a cog in the big business machine?

  1. Strategic development of a process model that allows for smaller runs and higher flexibility.  As an Operations Leader, you have the ability to influence how you design your department.  Most companies are looking for the big runs, fewer changeovers, and highest volume.  But what if you could create a section of your department that is specialized at small runs, reduced inventory, and high-speed turnaround?  Could you provide a service to customers at a premium?  Could you handle frequent changeovers as a matter of course?  Check out QRM.  This methodology might be able to help you get started with something.
  2. Stop focusing on reducing changeover time and start focusing on eliminating minor stops.  Let’s look at a typical production line.  If you run a product for 16 hours with equipment speeds of 20 cases/minute you should see 19,200 cases at the end of that time.  But it takes you 20 hours to run that amount.  Then you have to perform a 2-hour changeover to the next product.  Most companies want to reduce changeover time because that is downtime where you are making zero units.  But the changeover has to happen.  Even if you cut the changeover time in half you only saved 1 hour.  But it took you an extra 4 hours to run the product.  Cut that in half and you save 2 hours.  Minor stops on a line can result in huge hits on efficiency.  Quicker runs equal more capacity for new volume.
  3. Slow down to speed up.  It sounds like taboo, but Maintenance groups will tell you that if you run your car at 9000 rpm you won’t get as far as if you run it at 3000 rpm.  But that is exactly what we do to our production equipment.  We run it to the max and shorten its life and Mean-Time Between Failure (MTBF).  This not only increases downtime and Maintenance costs, but it also reduces the machine’s availability for more volume.  Conduct a constraint analysis on your line and set the limiting machine to at least 10% below its maximum rate.  You will see a smoother run and a more predictable life of the equipment.  Remember, it is about cases out of the door, not units per minute off of the filler.
  4. Set goals for management and supervisors that reward flexibility.  It is a difficult thing to do, but try setting department KPIs around how you manage the department, not how much volume you push through the door.  You may have to create a set of KPIs that you track internally and still publish the ones that upper management wants to see.  Think about how the behaviors of your team will benefit your business and create metrics around those behaviors.  It will take some thought, but you will have a better performing system out of the deal.

Project Management Gone Awry


One of the nice things about being American is that the government always gives us an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  It doesn’t matter your political views, government is messed up.

So with the latest fiasco with Obamacare (or the Affordable Care Act, if you prefer…but Obamacare is so much easier to say) we can see how the website rollout was a poorly managed project.  Let’s do some inferring and see why.

A project is really about syncing three things: Scope, Quality, Time.  Let’s look at how these things are interconnected and how we can make sure we observe some basic understanding of what to do.

The scope must not have been well defined for the website since the major issue was that too many people were trying to log on at once.  This should have been projected as a risk during the definition portion of the project and a mitigation strategy designed.  Now, I am not a web designer or network engineer, so please forgive the errors I may state and feel free to correct me if you have knowledge in these areas.

The system should have been designed to manage the peaks of the users.  The traffic should have been projected and then doubled.  I know that some of the States had their own systems and that needed to be factored in as well.  But there are mathematicians that can help with the statistics.  There are design criteria for the servers and workflow processes.  Some users could have been given a “sorry” message rather than having their information lost when applying for healthcare.

Obviously, the timeline was not reasonable since the website clearly wasn’t ready.  This should have been a pushback to the White House.  Another option would be to cut back the scope or quality of the site, but since that was probably not a good option, they should have delayed the start.

In the political environment, you have to pay attention to what is promised to the people.  The web site designers should have been regularly communicating with the President (their Sponsor) who in turn is communicating to the people (the Stakeholders).  The President and system designers should have been on the same page with timing, capability, and expectations so that everyone understood what was going to happen.  If it would have been stated that the site could only handle so many users, it would have been better received when there were issues and the corrections could have happened immediately.


  • Clearly understand your objectives and create a comprehensive scope.
  • Listen to your Sponsor.
  • Predict the needs of the users.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

As with Leadership, Project Management boils down to communication.  Communication of expectations, progress, and reality.  We all want an optimist to lead, but reality has to be part of what is communicated.  People can tell the difference between hope and reality if you give them the information to distinguish between the two.

Flavor of the Month…Again


It works great for ice cream shops, but not for business.  Flavors of the month create cynicism and lower morale.  Change is necessary for the success of any organization, but too much change or (even more detrimental) change for the sake of change can have the opposite effect.

Signs you are touting the next FOTM.

  1. You just read an inspiring article or went to a seminar and are eager to implement what you learned.
  2. You still haven’t seen the results of your current program.
  3. Your current program is younger than 3 years old.
  4. People still don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish.
  5. You are describing your current program but just using a different vocabulary.

Methods on not getting caught up in the hype.

  1. Give the existing program time.  Just because you aren’t seeing the results now doesn’t mean that you won’t.  Do a reality check and make sure you are staying true to what you have in place and that the system is being used to its full potential.  It is likely that you have drifted off course and simply need a tune-up, not an overhaul.
  2. Let your ideas mature.  Don’t get caught up in the newest fad.  Most programs are based in similar ideas and are just a different way of looking at it.  A shirt is still a shirt even if you call it a blouse, top, chemise, or tee.  The function is the same.  Focus on function, not frill.
  3. Look at your progress.  If you are seeing gains, stay the course.  The program is working.  That’s not to say it couldn’t be doing better, but you can work to enhance the program without gutting it.
  4. Talk to people.  Do they get what you are trying to accomplish?  If the organization understands the reasons for the program then you are winning.  Let them pull the program in the right direction rather than you pushing it.  Create that shift of power and your program will rapidly accelerate.

Keep your goals simple and make sure the organization is all in step with the nature of the program.  So what if people aren’t saying the right phrases, that will come with time.  Do they understand what they are trying to accomplish and how to do so?   Make sure that your people are the cornerstone of your program and they will make sure it succeeds for you.

The Fear of Failure

failure11Check out this post on failure…

I am constantly afraid of failing.  I don’t mean that I am afraid to the point of petrification.  Fear is a motivator, an adrenaline jump start.  Fear keeps us looking for the solution.

This is an obvious post, but why do we constantly have to talk about hesitation due to fear?  Fear is natural and we innately want to avoid it.  I find myself guilty of it and I’m sure you all have fallen victim to fear’s clutches as well.  But how do you turn fear into a motivator if that is not something you are used to doing?

1. Get a support group.  Have a close group of people that you can confide in when you are fearful and make sure that they are motivators.  Sometimes all you need is that person to say, “You can do this.”

2. Make a habit of winning.  We are creatures of habit, there is no doubt about it.  Once you make a habit of something it is hard to break.  So do the same with overcoming your fear.  Make simple choices and break up the task into little obstacles that can easily become wins.  Once you start winning, you will continue to push yourself to do so.

3. Stop and think.  Most times we look at something that frightens us, like the unknown, and we make it bigger than what it really is.  Think back to when you were afraid of the shadows when you were a kid.  When you stopped to convince yourself that it was just a jacket on the back of the chair, you were confident enough to get out from under the covers.  Analyze your fear and you will find that you can create a plan to overcome it.

4. What is the worst-case scenario if you do fail?  Usually, it is not as bad as you originally thought.  Typically it can be offset with a few precautions.  Understanding the risk makes it seem less risky.

5. Get some perspective.  How much does it really matter if you don’t succeed?  Nine times out of ten it will not matter much at all (except to you) and when it does matter, the effects are not as far reaching as you first thought.  Not everyone is looking at you and waiting for you to fail, you just think they are.

Just remember that failure can become a motivator, just as much as success.  Look back at your worst failures and you just might realize they weren’t that bad to begin with.  Besides, most of the biggest success stories have a lot of failure in front of them that you just don’t read about.

How else can you get over your fear of failing?

Government Shut Downs & Negotiation Failures



Let’s try to learn something from our politicians.  I don’t want to make this a political commentary, so I am going to stay away from Left or Right stances and just talk about how the U.S. federal government really needs to learn how to negotiate.

We all negotiate.  Whether it be at work or at home (negotiating with my wife is usually depressing for me).  Negotiating is defined as “to deal or bargain with another or others, as in the preparation of a treaty or contract or in preliminaries to a business deal.”  Negotiation usually requires discussion, something that as a culture, we have gotten to be very bad at.  We talk at people, not to people.  We have become narcissistic (do you really think people on Facebook really care what cereal you ate this morning?).

I think dialog is becoming a lost art.  Discussion, conversation, and listening are tools that we use to empathize with another’s beliefs and decisions.  Empathy is not a bad thing.  It helps us to understand the other’s perspective.  We all have different experiences that drive us to make choices in life.  We should respect the beliefs of others, even if we don’t agree.

So how can we use these tools to better negotiate?

1. Sit down and talk.
2. Build a relationship.
3. Gain some perspective.
4. Know the difference between the “must-haves” and the “nice-to-haves”.
5. Give up where it makes sense.
6. Find ways to let the other side win.
7. It’s not wrong to change your mind.
8. Think about the team, not your pride.

When the deal is done you should feel like both sides win.  If you don’t, it wasn’t a good negotiation, even if you got everything you wanted.  The reason – animosity.  Your next negotiation with that person/firm/client won’t be as easy.  Think past this agreement and into the next several agreements.  If you both come out winners you are likely to strike some deals in the future as well.

When Teams Become Dangerous

4f23280f1861330f65003257Image Source

Teamwork.  Often we have the need and desire to improve team relationships.  We have been told that we need to work well with teams.  We, as managers, must promote a team environment.  Leadership training focuses on working as a team.  If teams are so great, and we have teams everywhere (how many “teams” are you a member of?) then why do we still have issues creeping up on us?  Why do we still have to play politics?

Remember the saying, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”  That concept is flawed because it comes from an idealistic premise that human beings can let go of their individuality.  Well, that is a difficult thing to accomplish.  In today’s culture we are celebrating individuality and simultaneously asking our teams to let it go.  

We have created turf wars in modern business.  We have pushed ownership to the point of possessiveness.  We sit in meetings and argue over jobs.  We are back on the playground, staking claim on the jungle gym.  We fight for resources, squabble over spending, and plot plans for retribution.  Welcome to teamwork.

Some might argue that this is not teamwork, but I say it is.  It is teamwork as we have defined it over the years.  It is the team member as conditioned by his circumstances.  Most people like to be part of a team, to belong to something.  The question is what are the teams to which they belong?

It is difficult to change the way we think.  It takes time, patience and coaching.  It is part of the evolution of each of us as we mature and grow.  But what I am proposing is not a change in thinking, but a change in definition of the boundaries.  What should make a team and how do we create incentives that are not contrary to that definition?

The team should be defined as “the smallest group possible whose goals do not conflict with the goals of any other group.”  The key to this definition is the set of goals.  This is all about creating the right KPIs.  Coupling personal objectives with team objectives is the only way to create a win-win mentality.

Start from the top down when setting metrics and goals.  Personal goals should correspond to team goals.  The only personal goals that are outside of those team goals would be development goals for the individual (i.e. complete supervisor conflict management training before October 2nd).  If you can’t create a KPI for a group that doesn’t conflict with the KPI of a peer group, you need to think more critically or simply hold to the higher-level KPI.  Share successes of the team with the whole organization whenever possible.  This will help to build camaraderie and will motivate teams to help one another on achieving their collective goals.

Remember, a few good metrics is better than a huge list.  I have seen companies with an entire matrix of Red/Yellow/Green scorecards that people simply can’t keep up with.  Keep your team focused and good things will happen.  Manage the extremes by exception and create solid game plans with your teams to see step change improvements.

Change Management: Putting People First

Metamorphosis_(7196082472)By aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Metamorphosis Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have recently been working with a client that has been trying to get results after installing a new ERP.  The technical installation went successfully and there were few issues to work out.  However, nine months later they are still suffering from inaccurate data and technology reversion.  So if the ERP works correctly and the system was properly specified for the application, why the financial discrepancies?

It boils down to people.  I had a conversation with the President of the company and he said that some people just didn’t embrace the change and that forcing people onto a new system wasn’t going well.  Ahah! Forcing.  That was the clue that led me to ask more questions.  The basic response was that the users were never really brought into the process and now the company was paying for it.  Literally.

The project was budgeted to cost around $1.5 million.  Really not much when you consider what some organizations pay for an ERP.  However, financial losses within the first nine months were projected around that same amount and the capital investment is up to $3.2 million.  There is still yet another phase of implementation that needs to be completed before the implementation is even considered complete.

So with a total cost approaching $7 million, don’t you think it would have been worth another few hundred thousand to add some training and headcount for allowing the users to become more familiar with the software?  They should have been asked their opinions up front on the best ways to implement for their locations and how to structure their processes to better fit the new system.  These things weren’t considered to be part of the ERP implementation.

So what are the lessons learned? 

  1. Invest a little more money to reduce the cost and aggravation that comes with change. 
  2. Let people be part of the process rather than victims of it.
  3. Give yourself twice as much time as you think you will need because people are slow to change.
  4. Understand that change is hard and takes time and persuasion.
  5. Create local champions to help cheer on the progress of the changes.
  6. Lead the change by supporting it, not forcing it.