Becoming the Better Job: Canadian Companies gaining an Edge through Training

This article first appeared in the March 2013 edition of Woodworking magazine , and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

When I set out last year to investigate how our wood products manufacturers stacked up in the world of training and development, more than one person told me I shouldn’t expect too much in terms of unearthing exciting examples of creative, forward-thinking HR practices. Sure enough, a few times during my many telephone interviews I would hear someone voice the opinion that by paying for employee training they would merely be encouraging the employee to go out and get a better job. Conclusion: don’t train, save your money. Thankfully, not everyone follows that business philosophy, or we would all still be using stone tools. RONA’s senior training manager is one person who thinks differently: rather than being concerned about wasting money if employees leave them, they view their investment in training as a means of ensuring that each worker contributes more fully and effectively during their time with the company. But Brian Davies from Abbotsford BC’s Dynamic Windows & Doors said it best; “if you want to avoid employees leaving for that better job, you need to become the better job”.

The Wood Products Industry: Training and Technology

Over a period of about eight months I talked to furniture makers, sawmills, window makers, equipment dealers, a uranium mine, a utilities company, banking, financial services and consulting firms, a mobile phone maker, an auto parts giant, cabinet shops, manufactured home builders and numerous others. I was interested in training methods in general, but in particular whether companies were using technology – things like e-learning, mobile devices – to make training more accessible, affordable, or effective. We found that although the general level of adoption of such tools was low, it was more a case of not knowing how to use those things for training than an aversion to trying them. The fact that most companies are SMEs means that they lack some of the more formal HR and training frameworks common to larger firms, and this is another factor restricting innovative training approaches; people are just too busy putting out fires and doing other things to focus on it, and any innovation that does happen tends to be around bringing in newer machinery, software etc. (More on small companies later). Some particular logistical barriers to using technology-based training are that most production employees don’t have their own computers or email addresses, mobile phones are commonly banned on the shop floor to minimize distraction and promote safety, and employees often don’t respond well to text-heavy modes of learning (on that latter point however the option to deliver short, visually-oriented training videos via tablets or smartphones has definite promise and is of interest to many companies).

We heard the opinion from some that the woodworking industry lags behind other sectors in terms of its willingness to adopt e-learning. Stiles Machinery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a major equipment distributor providing machinery and services throughout the US and Mexico. Duane Griffiths, Stiles’ Director of Education, reports that e-learning is being used extremely successfully for sales force training, and states “iPads have become to a salesperson today like a hammer was to a carpenter in bygone days”. Despite this, Stiles has found that its wood manufacturer clients are more resistant, and tend to prefer face-to-face training even though it is typically more costly. Griffiths suggests that age and educational background are important influencing factors however, and expects that in five years things will be very different, as younger people enter the workforce who have grown up with the Internet and mobile technology. In my own research, I looked at a wide range of sectors, and although the software industry was very proactive in its adoption of elearning (as one might expect), others such as banking, consulting, and retail were not significantly different from the wood sector.

Innovative Training Practices

So how are wood products companies “becoming the better job”? Back to Abbotsford, and Dynamic Windows & Doors, a company that builds window units that look more like high-end furniture systems for the likes of Tom Hanks and other Hollywood celebs. Dynamic has fully embraced the Training Within Industry (TWI) approach which, along with lean manufacturing, is an offshoot of the Toyota Production System of the postwar era. TWI involves breaking each task in the factory into a set of Job Instructions (JIs), each with no more than about 10 steps. TWI essentially takes a job, breaks it into bite-sized pieces and then uses the Job Instructions to rigorously and repeatedly train an employee to do the various tasks involved. The system at Dynamic, which encompasses several hundred JIs, ensures that each employee has a consistent understanding of how each procedure should be done. It is also used to facilitate cross training.

Triangle Kitchen, in Moncton, has taken the cross training concept even further. It has introduced a promotion and seniority system based on how many roles an employee can carry out within the organisation. Beyond cost-of-living increases, the only way to proceed up the pay scale is to be cross trained. The system was introduced to achieve more flexibility and responsiveness in the plant, but president Pierre Fournier reports that 18 months on, retention, motivation and quality have also seen encouraging upswings.

Loewen Windows, established 108-years ago in Steinbach, Manitoba has employed a string of HR innovations to maintain its market-leading position over the years. Loewen has had to rise to market challenges in the last couple of years with a flexible recruitment and staffing program that has helped the company maintain access to its labour pool while giving local workers some income when the markets have demanded more flexibility in production.  It has also created a dedicated training work cell in the factory, where new employees make products in from day one, supervised by a team of specialist trainers who provide mentoring and instruction and closely monitor quality.

Lastly, for a great example of effective e-learning at work we turn to Tembec Industries’ sawmill in Chapleau, Ontario, which has been utilizing computer-based training since 1999. All 200 employees take e-learning courses rich in photographs and videos, and containing electronic quizzes that update training records as soon as scores are generated. Each of the courses that focus on technical topics has a face-to-face counterpart – a physical competency checklist that supervisors print off and run through with the employee. The program has been successful enough that it has been extended to six other sites, including woodlands operations. Manager Mike Martineau told us that there was originally quite a lot of resistance to the web-based training idea, so the training group expended considerable effort to create the physical competency verification component that ensures employees are not just “book learning”, but effectively applying what they have learned. Several years into the initiative, the upfront investment to create the e-learning courses has been recouped and there are sizeable annual savings since Tembec does not need to bring in external instructors to teach WMIS and other mandatory topics. Aside from cost, the mill benefits from being able to deliver a consistent level of training to its employees that doesn’t depend on instructor availability or having to pull employees off the production floor into a classroom.

Training Support for the Wood Products Industry

Small companies – which make up the bulk of the value-added industry – are at a disadvantage when it comes to training – they usually don’t have a dedicated HR manager, they have less capital to invest, and job responsibilities can be quite fluid as employees are pulled from one job to another. However, there is help available. In BC a program called the Targeted Skills Shortage Program provides up to $1500 per employee (with a maximum of $7500 per employer) to be used towards training courses for workers without post-secondary qualifications. Other provinces may have similar options available. The Wood Manufacturing Council offers a whole range of tools to help small businesses improve HR and training practices. RISE (Rapid Internal Skills Enhancement) is a comprehensive set of training templates covering more than 20 machines such as table saw, moulders, and wide belt sanders commonly used in the woodworking industry. Manufacturers can freely obtain these templates from WMC and customise them to form their own library of training materials. There is also a web-based Virtual HR system available at very reasonable cost, containing all kinds of HR-related templates (interview scripts, employment contracts, promotion and recognition policies, etc.) that will be invaluable for any small business without a human resources manager. There are occupational standards, essential skills assessment tools, and all manner of training support– mostly free or available at very reasonable cost. Every one of these tools and materials has been created based on the guidance and active involvement of managers and business owners from the woodworking industry.

My investigations into training practices were carried out as part of a short research project for the Wood Manufacturing Council. If you’re interested in hearing more, you can obtain the full report in either text or slideshow formats from the WMC website.

Jason Chiu, Centre for Advanced Wood Processing