A $4,000 fix for a million-dollar problem


Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on how customized computer-based courses, called QuickLearns, can revolutionize the way knowledge is transferred at manufacturing plants.


CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—Cliff Purington, head of training at Rockwell Collins, estimates that CD-based training modules have cut training times down to a third of what it took in the traditional mentoring model, and have eliminated the need for experts to take time off the job for training.

That CD-based training platform, QuickLearns, has also saved the company millions of dollars in improved productivity, and increased its ability to expand and move production teams to other plants when necessary.

Developed by The Performance Engineering Group (, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based consulting firm works one-on-one with cleanroom end users to record how they do their job, as well as provides advice and guidance to trainees. The final video is transformed into a computer-based training program called QuickLearns, complete with written steps and short quizzes with feedback at the end. Most of the courses run less then 30 minutes.

"In the past, it didn't make sense to build expensive, custom e-learning courses that only a few people would use," says Purington. "But with QuickLearns, the investment is small and the return is huge."

In one instance, he notes, QuickLearns solved a million-dollar problem in a matter of days.

A technician on the team building highly sophisticated communications devices, used in the war against terrorism by the U.S. military, broke at least one component of the final $1 million product on every shift. It was unclear what the technician was doing wrong, Purington adds, but his repeated errors forced the entire team to stop and fix that piece, dramatically impacting their productivity—which was already well below their target goals.

For about $4,000, several QuickLearns videos were shot, using a highly skilled technician from the day shift to serve as the systems maintenance engineer of the entire process. The offending technician went through the training and, "he immediately stopped breaking the equipment, and the team's productivity improved in less than three weeks," Purington says.

Since building the first series of QuickLearns to capture cleanroom cleaning techniques, Performance Engineering Group has shot more than 20 cleanroom training courses, covering everything from hard-to-learn skills and running LCD panels coaters to repetitively taught tasks, such as cleanroom gowning procedures and glass stripping.

In the past, those simple tasks were taught by production trainers in a classroom to groups of new employees.

"There wasn't much hands-on work and there were always lots of questions," says Tammy Opitz, a production trainer. Since using QuickLearns for cleanroom training, Opitz says she has cut the time she spends prepping new employees and has seen fewer problems related to cleanroom errors.

"You don't want people in the cleanrooms who don't know what they are doing," she adds. "With QuickLearns, I can get employees trained to a much higher level before they ever enter a cleanroom."

Ramping up for war

QuickLearns has increased productivity across operations at Rockwell Collins, whose role has been especially critical in response to the war on terrorism, since it produces many military defense products. One of the company's contracts includes a hand-held global satellite positioning tool that soldiers use on the ground to precisely indicate their location. The team that manufactures this tool was producing roughly 45 units a day until the war began, at which time orders increased to more than 180 a day.

This is a complex piece of equipment, Purington says. Using the mentoring training process from the old training model, he estimates it would have taken 8 to 10 months to bring other production teams up to speed, and during that training time, productivity of the original team would have decreased. Instead, Rockwell Collins shot QuickLearns for the eight stations of the production and shipping line in one week, and was able to ramp up the two newly assigned teams to full productivity in two months.

"It gave us the flexibility to expand production without slowing down our best people," he says.

QuickLearns has also helped deal with the pain and challenges of layoffs in a union environment. Rockwell Collins operates under a union policy that says the last to be hired are the first to go in a layoff. Yet when the company wins a new contract, it typically hires a new team of technicians to staff that production line.

"If we have a layoff, an entire team may be let go," Purington says, adding that Rockwell Collins is then left with a production process that no one knows how to run. "It could take 12 months to get it up and running again," he claims. QuickLearns help them manage that problem by capturing the new production techniques right away.

Today, when Rockwell Collins bids on a new contract, they write the cost of QuickLearns into the contract. "It's less than one percent of the bid price but the impact is huge," Purington says. Once the engineers have finished the prototype and the technicians start producing products, they build QuickLearns to support the process, protecting the knowledge of the most vulnerable people.

"It differentiates us from the competition because we can guarantee continuity, even in the face of a layoff," he adds. "Other vendors can't do that."

SARAH FISTER GALE is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis.