Training trouble sparks call to action


By Sarah Fister Gale

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

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—It was 1996 when Rockwell Collins, an aerospace engineering giant, realized it had a cleanroom issue that could have brought production to a standstill at its Manchester, Iowa plant.

The facility had only one person on staff who knew how to clean the plant's two cleanrooms, where proprietary gelled displays were assembled. "She worked alone on a third shift and had no protégés and no back-up," says Cliff Purington, head of training at the time. "If she left the company, the cleanrooms could be shut down until a new person was brought up to speed, and that would have taken weeks."

It was an example of a widespread problem in Rockwell Collins—the accumulation of critical tribal knowledge by individual employees. Tribal knowledge isn't a new problem or one unique to Rockwell, says Chris Butler, president of The Performance Engineering Group, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based training and change management consulting firm.

Every manufacturing company faces similar scenarios.

"It is the inevitable result of a lean manufacturing environment where individuals develop specific knowledge and skills about a product or process, and no training program is implemented to capture or share that expertise," he says. The effect, Butler adds, is that the loss of any employee can bring production to a halt, forcing the rest of the team to sit idle while a new person is trained. The impact of tribal knowledge is felt in any industry that builds complex products on a small scale.

"It has a monumental financial effect on businesses," Purington says, adding, for example, that a manufacturing line for one of Rockwell's ground-to-air-communication radios may have 17 different test technicians, each completing a specific piece of the process. "If one person doesn't show up, the whole line can go down—and suddenly, we can't meet deadlines."

Most plant managers recognize the problem of tribal knowledge, Butler says, but until now, there have never been good solutions. "In a highly technical production environment, each person's job is so specialized, it doesn't make sense to build an elaborate computer-based training course for it," he says. "And taking a subject matter expert off the floor to run training classes is cost-prohibitive."

When the cleanroom situation was brought to Purington's attention at Rockwell Collins, he resolved to find a cost-effective solution for disseminating tribal knowledge that could be used for training across a multinational company.

Purington and Butler thought that if they video-taped experts on the job and put the videos on CDs, they could turn them into low-cost training programs. They took the idea to several vendors, who either wouldn't do it for the price and time-frame required, or who couldn't produce a high enough quality product to be of any value, Purington says.

Frustrated, Butler took on the project himself at Rockwell's request, and created a model to build custom, high-quality training modules for a fraction of the cost other vendors had demanded. His developers work one-on-one with subject matter experts in the workplace for anywhere from a few hours to several days to capture not only how they do their jobs but also their advice and guidance.

The final video is transformed into a computer-based training program, called a QuickLearn, complete with written steps and short quizzes with feedback at the end. Most of the courses run less then 30 minutes and cost a fraction of traditional e-learning programs. But the most significant result was that the training was as good or better than traditional mentoring solutions.

As a pilot program to test QuickLearn's effectiveness, Butler and Purington shot five 20-minute modules of the cleanroom attendant performing her specific duties. Months later, the company had massive layoffs that included this employee. "Because we had the QuickLearns, it took one-third the amount of time to train her replacement, who was ready to go in two days—and no cleanrooms closed as a result of the layoff," Purington says.

The vice president of manufacturing at Rockwell Collins was so impressed with the Cleanroom QuickLearns, he immediately came up with 50 more areas that would benefit from the training—covering everything from safety behavior on the job to highly detailed technician work. That cleanroom pilot triggered a new era of training for Rockwell Collins employees, Purington says.

Next month, learn how $4,000 fixed a million-dollar problem.