Web Industries' orientation handbook helps workers teach workers everything they need to know about the company -- in four weeks
"Training program?" everyone at the meeting looked at one another and exploded in a fit of laughter.
A training program? Right. Training at Web Industries Inc., a $20-million converter -- the company cuts materials into smaller sizes for manufacturers -- was like training at most small companies: nonexistent. People were thrown into their jobs, and most swam instead of sinking. Sure, supervisors showed them how machines worked, and someone explained the benefits package. Almost everything else -- from the vocabulary of the industry and the cost of the equipment used, to issues of corporate identity -- was picked up over the following months and years. With any luck.
The logic isn't unusual: fast-growing companies often don't think they have the time or the resources or the need for extensive training programs. But at Web, that kind of thinking began to change about two years ago. "One of the reasons is, we had a new general manager in Atlanta," says Charles Edmunson, Web's vice-president of manufacturing, based at the company's corporate office in Westborough, Mass. "He came in from outside the company, and unlike most of us, who'd worked our way up, he took over leadership at a high level without the roots."
Like other employees, that manager experienced a couple of months of mild confusion as he learned the business; he was one of the people who suggested a more methodical system. Web's managers began to acknowledge that although they thought they were too busy to provide training, they were spending the same amount of time later dealing with problems caused by lack of training.
After gathering a cross section of employees together to brainstorm about what a training program ought to include, Edmunson spent nights and weekends outlining a plan. Eventually, this is what he came up with:
* A system of 20 one-hour sessions, held one a day for four weeks;
* Teachers drawn from the staff, including general managers, plant managers, customer-service reps, machine operators, maintenance people, and office workers;
* A detailed written outline for both teacher and new company trainee.
"This program was built around the philosophy that we can spare any one person from the job we hired him or her to do, for an hour or two a month to be a trainer," says Edmunson.
On the following pages, using the summary page of the orientation handbook new employees receive, Edmunson talks about the content of the program, which debuted at the end of 1990, and its payoff to the company.
What We Stand For
What You Can Expect
What We Expect
2.1 Our Business
Review of First Week
What Is Our Business?
How We Serve Our Customers
3.1 Growing Our Company
Review of Second Week
Growing Our Culture
4.1 Your Future at Web
History of Web
1.2 Your Job
Organization of Machine Parts
4.2 Constant Improvement
1.3 The Work Order
Importance of the Work Order
How to read a Work Order
2.3 Math for Converting
Using a Tape Measure
3.3 Work Order Review
How to Check Material
4.3 Math Review
How to Fill Out a Packaging Record
Using Our Scales
2.4 Packaging Standards
Types of Packages
Where Packaging is Stored
How to Strap a Pallet
3.4 Recordkeeping Review
Offcut and Butt Roll Procedures
Office Uses of Records
4.4 Packaging Review
What Makes a Good Package
What Packaging Costs
1.5 Your Benefits
Review of Handbook
2.5 Maintenance Awareness
Correct Use of Tools
Keeping Things Clean
Cost of Machine Parts
3.5 How We Compete For Customers
Price and Productivity
4.5 The ESOP
What is ESOP?
What You Own
The Power of Ownership
A Detailed Outline
To make the teaching at each of Web's five factories more consistent, Edmunson wrote a detailed outline for each lesson, which gets passed out at the beginning of the sessions. Teachers are free to add their own examples and emphasize what they want, but are asked not to delete sections during their presentations. That, says Edmunson, helps keep the program from being too idiosyncratic. "As the program changes over time, we want to keep it documented, so we don't have people teaching whatever they think ought to be taught."
The language in the outlines is casual and without jargon. Many of the teachers start by reading it aloud before they relax into teaching with their own words.
Talking about "The Soft Stuff"
"Frankly, if I had to choose, I'd say the soft stuff is more important to teach," says Edmunson. "A guy at a machine -- that's the clear focus of his job. If he doesn't know what to do, he'll ask. But stuff about what we stand for as a company, what he has to look forward to long-term (see first row of table), if we're not presenting that deliberately, it might never get done in a thorough way."
Two of Web's plants have even begun putting all employees through the training program, in part at the suggestion of new people, who say that what they hear in the sessions sometimes differs from what they hear on the shop floor. "The goal is to make sure there's a common understanding through the whole plant on all of these themes."
"When someone is teaching somebody else, he's first and foremost teaching himself. When 10 or 14 people are involved in leading training, they become believers. We're finding that's the case especially when you spread the stuff like teamwork (section 2.2) and empowerment and creativity through the program. We're an employee-owned company [20% of stock is held by an employee stock ownership plan], and we're trying very hard to figure out how to make ownership real, day to day. The best way to do that is to involve people in more and more things. A problem in the past has been that when you hire someone new, if he's not catching on real fast, it's the production manager's fault. With this approach to training we have a lot of people invested in the new person's success."
Don't Skip the Basics
The bulk of the work Web does is slitting huge rolls of materials into very thin strips -- to tolerances of up to .0005 inch. But, says Edmunson, a lot of people coming in need a primer on reading fractions and decimals, using calculators, and reading tape measures (section 2.3). "You can't take for granted what people know.
"We've also tried to weave into this not just lessons on how to add and subtract but also a discussion of terms (section 1.3). Because some of the vocabulary is even unique to our own company; we've agreed on certain ways of saying things."
Don't Assume Anything's Obvious
"We've got spacers for the machines that are an eighth of an inch wide and precision-ground, and they might be worth 25 or 30 bucks. They just look like little washer tubes. A new guy, if he's not aware that this is an expensive piece, may end up tossing it in the trash dumpster (section 2.5). Or people may see an extra box on the floor and throw it away, not realizing that box may be worth $1.50 (section 4.4). That can add up."
Make Customer Service Tangible
"We emphasize the notion that we have to compete for customers and that we do it through service (section 3.5). We're responding to other people's manufacturing needs, and we have to do it when they want it, the way they want it. Everything we do is customized. We feel it's important to tell people that up front, so that customer demands are not met with resentment. We need people to understand that that's our business."
Update the Information
At the end of each four-week session, trainees are asked about what aspect of it needs improvement. The program has been updated once already. "The sections people have felt most uncomfortable with are the ones on math, which need more development, and the sections on work order and record keeping; it still feels like a lot for people to grasp all at once.
"Eventually, I would like to see that once a month for a person's first year, we would have another one-hour module, which would build on some of these things. We just haven't gotten that far yet."
Lead up to Discussion
Edmunson ordered the classes by his own logic and says having 20 sessions was fairly arbitrary. One thing that was calculated, though, is building toward discussion sessions, rather than skill sessions, for much of the final week. "We find that the people being trained loosen up as the thing goes on. By the end of it, if they're able to enunciate some of these themes -- productivity, creativity (section 4.2) -- then you know the learning's really taken."
One challenge to the program, admits Edmunson, is that "our people don't have great teaching skills in the traditional sense." The trade-off, though, is presentations with conviction and feeling. "The sessions might not be polished, but people know what they're talking about."
Another challenge: institutionalizing the system. So far three of Web's five plants have used the program. The training seems to have "taken" at two plants and stalled at the third, where the person coordinating it has been ill. "Someone's still got to make sure people are up for it every day, that it's scheduled, that the little bit of hand-holding that's still needed takes place." Furthermore, at the Atlanta plant, 1991 has been a record year; workers are being hired faster than the training programs can handle them. But Edmunson thinks the system is working so far. "People feel more included. And I've heard that for some of the company regulars who are going through it, it's made them a little less cynical."
"Most of our plants now are having regular meetings reviewing the income statements for the month, and this session gives new employees a context for understanding those numbers. The payoffs? People are more cost conscious, and we're helping reinforce a sense of ownership (section 4.5). If there's stuff they feel is kept from them, that seems to get in the way of their perception of themselves as owners."