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How to Develop Practitioners to Deliver Your OpEx Strategy

By Nancy Bach - January 15, 2017

EON_User_Training-01.pngCreating an operational excellence strategy and getting alignment from stakeholders are two of the critical first steps to achieving OpEx success. Once those are in place, the implementation phase of executing tactical plans can start. In order to complete these tasks, you need to have competent OpEx practitioners.

These practitioners will include dedicated professionals and technicians in the OpEx staff as well as personnel in operational and functional areas who are trained in a subset of OpEx methods.  

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking all OpEx practitioners need to be the brainy types. After all, Six Sigma can use heavy-duty statistics. Some degree of technical capability is necessary but not sufficient.

To be effective, practitioners also need non-technical skills to drive engagement of other team members or participate effectively in team OpEx efforts. These facilitation and self-facilitation competencies include presentation skills, coaching, interpersonal and communication skills, change management, and other “soft” skills. 

Defining OpEx skills needed

The plan to develop practitioners is completed in alignment with the OpEx strategy and tactical plans. Individuals and groups tasked with specific roles for strategy delivery are defined. Then the specific skills required are identified in detail as part of performance expectations for these workers. For each skill, a level of competency is defined. These are combined in a mastery grid. 

For example, consider a possible mastery grid for 5S, the Lean approach to implement sustainable workplace organization and visual management.  

Competency Level

Specific 5S capabilities

Familiar

Has heard of 5S concepts. Can “talk the talk.”

Novice

Has enough knowledge to participate in a team working on a 5S project, thus reinforcing training. Can “walk the walk.”

Practitioner

Can be an effective self-directed participant in a 5S team for implementation of the skills learned.

Trainer/coach

Can deliver 5S training to teams and coach them through application issues.

Master trainer

Can assess workplace needs and workers’ understanding and gaps to create a 5S training program and educational materials.


You might need an OpEx staff member at the top one or two competency levels, several shop floor change agents at the practitioner level, and numerous workers at the novice level.

Similarly, in the technical area of process control, the mastery grid might range from being able to interpret charts and graphs of the seven basic quality tools to being able to implement hypothesis testing and design of experiments. OpEx staff will generally need higher mastery while operational workers need some lower skill level.

The HR function is part of this defining process. In many organizations, the set of required OpEx capabilities for an individual becomes part of the job description, employee performance expectations, and performance assessment process. This needs to be agreed by functional management, both for commitment to include OpEx competencies in individual improvement plans and for built-in “discretionary time” in the operating budget to allow for training and application without impacting the unit’s ability to meet other goals.

The aggregate set of required capabilities becomes a training matrix that includes the number of people needing specific types of training and the timing needs for that training. The OpEx team manages training as a project with an action plan and ongoing management and metrics.  

Delivering OpEx practitioner training 

In the early days of quality training, companies hired consultants using the teachings of W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, and Walter Shewhart to train the workforce in quality control methods. When Motorola and other companies implemented the Six Sigma approach, they created the internal role of Master Black Belt to provide consulting, mentoring, and training for workforce resources. As Lean, based on Japan’s TPS approach, was implemented in the US, the sensei role of teacher and master was introduced to help the organization learn to learn.

While some combination of these approaches still exists, modern technology has enabled cost-effective alternatives or additions to deliver the required training identified in the training matrix.

  • Many geographies offer training in Six Sigma belt progression, often through community colleges and universities, which prepares students for ASQ Six Sigma certification. Using outsourced training resources with core competencies in education provides an effective teaching approach and consistent standardized delivery. Outsourced training is often especially cost-effective vs. in-house training for individuals or small groups.

  • Online modules ranging from Khan Academy topics to American Society for Quality (ASQ) courses to myriad quality gurus offer free or paid online courses in OpEx practitioner topics. This self-directed learning is effective for introducing topics or reinforcing and refreshing learning after other training.

  • Project-based training is effective for hands-on learning and knowledge retention. The in-house coach/mentor/trainer works with a specific project team to complete a problem-solving cycle providing JIT training modules as needed at different phases. By their nature, projects will require different tools, so not all tools will be incorporated in every cycle of training.

A Google search for “operational excellence training” yields more than 3,000,000 results. Unfortunately, some of the available training is ineffective or even invalid. The person or team taking the role of defining the competencies needed and the specific approach for achievement needs to work within budget constraints to put together a combination of proven training processes to ensure high-quality delivery of the subject matter included in the training matrix.

Three key tenets of effective OpEx training

While trained educators learn many methods for effective teaching, several concepts are particularly important for anyone teaching and coaching OpEx practitioners in the workplace.

  • Just-in-time (JIT) training is highly effective for OpEx skills. Consider the very large number of Six Sigma and Lean tools and concepts that a master practitioner may develop over many years. If these were all taught as classroom topics in a short period of time with memorization to pass a test, the retained knowledge would likely be similar to the amount of language that most adults remember from their required high school French or Spanish class. (Malheureusement, très peu. Sólo un poco. That translates to “only a little,” if you’ve forgotten.)
  • On-the-job application as represented by the expression, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies to OpEx training. Many certification programs require a certification project, which has an immediate benefit to the organization in the form of targeted goal achievement, but an even more important benefit to the individual of reinforcing understanding and building mastery of the skills as they are learned.
  • Adult learning principles need to be incorporated into instruction. Lecture and testing just don’t work. Effective training typically includes small self-directed teams collaborating on applying new skills and prior experiences to goal-oriented situations. The Socratic method of asking questions rather than providing answers facilitates self-directed learning. 

Verifying training effectiveness

Just like other OpEx efforts, the training process needs to be measured for effectiveness. While some paper-based testing of concept understanding and retention can be useful as a process check, it isn’t adequate to verify competency and it can be threatening to “students” who have been away from school for many years.

A helpful assessment approach is developing hands-on exercises that workers can use to show their understanding and abilities in self-directed applications. For example, Six Sigma training often uses a catapult exercise for students to demonstrate skills in data acquisition and analysis.

Rubrics showing the various levels of competency for a specific skill clearly state expectations for desired performance. Adult learners tend to be goal-oriented. By making this desired performance progression visible, all workers are encouraged and enabled to achieve improved performance levels. The rubric is a less threatening measurement than a test to show knowledge achievement.

At a high level, the OpEx team monitors the training matrix progress and conducts gap closure work to ensure that ongoing and new training needs are addressed. 

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