Fresh approach to training produces results

18:26, Oct 05 2012
MEANINGFUL MATHS: Teaching basic skills by using meaningful examples helped staff to understand sawmill performance indicators.
MEANINGFUL MATHS: Teaching basic skills by using meaningful examples helped staff to understand sawmill performance indicators.

Using an All Black, a Thames company has found a winning way to kick up workplace numeracy and literacy, reports Kashka Tunstall.

When Dan Carter lobs the oval ball over a goalpost, maths become simple - his goalkicking successes are easily transferred into comprehensible percentages.

But things can get a little more complex when it comes to dealing with workplace measurements and figures.

FIGURING OUT FIGURES: Thames Timber sawmill staff brush up on their basic maths by using everyday life analogies.
FIGURING OUT FIGURES: Thames Timber sawmill staff brush up on their basic maths by using everyday life analogies.

For management at Southern Cross Forest Products Thames Timber sawmill, Carter's boot has been pivotal in simplifying maths and bringing numbers down to a basic, understandable level for staff.

And the Coromandel Peninsula timber plant's fresh approach to literacy and numeracy training is producing more than a $1.2 million lift in revenue.

Manufacturing manager Phil Cave, a 30-year veteran of staff training, hit on the idea of using sport and daily life situations as training tools two years ago.


Looking at the company's continuous improvement achievements, he suspected something was stopping momentum and noticed that staff, a high proportion of whom had minimal school education, weren't fully comprehending some of the numbers or figures talked about in the workplace.

Government figures from 2006, the latest available, on adult literacy and life skills show 1.1 million New Zealanders, 43 per cent of adults aged 16 to 65, have literacy skills below those needed to participate fully in a knowledge society. (A society which relies on the knowledge of its citizens to drive the innovation and entrepreneurship in its economy.)

Over 80 per cent of those people are in the workforce, which roughly equates to 800,000 workers.

"Often people aren't happy speaking in public, lack the confidence to be a part of the workplace and can't understand numbers we're talking about," Cave says.

"I think we expect people to understand them but they don't always . . . so we taught them how to figure them out themselves using everyday life examples."

His first step was to approach local training provider Valley Education and Training Enterprises Ltd (VETEL) where he found out about available funding to further literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace.

He applied for funds from the Tertiary Education Commission and close to a year later got approval.

The business was granted $185,000 and with support from VETEL and the Forest Industries Training and Education Council (FITEC) its new training programme was launched in early 2011.

"We never labelled it a numeracy and literacy programme," Cave says.

"We set it out as a personal development and business improvement programme and by doing that everyone was keen to come on board."

"Literacy and numeracy is buried in there but it's of interest to them because it's about the workplace."

During the working week staff spent an hour and a half in groups with a tutor going through a training scheme built around key performance indicators.

"To help staff to understand percentages, we used ideas such as Daniel Carter's goalkicking results [and] working out interest and principal payments on a new car," Cave says.

"We used the diagram of a beef carcass to show how a butcher can extract value. We used different ideas that meant something to people's everyday lives. We found staff were then able to transfer these ideas to their work."

Workers needing intensive help were identified quickly - they made up around 5 to 10 per cent of the company's staff - and were given one-on-one time with a tutor in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Of the 160 Thames Timber staff, about 90 per cent have been through some form of training during 2011 and this year.

Tutor Glenn Manahi says that while the value of such programmes is mostly anecdotal, quantitative growth such as revenue and productivity also measures its success.

"Training is mostly always treated with suspicion. Many managers question the value training provides as they cannot always see the tangible benefits of a training input," he says.

"The staff ideas are the key to real success. Because many of these improvement ideas focus on improving the root causes of problems, the payback keeps on giving long after the programme has concluded."

Cave says he didn't notice the effects of the training until six months after the programme was implemented - that's when results started to show in productivity reports.

"We started to notice how conversation was changing in the training room. People understood what the production statistics meant; they could convert lineal metres to cubic metres and understand the productivity of a shift, or an hour's work and the value of the product in dollar terms.

"Our productivity went up, our yield went up and we're still going up. It's amazing the difference, it shows how much these things are undermining people's understanding. It has been really worthwhile," he says.

Annual revenue has been lifted by higher productivity and less waste.

Staff also have greater confidence and contribute in the working environment.

"The amazing thing is once they'd learnt these things, we've found the contribution changed completely.

"One or two were really anxious about it but today if you look at those people their lives have transformed and they're totally different people."

Thames Timber's resawing team leader is Semesi Inia.

Previously regarded as quiet and withdrawn, he's a lot more outgoing and confident these days his co-workers say. "The training helped me a lot," Inia says.

"The best thing is that I learned easier, smarter ways to do my job. I'm now very quick. I can apply my learning to the rest of my life - at home, sharing a computer with the kids.

"In my community, in my church, I can now speak in front of 100 people. I'm not shy any more, they can't believe it. I enjoy coming to work now, I don't miss any days."

Tutor Manahi wants more basic skills training programmes in the workplace to boost productivity.

"Waste exists in every type of human endeavour and unfortunately some process inefficiencies aren't always as visible as they are in a factory," he says.

"Everybody - skilled, unskilled, professional - needs to be able to see and eliminate the waste in their daily work practices in order to deliver a better customer experience."

Validation for the fresh training approach came recently when the company won the award for "Outstanding Business Performance through People Development" at the FITEC awards.

With the basic skills programme working so successfully, the company has introduced a national qualification course known in the sector as "lean" or competitive manufacturing, so training is set to continue.

"Face up to literacy and numeracy inadequacies if they exist among staff," is Cave's message to other employers.

"Don't avoid them because it may be a sensitive area. There are ways to approach these issues and people will respond.

"The amazing thing about doing something like this is nothing negative comes out of it. It's all win-win; the people get something out of it and the business gets something out of it."

Waikato Times