Training is the key to success in '90s corporate climb.

If you have not yet taken steps to empower your employees through effective training, be aware that your competitors may be doing just that, and pulling ahead of you in the process.

Management fads come and go, but one of the recent ones - re-engineering the company - persists. Perhaps this is because it's not a fad at all but the real thing - a fundamental change in the corporate culture that involves training, trust and a genuinely new way of looking at the employer/employee relationship.

To resist change is human nature. However, managers who previously discounted the idea of reinventing their companies are now facing a crisis. They see all around them companies that have embraced these concepts and, as a result, are not only prospering today but are positioning themselves to be even more competitive in the future. It obviously is very disconcerting to see that forward-thinking competitors who have adopted this new way of thinking are experiencing benefits that include faster production, increased employee satisfaction, improved safety and productivity, less waste and, ultimately, increased profits.

"Companies that bought into team training and employee empowerment are truly way ahead of everybody else," says Arnie Kins, president of Cook Associates, an executive search firm that specializes in placing experienced team-building managers. Kins explains that it all begins at the top. "When everybody is team-building except for the CEO, it won't happen. If the people at the top do not wholeheartedly embrace change, the rank-and-file employees pick up on this quickly, become frustrated and quit."

"The employee must trust management," adds John Wynn, Cook Associates' head of recruiting for the packaging/converting industry. "You can't empower employees without being honest and listening to them."

This is the ultimate challenge. Companies that are serious about reinventing themselves are sharing previously confidential information with all of their people. Instead of dictating from on high, they are listening to their employees, working together and setting goals together.

Once the employees realize the company is serious about change, the process accelerates. When reluctant supervisors, managers and executives begin to lose their jobs because they refuse to learn how to empower employees, workers know the company means business, and the grass roots buy-in begins.

Training is the Key

Changing a corporate culture must begin with training. How successful the training is will determine how successful you are overall. From the beginning all employees must undergo intense training in team-building so everyone, from the president to the janitor, is aware of what's going on and what's expected. The commitment to training and education does not end here, however. In fact, it never ends.

Treating people as if they are assets to the company will pay off. Training is the best way of proving to even the most cynical employees that management is serious about changing and cares enough about them to invest in their development. Action speaks louder than words, and investing in your employees goes a lot farther than standing on a podium and talking about change.

Gene Dillon, director of customer service for Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corp., Lincoln, RI, puts it this way: "Assume you staff your new $3-million printing press with two operators per shift three shifts per day. At an average labor rate of $10 per hour, labor costs will approach $200,000 annually. At the end of 20 years, when you are ready to replace that press, you have paid almost $4 million for labor; not including any pay raises or overtime.

He reasons that since you're already spending more on people than you will ever spend on capital purchases, it only makes sense to think of training as an investment with a tangible return.

It is for these practical reasons that many companies now foster cultures in which people strive to learn continuously. Motorola is a firm believer in employee training and estimates that for every dollar spent on training it gets 30 dollars back where it counts on the bottom line.

Richard Binder, president of the LRS Div. of Holland Corp., is another strong believer in training. "It's a lot harder to change to a teamwork/empowerment-type of culture in an established company as compared to a green-field startup," he says. "The way to go about it is to insist that people undergo training. Training and continuing education become requirements for employment."

The Saturn automobile manufacturing entity enforces its belief in continual training with an economic threat: It will deduct money from an employee's paycheck, up to 7%, if he or she doesn't meet an annual training quota.

Getting Specific

What specific kinds of training do employees require? The first layer of training informs. Everyone must know firsthand about the changes taking place; everyone must be on the same page.

Second, employees must be trained to communicate. For the transition to be successful, employees should not be fearful of the hierarchy and must become comfortable enough to participate in the process. "Once both sides learn how to communicate, ideas can flow in both directions," says John Wynn. "If a guy is afraid of losing his job he won't speak up, even if he has a suggestion that will help the organization. Fear of trying something new must be eliminated, and trust must be established."

Opening the lines of communication is a critical step, because nobody knows how to do the job better than the people actually doing it. Management will be asking employees for their input, and employees must feel comfortable enough to exchange ideas without fear of reprisal or ridicule.

The logical outcome of employee empowerment is the development of teams of workers with the authority to make decisions, freeing your managers from having to be involved in every day-to-day problem. It's counterproductive when employees are encouraged to run to their managers for every little thing. You achieve true empowerment by training managers to give workers on the line the authority to make the decisions necessary to do their jobs in a safe, expedient and productive manner.

Help is Available

According to the Council on Competitiveness, trained American workers are much more likely to stay with their employers than those who receive no training. There are many industry-specific programs available to printers and converters, including an industrial bearing service and maintenance seminar by SKF USA; seminars on packaging available at Michigan State University; and a comprehensive course in flexography offered by Central Piedmont Community College. These are just a few of the many educational opportunities available in our industry.

Perhaps the most complete program on web handling extant is available from the engineering department at Oklahoma State University. This institution is the epicenter of what's happening in web handling today. The Web Handling Research Center was opened in 1986 and is reportedly the only center of its type in the world. Studies are conducted in the mechanics of winding and unwinding; longitudinal dynamics and tension control; lateral dynamics and control; out-of-plane dynamics; wrinkling; measurement of tension and wound roll stress; and a variety of special topics such as air films and conveyance, slitting, runnability and drying. Oklahoma State also sponsors an International Conference on Web Handling.

There is a great deal of industry-specific information available to companies that are interested in enhancing the knowledge and productivity of their employees. But there are also other types of training available in addition to the kind that relates directly to the machines and materials that your employees work with every day.

Before Richard Binder became president of LRS, the plant was losing money. A study indicated that his employees were intelligent and well trained; the problem was lack of teamwork. He ordered the entire plant shut down for two days and sent everybody for experiential training in team building. In a business setting the employees were divided into teams and given tasks to perform, such as having everyone get over a wall in a specific time period without touching the same person more than twice. "These seemingly silly, kid-like games really pulled the team together," says Binder. "After two days they were able to go back into the workplace and function as a cohesive unit." In less than a year the facility went from being a money loser to become the company's top earner.

Binder wants his people to realize that knowledge and continuous education are the keys to success for both their companies and their careers.

"I'd rather have one of my front-line supervisors who deals with hydraulics every day not go for additional training in hydraulics but training in a related field, such as computers," says Binder. "If he goes for training in hydraulics, yes, he might learn a few new things about hydraulics that he can bring to the floor, but if you send him to a computer class, he may come back and completely redesign the plant and dramatically improve the way data is tracked, stored and made available."

W. Edwards Deming said: "For any industry to survive, there has to be bottom-up empowerment." By combining innovative management with employee training and empowerment and integrating both with upgraded technology, even the most staid, encrusted culture can be transformed. And when that happens, the "new" company is positioned to be more competitive now and in the future.

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