Managing quality with a learning environment

Editor's note: When Steinwall Inc., a custom molder in Coon Rapids, MN with 20 presses and 49 employees, decided to implement total quality management (TQM) principles in 1984, it quickly discovered that building efficiencies into its materials processing and equipment was the easy part. The hard part was changing, and in the end, educating its employees in order to make the process successful. Maureen Steinwall, the company's president, walks us through TQM implementation at her company and the importance of creating a learning organization.

My injection molding company, Steinwall Inc., approached TQM in 1984 by looking at the issue in three parts: the raw material entering the process, the equipment used in the process, and the people that designed and managed the process. The raw material and equipment were easy to deal with in comparison to the people element. When the raw material was tested, the results indicated that it was either in conformance or not. We put microprocessors on our presses to control the equipment. But when dealing with the people, it was an entirely different story.

When asking a person if he or she was in conformance or not, the answer was invariably "yes." Most people don't like to admit to mistakes or to lacking understanding. Machines and material don't lie. People can. There was no way to put gauges or sensors on a person and receive the accurate information necessary to approach process improvement in the same way as material and equipment. In fact, we're still working on mastering the people element.

I admit it, though—I'm tired, and before I can finish implementing TQM, new manufacturing improvement theories surface. Today we read about lean manufacturing and learning organizations. I struggle with understanding the subtle differences between all these theories—don't they all focus management on removing waste from the manufacturing process? I just want to rest for a while, but our competition won't let us.

Our competitors, such as those in China, have the same raw material and equipment that we do, but their labor costs are possibly up to 50 times less. They have governmental support; we have taxes and regulations. A pure textbook view of this economic situation might suggest that this is an unfair competitive situation that cannot be won by the underdog. However, we are that underdog, and as such, the only thing we can do is figure out how to tap the power in the people process.

A Learning Organization
It appears to me that the theories on creating a learning organization will, in fact, help. They address the people element in process improvement. But, let's face it: We are all pioneers in the process of creating learning organizations. And being a pioneer is tough work. We can either embrace the challenge—forge our way through the unsettled landscape—or we can stand still only to be eaten alive by the competition. I'm choosing to forge on. And here is what I am learning.

Three elements need to be in place within an organization in order for learning to take place: permission, encouragement, and feedback. Permission is granted within the work culture. Management must say it is OK to try something new—to pave a new path. We give this concept lip service by talking about empowering our employees, yet empowerment within a fear-based hierarchical organization is a contradiction. And empowering at times generates waste (another word for mistakes), which is exactly what we don't want to have happen within a lean manufacturing environment. But we'll talk more about mistakes later.

The second element of a learning organization is encouragement—a special type of management style or coaching method. You will know you are making progress toward implementing a learning organization philosophy when you hear managers say things such as, "I know you can do it"; "Just give it your best shot"; or "To help you learn more about this topic, here is a training segment that I would like you to review."

The third element is feedback. Of course, there cannot be feedback on how well someone is progressing toward his or her goal if goal setting never took place. That is why goal-setting is an integral step to take. Where do you want the organization to go and how well are you preparing the team to get there? How will you know when they get there? Where are you now?

These goal-setting questions are important and most organizations might believe they have accomplished this step. I certainly thought I did. But I missed the mark. In a learning organization, everyone must grasp the tough question, "What's in it for me?" All employees must believe in this answer, "The ability to make a difference, to grow and learn, and to feel like I belong." This is not the same as the standard answer: "A paycheck!"

Training is Critical
It was Phil Crosby's book, Quality Is Free, in 1986 that provided the impetus to get the quality movement going full-steam. Customers actually used this philosophy to get their suppliers to reduce price and increase quality. The same is true today. Lean manufacturing and global competition are causing similar pricing challenges. An organization that has created a learning organization will harvest the profits yet to be discovered by controlling the people variable in the process.

Training is a necessary part of creating a learning environment. I view the training function within a learning organization as similar to SPC in a quality organization. It is a very important tool that helps move the organization closer to its competitive goal. Another way to view training is to think of it as a necessary step in the manufacturing process that helps reduce mistakes or waste.

Training should be more than a classroom event. In my experience, very little training or knowledge transfer actually happens in a classroom environment. Training also is more than pouring information into the minds of people to achieve the desired outcome. If training were simply teaching a class, then it would be an expense and probably wouldn't allow the company to harvest much net profit.

Try to look at training from the angle of communicating knowledge. This knowledge can be found in libraries, in trade journals, or in your company's archives. Knowledge is also found by analyzing and documenting the experimentation and mistakes that take place daily within manufacturing environments.

Management's Role
The main focus for management in a learning organization will be to gather information or knowledge (curriculum), archive the knowledge, and design systems for retrieving the knowledge when needed. Allowing people to have easy access to information, processes, procedures, data, research, and stories of what has worked and has not worked is the goal. The curriculum would take the shape of books, computer simulation, multimedia programs, videos, and learning programs via the Web. The bonus with this collection and delivery concept is that it could be classified as a tangible asset. This would be desirable for the accountants who dislike the expense of training. The knowledge would remain a corporate asset, even after people leave the company.

If you have ever attempted to get people to explain how they go about doing their job, you have probably faced huge resistance. Most people believe that job security is found by holding onto information that they have gathered through their experience. They believe that once the company has their knowledge, they become dispensable. Therefore, the trick for management is to remove this fear that is rooted in the corporate culture.

People need to feel safe to speak freely about what they know. They need to be given permission to learn and to speak about their experiences. And if they truly believe they are safe in this learning environment, they will continue to learn. It's up to management to capture this knowledge and have it available for the next person—in essence, we need to stop recreating the wheel. Recreating the wheel is experimental waste that eats away at our productivity improvement. If our productivity goal is to increase by 5000 percent, then recreating the wheel makes no sense. Continuous experimentation is not necessary.

Putting the Process to Work
Let's create a hypothetical scenario using our three elements: permission, encouragement, and feedback. Let's say that permission has been given and it is safe to experiment with a process as long as a good scientific approach is used in planning. The individual(s) begins with the experiment through the encouragement of management, only to learn that it doesn't work as first planned. Naturally, the person(s) experimenting will begin the storytelling process typically referred to as water cooler conversation. They talk about what happened. Everyone listening begins to learn. In this case, they are learning what not to do. This is just as important as learning what to do.

Management needs to capture this story because it has value. If nothing more, the organization paid for the knowledge through funding the experiment, so it owns the knowledge. Passing on the captured knowledge means creating a curriculum that trains future employees on the topic. The curriculum could vary in length. Once created, the newly developed curriculum should be communicated to all who need or want to learn in the easiest way possible. Computers have been known to aid in the archival and communication process, but they don't need to be too fancy. There is no need to buy the most expensive computer and accessories; just ensure their reliability.

Capturing knowledge (i.e., the way to do or not do something) when created, archiving the curriculum, and communicating the curriculum or knowledge as effectively and efficiently as possible results in productivity improvements. If we remain committed to this process, our entire workforce will give us a competitive edge that we will need to survive.

Contact information
Steinwall Inc.
Coon Rapids, MN
Maureen Steinwall
(763) 767-7067
[email protected]




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