Skills Gap Assessment and Closure
Manufacturers possess everything needed to close the skills gap within their organizations. Though outsiders may speculate, a company’s current situation and future plans are only known, with any accuracy, by the managers, directors, and advisors of that company. How a manufacturing site’s local environment, corporate objectives, industry, technology and market trends, and other factors will influence the business in the foreseeable future can only be assessed effectively from within. It is this “inside information” that is critical to the creation of a workforce development plan that will meet the company’s current and future needs.
Indicative of its importance, the first four steps in the process outlined below involve the collection and analysis of information. Information from various sources must be cross-referenced to ensure the most accurate characterization of the company possible. In the fifth step, methods for visualizing the skills gap are discussed, concluding the assessment. Planning and closure of the skills gap occur in the final two steps.
It will become clear that the more inclusive the research performed early in the process, collecting the broadest array of employee viewpoints that is feasible, the greater the potential for successful execution. A single person, such as an HR Manager or training coordinator, attempting to develop a program independently, will likely achieve only mediocre results.
Step 1: Query managers and supervisors about the skills necessary to be successful in each role they oversee. Both short-term (i.e. current) and long-term (i.e. future) requirements should be documented. Resist the temptation to defer to public reports; they are generalizations, loaded with assumptions that may not apply to your business. They may also be misinformed, biased, or self-serving. They certainly do not reflect the trajectory of your unique business. Conduct your own analysis!
Step 2: Query highly regarded employees (e.g. journeymen, “superstars”) about the skills that have contributed most to their exemplary performance. Conversely, document what skills have been stressed by the organization that they feel were less valuable. Ask open-ended questions to elicit their insights on how policies, culture, management styles and structure, or other characteristics of the company have affected employees’ ability to perform. What tools and training do they find most valuable?
Employees with extensive experience possess vast amounts of knowledge and insight. Fear of reprisal for statements perceived to be critical of the company or its managers inhibits the flow of information that could be used to improve performance. Create an environment in which they feel comfortable sharing their insights and most will be happy to do so.
Step 3: Query less experienced employees about challenges they face in meeting performance standards. What responsibilities, tasks, or expectations cause them concern? Are any of these inconsistent with their understanding of the job requirements? What tools or training do they feel would give them the best chance of success in your organization?
Again, the proper environment must exist for reliable information to be gathered. Self-reported information is notoriously unreliable; it may be most difficult to extract accurate information from this group. An employee may be reluctant to confess perceived deficiencies, whether for fear of repercussions or simply a matter of pride. Confidence must be instilled in them that continuous improvement, not punitive action, is the objective.
Employees may also have misguided notions about the benefits they may receive by skewing the results of such an inquiry. Deliberate attempts to skew the results may be thwarted by the design of the survey, extensive communication, and the culture that permeates the organization. We strive to hire only individuals of impeccable character and cultural fit, but the occasional barbarian will get through the gate. Screening for this behavior takes place in the next step.
Step 4: Consolidate and analyze results from steps 1 – 3 with the objective of identifying and resolving issues that could adversely affect the assessment of the skills gap or attempts to close it. Look for signs of misunderstandings between managers and employees, such as differing perceptions of performance or definitions of success. It is of particular importance to identify any mismatches between employees’ stated responsibilities (i.e. “job descriptions”) and managers’ implicit expectations that may result in an inaccurate evaluation of employee capabilities.
Further cross-referencing the perspectives of supervisors and other employees can lead to very fruitful discussions of the skills and abilities needed for employees to fulfill their responsibilities. It is prudent to verify that an employee’s responses to the query pertain to their primary responsibilities. The results may be misleading if information provided refers to a temporary or infrequent assignment for which preparedness and performance expectations may be lower. Similarly, the anticipated learning curve of an employee that is new to a job should also be considered. Comparison of employee and supervisor evaluations can also reveal “barbarian” behavior that should be filtered out.
Any discrepancies discovered must be corrected to create an accurate representation of the company’s training needs. Doing so may require updating job descriptions, modifying managers’ and employees’ expectations, and adjusting performance evaluation techniques. Extensive communication of the new paradigm should target three goals:
Step 5: Create a skills gap visualization to facilitate management of the training program. Value Stream Maps (VSMs) have been widely publicized as an effective method to document manufacturing operations. If your organization has prepared VSMs (you have created VSMs, haven’t you?), their use can be adapted to document the skills requirements for each process. A “Skills Map” of this type would substitute tools, training, and other information relevant to the skills required to perform the value-added tasks in place of inventories, cycle times, and so on of a conventional VSM. The “Future State Skills Map” could be used to document future training needs to support anticipated technology upgrades or other aspects of the operation that change over time. This approach facilitates employee development pursued in parallel with product and process development. Unfortunately, it is often an afterthought, or worse, not considered at all.
A common method of monitoring individuals’ capabilities relative to identified requirements is to record each attainment on a Skills Matrix. As an integral component of your training plan, a Skills Matrix can be an effective tool for tracking progress toward individual and organizational training goals.
Step 6: Develop a plan to achieve the “future state” as documented on a Skills Map or other representation. Employee development opportunities come in many forms; each should be evaluated for its applicability to specific needs identified in the gap analysis.
Documentation of the plan can also take many forms; no matter what form is chosen, it should address several aspects of the training program to facilitate management and communication. Some of this can be done in stages; for example, the most basic or widely-needed training can be initiated before sources for more advanced training are identified.
Step 7: Execute the plan. Close the Gap! If the previous steps have been given sufficient attention, execution is straightforward. Everything has been defined; what is needed now is follow-through. Managers and employees must be held accountable for adherence to the plan.
Weak excuses from employees for a lack of participation, or from managers for failing to release employees at scheduled times indicate a lack of commitment to the program. This type of behavior can be dealt with in similar fashion to any other attendance or performance issue; procedures relevant to these situations are often documented in an Employee Handbook.
Unavoidable deviations require a recovery plan to get affected employees back in sync with other employees’ progress on the training plan. The recovery plan should be developed by the affected employee and supervisor and submitted for approval. The person(s) responsible for overseeing execution of the company-wide training plan should verify that the employee’s recovery plan does not cause undue hardship on the employee or the company. Once approved, it becomes a part of the individual-level plan for the affected employee.
Training is too often overlooked in the preparation of business and staffing plans. Every business has a unique combination of people, processes, and systems; it is unreasonable to expect new hires to require zero training. A commitment to training is, therefore, essential to the long-term viability of a business as new hires acclimate and existing employees adapt to new developments.
If your staff does not currently have the capacity to launch – and follow through on – this process, consider engaging an Operations Consultant. Securing a dedicated resource with experience in manufacturing, training, and mentoring to guide your team could pay huge dividends in long-term company stability, performance, and prosperity.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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