A skills programme at Thames Timber has led to fewer errors, improved morale – and a better bottom line.
Thames Timber processes wood from logs through to finished products; its staff of 140 are largely unskilled. The company identified a need to improve communication and find better ways of dealing with problems in a busy and potentially dangerous work place.
Starting with literacy and numbers
The obvious solution, says manufacturing manager Phil Cave, was to help the crew become more literate, numerate and more confident communicators to improve business productivity. In 2010, he asked training company Valley Education and Training Enterprises (VETEL) to devise a numeracy and literacy training programme. Its direction and curriculum was developed by Phil and the learning materials and delivery were done by VETEL.
“We called the programme Branching Out and funding came from the Tertiary Education Commission,” he says. “Fifty people take part in it each year and we have a weekly schedule of classes with a tutor on site. It’s inside work hours, so they are still being paid.”
Initially, Phil says many learners came to classes reluctantly and lacking confidence as they didn’t have the number knowledge of tables, fractions or percentages. But that was soon overcome. “They were elated to be able to apply calculations to their everyday life such as working out interest rates and hire purchase,” says Phil. “The courses have also provided benefits that can’t really be measured, such as getting over their fear of public speaking.”
Empowering staff = better performance
As literacy levels increased, the work performance of employees also improved; they enjoyed learning how to work out dollar-values of lengths of timber and so on. “Workers felt empowered with their new skills,” says Phil.
But the company had to juggle the training with the needs of the business, and sometimes workers couldn’t attend a lesson as they were needed elsewhere. However, catch-up sessions were arranged and schedules changed so only one person from each processing area was away training at any one time.
And the results? The number of mistakes has dropped markedly. There’s been a significant rise in output due to training in the key areas of understanding statistics, listening and speaking, and making sense of numbers to solve problems. “Forms are usually correctly completed these days,” says Phil, “and attitudes to safety have improved.”
Overall, the increase in yield from timber has been 3%, and if that continues, the benefit is an extra $500,000 a year.
Phil says staff now have a better understanding of their key performance indicators, which puts them in a better position to be able to contribute to improvements. People are making useful suggestions at regular ‘toolbox meetings’ and have an understanding of continuous improvement.
Committed to positive change
Thames Timber is now trialling a system where team leaders who have been trained in a condensed version of ‘Branching Out’ deliver the training to every new employee – and anyone else who needs help, setting a solid foundation for higher levels of learning.
All employees go on to do a Level 2 national certificate in lean manufacturing as a minimum qualification. “Literacy and numeracy is now thoroughly embedded in the roots of the company and life-changing learning has occurred for many employees.”