The know-how within your company rests with your employees. So train them!

By now, most everyone is familiar with the popular notion that there is little loyalty left in today’s workforce.
Conventional wisdom holds that corporate downsizing and other trends which broke the unwritten cradle-to-grave contract between employer and employee have transformed the world of work into an “every man for himself” scenario.
Baloney, says Chuck Zwerg, a one-time senior human resources manager who now runs two business executive roundtable groups in the Fond du Lac area.
While loyalty to a single organization will probably never be what it once was, the companies that are truly successful owe it to a core group of employees who have been with the organization for many years, says Zwerg, who formerly headed up personnel for Giddings & Lewis for 23 years and who is now chairman of roundtable groups for Executive Agenda, the management and executive networking organization based in Brookfield.
“The knowledge and know-how of the company rests with these core people,” Zwerg says. “What separates companies from one another is the talent, the people, and the culture that these people operate in on a daily basis.”
Business owners or managers who come to that realization first are ahead of the game, as the organizations that ultimately survive and prosper are the ones which strive for continuous improvement at all levels, adds Ron Heilmann, director of executive development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“It won’t happen if the people within the organization aren’t continuously improving,” Heilmann says. “The organization has got to create the type of environment to encourage that.”
That training and education mantra touches all people in an organization, and is not just a blue-collar issue, Heilmann points out. At the IBM plant in Rochester, N.Y., electrical engineers get an enormous amount of training each year, because if they don’t, IBM can’t stay ahead of the design curve.
Over the years, Heilmann has brought Baldridge Award winners to Milwaukee. The award is the government’s recognition of organizations at the top of their field in terms of quality. In his travels to study these award-winning companies, the common thread he has noticed is that those organizations tend to spend anywhere from three to five times as much as the average firm on training, Heilmann says.
“It’s all about the commitment to the development of people within your strategic planning process,” Heilmann says.
With the reduction in middle management ranks, more responsibility now falls on the shoulders of each and every employee. An ever-increasing number of Wisconsin companies have seen the light when it comes to allowing their employees to have input into the way things are done, Zwerg says.
But it’s not enough to merely empower your employees, says Myron Rhodes, general manager of Milwaukee Wire Products. To empower employees without training is a prescription for failure, he says.
“You have to give them the tools,” Rhodes says. “They are not going to do what you need them to do if they don’t have the analytical skills and the knowledge that they need.”
With a roster of 250 full-time employees, the manufacturer of automotive components spends 5% of total wages on training. The classes typically center on teaching basic math, shop skills and team training. Another course educates employees in the basics of Milwaukee Wire’s business.
While the dividends are not always tangible, Rhodes knew it was working when he overheard an employee question another worker’s suggestion to add a step to the production process. “Will that be cost-effective?” was the employee’s response. When Rhodes sees evidence of that kind of long-term thinking, he knows the training is starting to pay for itself.
“We start to see people making good decisions, thinking broad,” Rhodes says. “This is not something that happens overnight, but you do see it.”
A&E Manufacturing Co. in Racine is now in its third year of providing in-house training to employees who are striving for their high school equivalency degree. The training is conducted by an instructor from Gateway Technical College in a traditional, classroom-like setting.
“The biggest thing is, it establishes pride in our workforce,” says Greg Coleman, A&E’s vice president of manufacturing. “And, we have found that our math-based processes such as labor reporting and parts counting has improved.”
With low unemployment, companies like A&E are getting people with little or no experience. The math and communications skills training is designed to focus in on the areas that apply directly to the critical processes within the company, which manufacturers professional quality hand tools. The training has worked so well that A&E plans to extend it to more experience workers.
“Overall, we feel it is a long-term way to lock in and keep employees,” Coleman says, adding that everyone who has been through the program is still with the company. “It’s an extra benefit, both to them and to us. It tends to improve almost everyone, because the math skills of the people coming in here are not up to par.”
At WICOR Energy Group in Milwaukee, all key managers within the group of energy-related companies were asked to read a book called “Every Business is a Growth Business.” The managers were asked how they would apply that concept to their own business units, then were instructed to write a theoretical newspaper article which would talk about their company or division five years from now.
“We ask them to come back and make a recommendation in terms of how we achieve the organizational goals that we have agreed to,” says Bob Puissant, senior vice president for marketing and strategic planning for WICOR Energy Group. “In effect, we have given them the keys to the castle.”
WICOR executives continually challenge one another by introducing relevant articles on management and leadership.
“We constantly challenge our current business practices,” Puissant says. “Are we thinking outside the box in order to better run our current business?”
WICOR has achieved a higher level of customer service within the last several years by creating a mindset among employees that service to the customer is paramount. A big part of offering the higher level of service is through continuous training and education of its workforce.
“We have come to the realization that the strength of our business are the people who help us run the business,” Puissant says. “If you are going to focus on service to the customer, you have to help build and give [employees] the skills that they need.”

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