Pro Tips for Educating Your Workforce in OPEX Concepts and Tools

Once you have your operational excellence vision and strategy in place, resource needs identified, and practitioners hired, it’s time to plan and deliver OpEx education for the overall workforce. While you’ll find dozens of choices for OpEx concepts and tools that may be of use over time as you choose methods for OpEx deployment, it is often best to start with the basics of Lean: 

  • What is Lean? (including value and waste)
  • 5S
  • Visual Management
  • Standard Work
  • Continuous Flow
  • Pull

This foundation will help workers understand why the organization is embarking on a cultural change, what the benefits will be to clients and the organization, and how Lean works. Determining who participates in the different modules of OpEx workforce education is part of the scope of the overall training plan.

Adding a focus on structured problem solving gives employees a proven methodology that they can apply to any problem or opportunity. Root cause analysis with Five Whys, seven basic quality tools, and other helpful methods enables people to move forward with team and independent applications to fix problems or drive improvements.


Experiential learning makes all the difference

Having identified what content areas to teach, you need to define the workforce education approach and create training materials. If you think of education as the elementary school approach of rote memorization of math and history facts or the college methods of listening to dry lectures and taking notes, think again when it comes to workforce education. Adult employees in most business organizations thrive on experiential training that captures their interest and leverages their existing skills.

While training experiences can easily be built into classroom and on-the-job training, they need to be supplemented with nurturing by the trainer or facilitator for maximum learning and retention. In fact, American psychologist and educator David Kolb expressed this experiential learning as a four-step cycle. After a physical experience, the trainer facilitates a process for the trainee to reflect, draw conclusions, and test the conclusions in other applications. (Yes, this does look a bit like a Deming Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle!)


Incorporate different experiential techniques for different learning styles

Kolb goes on to observe that individuals have styles for learning that incorporate combinations of doing, feeling, thinking, and watching activities in varying degrees from person to person. In your training approach, recognize and deal with individual learning differences with multi-faceted methods that encourage optimized learning for all participants. 

Why do some people learn better by reading a textbook while others prefer listening to an instructor? Why do some people learn best if they listen to music on headphones while studying? Individuals tend to prefer different styles and techniques of learning and have more effective results with their preferred styles. Fairly recently educators have identified seven different learning styles.


1. Visual (spatial):
Using images and leveraging spatial understanding

2. Aural (auditory-musical):
Using sound and music (other than speech)

3. Verbal (linguistic):
Using words, both in speech and writing

4. Physical (kinesthetic):
Using your body, hands and sense of touch

5. Logical (mathematical):
Using logic, reasoning and systems

6. Social (interpersonal):
Learning in groups or with other people

7. Solitary (intrapersonal):
Working alone and using self-study

While younger students are often forced to follow a norm of primarily verbal and logical learning, individual adults may have diverged to reinforce personal styles that rely heavily on other approaches. By using a combination of these styles in your training programs, you’ll reach more people than using simply reading and lecture that work for some but not all students. The extra benefit is that this varied approach causes all participants to use multiple parts of their brains, so every individual is likely to learn and retain more content.


Here’s how to do it

The practical application of this approach requires some planning to build in exercises and experiences that draw on multiple styles. You may do this with a learning simulation built around key concepts and engaging participants in a “game.” For example, the beer game is a popular role-play simulation that illustrates the importance of teamwork and communications in a supply chain and teaches concepts of inventory, lead time, push/pull, and flow.

Many other simulations are available commercially or could be built in-house, but simple exercises can be built into any OpEx training to accommodate varied learning styles. Use varied exercises for different modules of training content.

Building your training structure

People can absorb and retain only so much new information at one time. If you’re a trainer, you need to stop pushing content before you start seeing rolling eyeballs, drooping shoulders, and other body language indicating fatigue, frustration, or boredom.

This learning capacity issue creates several important limitations and opportunities for effective training. Build some of these methods into the training structure:


1. Plan training in manageable chunks.

From a practical perspective, have a break or an experiential activity every hour or two between any verbal types of training.


2. Leverage a building block approach.

Initial concepts become a foundation and new materials are layered onto the baseline. Every time a new layer is added, the student reviews (if needed) and reinforces the earlier foundation work. This process includes helping the student leverage prior experience and see the relationship to new material. Reflection shows how much expertise the student has built from the original starting point, which can be quite motivational for adult learners.


3. Use multimedia materials.

Sourcing or creating videos or slide shows has become fairly easy. A short video can be a well-received shift from instructor-led content and it can be used as a jumping-off point for experiential training or reused for later review training.


4. Use microburst moments.

Young adults have become accustomed to very short units of content for entertainment and communication (e.g. Vine, Twitter, YouTube videos). Apply this concept for microtraining, with focused videos or “two-minute drills” that hold participants’ attention. For example, have students compete to create succinct 140-character tweets summarizing content elements.


5. Use teach-back methods.

Build time into any training modules for the students to share reflections and conclusions. This can include commissioning students to provide the summaries of key points in a review of modular content to ensure that they “got it” before moving on to something new.


6. Plan “learn and do” cycles.

For maximum retention, training is followed immediately by application. If you teach a unit on 5S, follow it with a clean-up exercise of a cordoned-off section of the operations or a supply cabinet, computer files, or a junk drawer. Teach visual methods and let students empty a messy toolbox and create an organized pegboard shadowbox.


Make training fun, simple, and effective

Very simple experiential training activities can be very effective. Folding a t-shirt in a new and different way is one of my favorite exercises. In different applications I’ve used it as an introduction to a change management module, as a demonstration of the value of standard work, as a common activity to learn to write standard operating procedures, and as a data gathering and analysis exercise for quality methods and document control.

It can be presented in a way that uses most of the seven learning styles to create an enjoyable and memorable activity. Invariably, all participants are alert and laughing as they try to master this new concept. The key is to ensure that the desired learning concepts tied to the fun exercise are also remembered.

Whatever experiential training methods you use for OpEx workforce education, be sure to link the experiences to the learning concepts and build in the four parts of the experiential learning cycle. Without reflections, conclusions, and testing, a fun training experience might be remembered fondly—like recess in grade school—but not deliver lasting learning value.


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About the author

Nancy Bach

Nancy Bach has spent more than 20 years in the industry as a quality and operational excellence practitioner and manager. In private consulting, she creates and delivers a Lean Certification course, provides Green Belt training and works with multi-functional organizations to develop strategy and implement process improvement.