Training Techniques for Implementing Shop-Floor Systems

The implementation of sophisticated technologies on the shop floor demands innovative and creative approaches to user training. As U.S. manufacturers become more competitive, they require more sophisticated systems. As a result, the shop-floor work force must work with increasingly complex technology. That technology's success depends on user acceptance and understanding. If users do not use the technology or, worse, use it incorrectly, all of its benefits are lost.

Much has been written about the low education levels of U.S. shop-floor workers. Although it is important that we work to correct this situation, it is a fact that must be faced by all system implementers. In the foreseeable future, systems implementers will be trying to implement increasingly complex systems in a user community where many may not have reached a high-school level of education, nor have had any experience with computers. The increasing gulf between technology and the American worker must be bridged by systems training programs.

AN UNUSUAL FORM OF PRESENTATION

Systems implementers, in general, do a good job of defining what information must be communicated to the shop-floor user in order to successfully use the system. Where many training programs fail, however, is in the presentation of this material. Over the past two years, the manufacturing information systems group at Augat has implemented shop-floor systems in three of its facilities. These implementations have provided us with the opportunity to develop and test new approaches to systems training.

One of the more unconventional methods of training we have found successful is simulation gaming. Simulation gaming takes a particular situation and attempts to model it in the framework of a game. For example, simulation games are currently being used in Poland to test proposed legislation for the privatization of state-owned companies. Simulation games are also used to teach MRP-II concepts; you may have seen or participated in an MRP simulation game at an APICS meeting. These games are complex and take anywhere from several hours to several days to complete. But simulation games do not have to be complex or time consuming. One of the greatest successes we have had with game playing has been in the introduction of bar-code technology. In an attempt to demystify the bar-code equipment, we developed a simple, "low-tech" tic-tac-toe game.

The game's training goal is to de-mystify the use of a bar-code wand. Performing this task in the framework of a game has several advantages. First, it varies the form of the training session. A large amount of time in a training session is spent lecturing. This type of training is passive. Game playing, on the other hand, is active. We found it advantageous to schedule our tic-tac-toe game in the middle of our training sessions to break up the monotony of lecturing. Because game playing is an active form of learning, it also acts as an icebreaker, forcing communication between the trainer and trainees who might otherwise have remained silent during the lecture.

Second, since the game is tic-tac-toe, it has no relevance to the tasks the trainees will be performing with the new system. This separates the game from any anxiety the participants may have about procedural changes and focuses on learning how to use a bar-code wand.

Third, the game is mildly competitive, providing an incentive for learning how to use the wand and helping reveal how the trainees interact with each other.

The mechanics of the game are very simple. Game boards are printed using a laser-jet printer equipped with a bar-code font cartridge (Figure 1). The board is a simple tic-tac-toe grid of three by three. Each square contains a bar-coded sequence. The sequence should be long enough to make the wanding challenging but not so long as to be too difficult. A length of seven characters seems to work well. The characters used in the bar-code sequence are unimportant. The game centers around the fact that the bar-code reader beeps when the user successfully completes a scan.

The training group is divided into pairs of opponents; each pair having a game board. Each player gets one try to claim the square he or she wants. If the bar-code device beeps when the player wands the barcode symbols in the square, the player claims the square by placing either an X or an O in the square. The opponents alternate turns. If a player fails to make the device beep on his turn, his opponent can try to take the square. The rules for winning are the same as in tic-tac-toe; three across, down, or diagonal wins.

For our game playing we use an Intermec handheld bar-code reader equipped with a wand. The wand is identical to the ones we installed on the shop floor. The use of a hand-held device was a matter of convenience, any bar-code reader with an audible beep will do. Since the game boards were printed in house on regular paper, they were disposed of after each game.

More complex variations of the game are possible. For example, parts of a famous phrase could be placed in each bar-coded symbol. As the parts are revealed with each correct bar-code wan ding, the players could be given the opportunity to guess the phrase.

Does "gaming" actually teach users anything? At least, at the end of our tic-tac-toe games, everyone in the training session knew how to handle a wand and no one was the least bit timid about picking one up when it came time to do hands-on training on the shop floor.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO USER MANUALS

Another area of some success was in the production of user manuals. It seemed to us that user manuals which relied heavily on the written word would be of limited use to a user community that had difficulty reading and understanding English. For those who were literate in other languages, translations would have been helpful, but this was expensive and several different translations would have been needed. There was also a question as to whether some of our users were literate in any language, so we took another path.

Since pictures are reputed to be worth a thousand words, we decided to prepare an iconographic user manual. The first step was to come up with a page format that would lend itself to an icon-based format. This was accomplished by dividing the page in half, vertically. Bar-code systems require the user to first read the device's prompt and then wand the correct bar-coded field. By dividing the page in two, vertically, we had one space in which to track what the bar-code system was prompting for and another in which to display where to get the information. On the right hand side of the page we placed pictures of the barcode device display with its messages. On the left hand side of the page we placed a picture of the appropriate source document.

The second step was to tie the two sides together. For this we developed the wand icon. The icon is simply a stylized drawing of a bar-code wand. Whenever the system required the user to wand in information, the right side of the page would display this icon followed by the words "Wand the -." On the left side of the page would be the image of the source document from which the information would come. Superimposed over this document would be the same wand icon pointing to the appropriate bar-coded field (Figure 2).

In this way the user could match the bar-code systems' prompts with the bar-coded fields to be wanded. If you can match the prompt on the bar-code device with a picture on the right-hand side of the manual, all you have to do is look to the left-hand side of the page to see what you need to wand.

The rest of the organization of the manual is fairly straightforward. Each chapter corresponds to a major task, such as entering labor hours or down time. Each chapter is broken up into steps. A step consists of one bar-code system prompt and its appropriate response.

In each step the bar-code device screen is pictured both before and after the required field has been wanded. Between the two displays, the wand icon is displayed. There are about two steps per page. Some steps took up more space because there was more than one possible source for the information. In this case, one icon was shown on the right side of the page while multiple icons were depicted on the left side, indicating the multiple sources. Situations of multiple sources were kept to a minimum so as not to confuse the users.

The manual is not completely free of the English language; the user must still be able to recognize frequently used words such as "work center" or "item number." But the use of an icon greatly reduces the amount of reading required. For those who learn by reading, there is a complete introduction to each manual and each chapter.

The advent of desktop publishing made it possible for us to produce the manuals ourselves. We used a personal computer, a laser-jet printer, desktop publishing software, a flat-bed black and white scanner, and a paint program. Producing the manuals ourselves has both cut costs and given us the ability to update the documentation any time we make a change without incurring large out-of-house expenses.

The flat-bed black and white scanner was used to capture pictures of the source documents. The barcode device display screens were simulated by placing text in a box roughly proportional to that of the display screen. The wand icon was produced with a paint program, though it could have been produced by scanning a picture of a bar-code wand and scaling it to size.

It took time and patience to learn how to use the desktop publishing tools, but it is proving to be well worth it. In addition to producing manuals for other systems, the software is being used to prepare presentations and newsletters.

CONCLUSION

Training materials, such as manuals, can benefit from a fresh look and an understanding of the changes in users' abilities. Literacy is no longer a valid assumption. But even if it were, manuals need to make information easily accessible. No one on the modern shop floor is going to have time to wade through long paragraphs of text in order to find out what they need to do next. A pictorial form of a user manual is one solution to both problems.

Simulation gaming holds out some interesting possibilities. This relatively new form of training already has its own national and international organizations and is taught on the college level at several universities. Games are a very old technology and can be easily adapted to almost any subject. In the tic-tac-toe game, gaming is used to train people to use a physical device. It has also been used to train materials planners on the concepts of MRP. With a little creativity, simulation gaming can be a very powerful tool.

Good form does not make up for bad content. All the basics that go into defining the material that needs to be taught still apply. However, the best prepared material may fail to reach its audience if the form in which it is presented is not one with which the audience is comfortable. I have described two unusual forms of presentation that we have found successful at Augat; simulation gaming and iconographic manuals. Systems implementers need to continue to seek out new training techniques.