The Art Of Task Simplification

A strong training program is an integral part of a successful company. You must provide training to bring the skill level of your workers to the level required to perform their assigned tasks.

A strong training program is an integral part of a successful company. You must provide training to bring the skill level of your workers to the level required to perform their assigned tasks. However, there is an alternative to increasing skill level—one that is becoming more important as we see fewer people entering the field of manufacturing. It involves lowering the level of skill required for a person to proficiently perform assigned tasks. I call this task simplification.

A great example of task simplification can be found in fast-food restaurants. In my day, a cashier taking orders had to write down each item separately, totaling the amount when finished. They also had to remember what the customer ordered and bag the items. When the customer paid, they had to make change based upon the amount provided.

Restaurant managers found that mistakes made during transactions lead to lost revenue. And with each new restaurant that opened in a town, it became more difficult to find people with the aptitude or motivation required to learn how to complete transactions (sound familiar?). Rather than continuing to train people to bring them to the level needed to complete transactions, they decided to lower the skill level required to do so.

Today, a customer simply says: "number three." The cashier presses the button corresponding to the number three meal and is shown a list of items that must be supplied and the total cost. When the customer pays, the cashier types the amount provided, and the cash register responds with the amount of change to be given to the customer.

Relate this to what you know about your CNC environment. At one time, the majority of people entering our field came from technical schools or apprenticeships. They had a high degree of proficiency starting out. But like fast-food restaurant owners, today's company managers are finding it difficult to hire people with the aptitude or motivation to learn the required CNC tasks, at least at the wages they're willing to pay.

So, in conjunction with providing training, progressive companies are looking for ways to simplify what it takes for workers to be proficient. As fast-food restaurant owners determined, it may be more feasible to simplify a task than to raise the skill level required for everyone to perform it. One way to judge the need for task simplification is related to mistakes that people make.

Whenever mistakes are made, and especially when they're recurring mistakes, you have two alternatives: Provide more training to raise the skill level or lower the skill level required to successfully perform the mistake-prone task. In the long run, which is more cost-effective? Consider the number of CNC people your company employs, the degree of employee turnover your company experiences and the interest/motivation level of the people involved. These factors should help you make a wise decision.

Everyone operating a CNC machine must be able to adjust offsets for proper tolerances. This task involves several skills, including measuring workpiece dimensions, determining target dimensions, calculating the deviation between the measured dimension and the target dimension, determining whether an offset adjustment must be made, and actually adjusting the offset.

Training helps people master this task, but offset adjustment tends to be a source of mistakes for many CNC people. How can you reduce the skill needed to perform this task? As you consider each required skill, think about the potential for simplification.

The skill to measure dimensions: Are people provided with measuring tools that are easy to use and interpret? Measuring tools with digital displays, for example, are much easier to read than Vernier scales.

The skill to determine target dimensions: Why make people calculate the target dimension? Why not specify every target dimension in the production run documentation? A simple marked-up print will work nicely.

The skill to calculate the deviation between the measured and target dimensions: Are people given calculators so they do not have to make calculations in their heads?

The skill required to actually adjust the offset: How hard is it for people to determine which offset must be adjusted for a given dimension? A marked-up print using a simple color-coding system can make it obvious.

Many managers feel CNC people should master the tasks related to all facets of CNC machine usage. They may frown upon task simplification. I agree that people should eventually master these tasks. But the sad reality is that we're seeing fewer people entering manufacturing who have the aptitude or motivation to master CNC. If this continues, task simplification will play an important role in any company's future.