CWB September 2001

Helping Employees Find Their Niche

How to create an abilities-based framework for measuring worker productivity and initiative.

By Anthony Noel

Parenting "experts" have long warned parents of the pitfalls of comparing siblings. "Every child is unique, and the more you can encourage their individuality, the happier they will be" is the popular thought.

True enough. And while seasoned parents (the real experts, in my book) will readily admit that it is advice that is far more easily given than followed, consistent practice at avoiding comparisons of one's children does, in fact, increase the odds of raising well-adjusted kids who take pride in who they are.

Some business management gurus adhere to a similar philosophy: "Every employee brings different talents to the table, and comparing them only leads to conflict and low morale."

This is a nice theory. It is also complete and utter nonsense.

Still, in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict, many managers struggle not to compare their "children" - the people they hire, train, supervise and evaluate. But that last area, evaluation, inevitably forces them into comparing workers anyway.

The solution? Establish parameters that provide all employees with a clear idea of the abilities they must master in order to attain a given level and the compensation that accompanies it. I'm not talking about specific job descriptions (although I have in the past and will in the near future), but about identifying and placing a value on general skill sets and overall initiative.

Different companies do this in different ways. Many formally evaluate employees every six or 12 months. The realization (or lack) of hoped-for competencies are discussed, with pay increases being based upon an employee's progress. Other companies put nothing in writing and expect workers to somehow guess what's expected of them based upon, I don't know, maybe planetary alignment.

Anyone who cares to guess which approach I think is better might be surprised. While I do favor the first approach, I also believe that formal evaluations become almost worthless if the importance of the first 30 to 90 days of an employee's tenure is not recognized.

Last month I stressed the importance of evaluating a prospective employee based on the talents he or she brings in the door, not those you are "sure" he or she will pick up "in a week or two." I believe that the employee's first trip through the shop door is when the evaluation process must kick in.

One real beauty of any manufacturing operation, compared to more esoteric fields of endeavor, is that results are tangible and visible every day. Measuring a woodworker's competency in given skills is far easier than doing the same for, say, an archeologist. (I mean, what are the chances that the chief curator of some science museum has ever said to a staff member, "Jones, this tibia is clearly 650,000 years old, not 625,000! You have 10 minutes to clean out your desk.")

Yet every day, woodworkers are told to pack up their tools for reasons they can't quite understand. Maybe they made a major mistake. But odds are that they never received the initial training and evaluation - let alone guidance in developing their skills - that could have made the difference. And providing that guidance, Mr. Owner or Manager, is your job. Are you doing it?

A great way to start is by establishing competency levels based upon your operation. First, you will need to consider the kinds of products you offer and, quite literally, what it takes to make them. Ask yourself the following questions: What specific skills must employees have to perform operations you consider basic, intermediate and advanced? How far are you willing to let an employee go in the overall structure of the company? And what rewards are you willing to offer employees who attain various levels of competency and responsibility?

In my small custom shop, I established five competency levels, complete with specific duties and goals, the achievement of which qualified employees for the next level. Following is a generalized version of this system, which I hope will inspire you to consider what levels - and very specific skill requirements - might be appropriate to your operation.

* Trainee. Duties: Sanding, machine maintenance, clean-up, "go-fer," shop assistant. Goals: Demonstrated interest in becoming a professional woodworker, as exemplified by interest in how projects are constructed, understanding the safe use of tools and machinery, and a willingness to do lots of sanding.

* Level One. Duties: Everything from cutlists to final sanding on any given project in the shop at any given time. Goals: To become thoroughly skilled in every operation required to produce excellent work, and to gradually increase efficiency/productivity to the point that projects are completed, satisfying quality standards, within a 55% margin of the hours listed for the job. (Note: Hour estimates given to employees are weighted against project difficulty, employee ability and projected costs.)

* Level Two. Duties: Same as Level One, plus employee training. Goals: To fully develop and apply time management/production techniques in order to complete jobs within a 35% margin of the hours listed. Overall, to hone the abilities developed at Level One and to ingrain work-related behaviors and a level of professionalism in himself and others, helping to make the production of high-quality work "second nature."

* Level Three. Duties: Same as Level Two, plus occasional client contact, estimating, drafting and finishing. Goals: Completion of jobs within a 10% margin of the hours listed, acquiring and honing of finishing skills and to gain experience in client contact, including estimating and sales. Overall, the Level Three employee is evolving into a key player in the company's success, and this level includes incentive bonuses which can greatly increase the employee's earnings. This is the highest level attainable for employees who wish to apply their talents primarily in the shop.

* Level Four. Duties: Same as Level Three, but with the additional duties of finding new clients, servicing old ones and bidding work on a regular basis. Goals: This employee will have become an experienced finisher, will have complete confidence in his estimates and his ability to sell work, and will be a top-notch manager. Overall, the Level Four employee seeks challenges beyond those in the shop and seeks to become a primary player in the company's development. This level offers incentive compensation and commission on sales; partial ownership of the company is also negotiable.

Of critical importance to implementing this type of system is determining every new employee's starting place. When in doubt, I started them off at Level One ("trainee" was pretty much reserved for inexperienced part-timers and brand-new tech school or high school graduates).

Most important, however, is ensuring that someone (preferably you, if your shop is small enough or you have the time) takes this new hire under their wing, explains the potential that exists for them, and helps them achieve the goals and competencies you have established. Watch the new employee very closely; encourage him or her to ask lots of questions. Assign someone to act as his or her trainer for the first 30 to 60 days and then assess the new employee's progress and potential, one-on-one.

A system such as this will get you away from comparing employees to each other and more focused on how they can best serve your company. And isn't that why we hire people in the first place?


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