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Skills Tests Provide Objective Assessment – or Competency Is In The Eye of the Beholder

2015 March 31
by George

Brick Wall Failing

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

You ask your friends for a recommendation for a trades person to do a project at your home. One of them gives you the name of someone they’ve worked with themselves and that they were delighted with. You meet with them, and as you talk though the project they sound like they know what they are doing, but when they come out to do the work, you see they are clearly all thumbs.


In later conversation with the friends who made the recommendation, digging a little deeper you determine your friends were essentially clueless about what constitutes good work of that sort, and had made the recommendation based on a nice, friendly relationship, and that their project looked pretty when completed.

“Well!” you must be thinking, “You should have gotten a more objective reference before working with that trades person.”



Let’s say you have recently taken over management of a department that provides some sort of service that requires specialized knowledge – it could be manufacturing production, quality assurance, or, using my favorite example, maintenance.

Prudence would tell you that it is advisable to acquire some idea of the knowledge, skills and abilities of the department staff. You talk with your first line supervision about each employee they supervise to get their assessment of the department’s employees, and begin to assign work based upon their reported knowledge, skills and abilities. But the results of this aren’t, in general, any better than random assignment of task to employee.


For example, Employee A was rated by Supervisor S as being skilled at fluid power and weak in welding. It turns out that, unfortunately, while Supervisor S is quite a competent welder, S has little fundamental knowledge of fluid power, and their subjective assessment of Employee A was based upon a friendly working relationship, and that Employee A always left their work area neat and clean.

What do you do to get good, objective information? Interview and observe in detail every employee – including supervisors – yourself? You could, but what about the areas you yourself aren’t competent or expert in? Wouldn’t you just be repeating the same subjective assessment mistakes your first line supervisors made? Remember – competency is in the eye of the beholder.


The short, simple solution is to use a skills test that assesses the important knowledge, skills and abilities for the jobs of your department (one of our standard skills tests might work well, or we can customize one to your exact needs).

A skills test covering the knowledge, skills and abilities required for your department’s important tasks and activities would provide clear, objective information about individual – and department – strengths and weaknesses.

Using that information to assign work and to develop a skill-gap training program (we do that, too) is like getting a reference you can trust.


Do you need an objective assessment of your department’s knowledge, skills and abilities? Contact us – we can help.


Maintenance Process Improvement – Where To Start

2015 March 20

Manufacturing Maintenance Process Improvement


Maintenance process improvement. Not a glamorous or popular topic.

I’m sympathetic towards anyone who takes over a maintenance department and feels overwhelmed by all the areas that can and should be addressed to improve maintenance process performance.

Where do you start? Trying to figure that out can give you a headache.

Here are our recommendations.

  • Metrics – It is hard to know what you should work on first or to subsequently demonstrate improvement if you don’t have the right measurables and data.
  • Knowledge, Skills and Abilities – It is hard to know what your employees’ skill gaps are unless you have an objective assessment of their baseline state. The key word here is objective.
  • Procedures – Make use of the 80/20 rule: 80% of your department’s time is probably spent on 20% of your tasks and activities: start with those 20% and develop detailed standard procedures so that those tasks and activities are done proficiently and repeatably.
  • Corrective Action – Stop reinventing the broken wheel: when something fails, document your repairs with a Temporary Corrective Action (TCA) plan, then spend resources to follow up with a Permanent Corrective Action (PCA) plan.
  • Comprehensive Training Plan – It is hard to know what training topics to plan for without objectively knowing which employees have what skills. Even harder is trying to figure out how to deliver that training if you don’t have curriculum or instructional support.

You can look at that list and think, “How can I do all that, and get it right?”

The short answer is, you can’t, and you won’t.

But that’s okay – virtually nobody could.


So, what do you do? Throw your hands up and just spend your time fighting fires? Of course not.

Instead, the best approach to maintenance process improvement is to not bite off too much at one time, combined with patience.

Metrics – Don’t overwhelm yourself with 20 new measurables at one time, start with just a few, for example a Pareto chart of downtime causes by equipment/process (you’d be amazed at how few facilities actually have this in place and use it).

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities assessment – Start out with an off-the-shelf test (one of ours, of course), which will identify the strengths and weaknesses of your department and your employees.

Procedures – Pick the two or three tasks and activities that occur the most and perfect them.

Corrective Action – Commit to the TCA/PCA method on one process.

Training Curriculum – Start with one small fundamental topic – like fasteners – and get it customized for your equipment and processes (we do that, too).

A fascinating thing about people and change is that if you start small and do what you choose to do really well, and are then willing to be patient and wait for it, your employees will come to you and ask for more:

“Why don’t we track our availability of repair parts?”

“We could use a procedure for rebuilding the recirculating water pumps – everyone does it differently.”

“We could use the same kind of training materials for bearings.”

You get the idea. Then it’s everyone’s idea to add more, and that baseline support is invaluable.

Even if you think getting started with maintenance process improvement will give you a stomach ache, as the saying goes…  try it! – you’ll like it.

Upping Our (Curriculum) Game

2015 January 15

We develop applied training curriculum for technical jobs in the private sector and have helped guide the curriculum development for a career-oriented magnet public high school. When we approach curriculum development for industrial clients, we keep as a guiding principle that the content should directly relate to the conditions and processes that will be faced by the industrial students. We do this so they have real world examples – based on their real world – to help them absorb and understand new concepts. It’s a curriculum development process that works very well, and it transfers well to the academic environment.

Let’s take one of the curriculum clusters being taught at the career magnet school I referred to above: Advanced Manufacturing.  The curriculum emphasizes mastery of the fundamentals of the physical world, mechanical and electrical.  As the students progress, they will be taught a thought process that works well with troubleshooting – learning to observe symptoms (effects) and think their way back to the root cause – through hands-on work with real equipment and processes that have real problems. This is an effective approach to teaching individuals how to work their way through problems – mastery of the fundamentals and the thought process to determine root causes.

The laws of physics don’t change (well, at least the ones we know about now!), and the equipment and processes you learn with and work with in the real world don’t physically morph and change on you – a gear can’t by itself change from having 32 teeth to having 48 teeth; PLC I/O programming won’t change a circuit containing a relay from being normally open to normally closed by itself.

Or can it?

Those gears and circuits and software are static, not dynamic: they don’t change unless you change them, they aren’t moving targets.  But what if they were?

Let’s take one of the other curriculum majors at the career magnet school – Cyber Security, which emphasizes basic computer systems and software, network hardware and software, and the internet. The same curriculum approach is also there – understanding the fundamentals of how hardware and software work, and the thought processes that allow you to work your way through problems – but can you consider the software static?

Not once you cross the boundary into the internet world.

Ever since I became aware of Stuxnet and the damage it did to the PLCs in Iran used to enrich high grade uranium,  I’ve made an effort to stay informed on what is being reported in the world of internet security issues and events, because of my belief and concern that internet-based intrusion will eventually be a high risk issue for industrial organizations around the world.

Most industrial organizations, I expect, are probably not fully ready to handle internet-based intrusions into their facilities.  “Oh,” they may think, “that’s a credit card fraud issue.”  Or, they may think, internet security is something for the US Government and the NSA alone to worry about. Or they may think that their existing IT department is fully-staffed and ready to deal with intrusions.  Maybe, they should think again.

What would be the economic implications of taking down most of the production of one of the larger automotive manufacturers in the US for a month via its PLCs – the industrial computers that run the production lines?  Or crippling the power transmission controls for a large regional power utility through their remote condition monitoring hardware?  Scary, is what they are. Hacking events take place all the time, and the targets are changing. Sony Pictures, anyone?

In the world of cyber security, we need employees and therefore students learning more than the fundamentals and troubleshooting thought processes – we need them to learn to create and adapt, create and attempt, create and fail, create and succeed.  The emphasis on “create” is intentional; the laws of physics may not change, but the laws of the internet universe are changing each day, and industry will need to be creative to maintain its security in the “real” world of the internet.

Perhaps you think this is sci-fi or crying wolf, but many people take this seriously – there are conferences and publicly-available training classes specifically for these sorts of countermeasures.

It’s a good time (some might say past time) for industrial companies to be asking questions about their own capabilities, and for schools to be asking questions about their curriculum.  Are we prepared for what will be, I believe, an inevitable risk?

It’s time to turn to our schools and their curriculum and see where the fundamentals end and where the creativity – and the protection it can provide – begins.

Time to up our curriculum game.

What We See

2014 July 30

We’re in the business of assessing whether someone has the knowledge, skills and abilities to successfully perform the required tasks and activities of a specific job.  Companies have us develop these assessments in order to have an objective, fair and thorough determination of who knows what.  Usually, these “who” are external or internal candidates, but sometimes the assessments are used for their incumbent workforce, in order to determine skill gaps and training priorities.

We’re also in the business of developing curriculum to address those skill gaps and training priorities, from complete apprentice programs to individual topics.

We’ve used our expertise in assessments, curriculum and the industrial world to support the efforts of secondary and post-secondary educational institutions to revisit and revision their curriculum and its implementation.

This is our way of saying that much of our work is immersed in the world of jobs, skills, education and training.


We see a large population of people who are under-employed or not employed, or resigned to going to college (not everyone belongs there) or resigned to just getting any job they can.  Our existing educational systems, processes and opportunities don’t really help many of these people.

It’s a complex situation.  We have, in this country, a shortage of skilled workers, yet there are many challenges for people looking for jobs.  We have significant issues with students dropping out of high school and  early years of college.  For those who stay in college and graduate, only half who seek jobs are employed full-time.  We have a disconnect of massive proportions.

How do we help make the connections between individual and job?  A different job – one that doesn’t necessarily require a college degree – that may lead to a different life?

We have ideas and a plan.  More to follow….



Hands-On? Hands down…

2014 March 7

There are some things you shouldn’t learn just from a book.

Like driving a car.

I hope most of us would agree that it would be unsafe for people who have never driven a car before to just hop in, crank it up (assuming they knew how to do that) and lurch out onto busy highways.

Instead, we have Driver’s Ed classes, where students get classroom training and instructor-led hands-on training before they go take the license test and the driving test.  Everyone has to demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skill and ability to actually drive a car on public roads.

Sensible.  Protects lives and property.

Student Driver Car


Advanced manufacturing these days is all about automation: PLCs, fluid power devices, robotics, and computer-controlled machine centers – an intense combination of customization and flexibility.

Advanced Mfg Robot 500w 72dpi

These systems are expensive and require expert operation and maintenance – uptime, reliability and process control is crucial.  Assigning an employee to operate or maintain them who hasn’t already demonstrated they can competently do the required work is the industrial equivalent of handing someone the keys to your $150,000 car without knowing if they can drive it without wrecking it.


Students training to become advanced manufacturing operators or maintenance technicians will need a thorough understanding of how and why things fundamentally work as well as the ability to apply that knowledge to the variations and situations that occur each day.  They have to know, think and do.

The hardest of the three to achieve in an educational environment, in many ways, is the “doing”.  Schools provide the teachers and curriculum to transfer knowledge to students, helping them learn to think their way through problems, but the most difficult to reproduce is the opportunity to “do” – to actually apply the knowledge they learn in a realistic manner using equipment and systems that replicate the reality of the work they hope to undertake.

Hands down, the most important technical skill for a potential employee is the ability to demonstrate relevant applied skills – can you do the work in an efficient, competent manner?

Here’s an example of a hands-on assessment task that represents a typical and important work activity for many advanced manufacturing employers:

The clock starts, and I’m given a problem: a faulty sensor is inhibiting a production path from operating.  Can I demonstrate in a timely manner that I know how to troubleshoot this production path, determine that a sensor has failed (and why), correct the cause of the failure, select its appropriate replacement, properly configure the new sensor, safely remove the old and correctly install the new, start it up and assure proper performance?

That’s what counts.

You can’t do that in a normal instructional classroom.  You can’t do it using an online application, because online you are not actually doing the work with real tools and real equipment.  You learn hands-on skills by doing it with your hands, so that when you get to the job, you – and your employer – know you can do the work.

What’s required in the educational environment is an instructor-led training lab with equipment and processes that can be set up to present real problems, be worked on by students, torn down and reconfigured with the next problem.  Over and over until they have mastery.


Is it necessary that the school attempt to replicate all of the tasks and activities of the target job?  No.  The fundamentals of knowledge, problem solving and hands-on skills can be demonstrated using a smaller set of tasks and activities – sufficient to give the students and the prospective employers the confidence in their ability to do the work.

What is important is that you have the opportunity to learn with your hands until you get it right and can demonstrate your proficiency.

Then you get the keys to the car.

Ferrari Enzo Key

Giving Way

2013 November 4
by George

It happens all the time.

You are on an entrance ramp for the interstate, the lane you are trying to merge into has cars, but you are accelerating up to speed to join the flow…

And the car controlling the gap you are trying to merge into will not give you space, apparently pretending you and your car do not really exist.


When I was growing up in the Northeast, we lived out in the country and were not daily visitors to the interstates, but we visited or drove through New York City often enough to know that on the freeways where the entrance ramps came in, New Yorkers would give you a gap – just a little one – and you better be prepared to take advantage of it!

The point is that, even if it were for just a few seconds, they would give way and let you onto the freeway.  It was the way New Yorkers worked together – a grudging acknowledgement that you gave a little help, and could in turn expect a little help when it was your turn to merge into traffic.


I believe our culture has largely forgotten the concept of “giving way”  – working together by giving a little help and in turn being able to expect some – and its place in our civilized society.

I believe how we drive our cars – how we interact with each other on the road – is an indicator of our attitude towards personal interaction.

Too many people drive their cars on the highways as though the road exists solely for them and all the other cars and trucks are no more real than internet game images – and are accorded the same amount of attention, respect and courtesy.

It’s just an effect, though, of the underlying root cause: an “it’s all about me” society.

So what’s the solution?  I’m not sure.  Patience, perhaps.

But I know I add a small counter to the “all about me” when I’m driving.  I’ll continue to give way when people need to merge, and I’ll continue to look for drivers to give way when I need to.

And hope that, on occasion, someone new learns to give way.

Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth

2013 July 18


When you hear someone say “hypothetically speaking…” there’s a good chance that it’s not hypothetical at all.  They might be using that phrase to provide some discrete conceptual space between reality and the conversation they are hoping to get started.


In general, if someone is providing a worthy and acceptable service and their customers continue to be appreciative of it, why be critical of their service or success just because it is possible to find shortcomings in the product?  The buyer/seller relationship has reached a happy equilibrium; perhaps we should merely observe, nod, comment “good for them”, and move on.

If, though, those observed shortcomings become important enough to me, then I may make suggestions to the seller or buyer or start my own business incorporating the improved services or products.  A classic example of an open economy market opportunity.

Hypothetically speaking, it could be that the buyer is a farmer who works his fields by hand and the seller offers a horse with a plow, and to the farmer the idea of a horse and plow is a gift of great value.

But what I have in mind is a tractor.  In that case, even if the farmer has paid a good amount for that horse, I’m going to ask him to metaphorically look that gift horse in the mouth in order to compare its value to that of the tractor.


Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that there is a shortage of skilled candidates for skilled jobs.

Further, let’s say that while secondary school systems have in general drifted away from providing curriculum that would be meaningful in addressing this shortage, many post-secondary schools have some relevant curriculum in place, and, essentially, their graduates are selling like hotcakes.

Let’s revise my original scenario to be jobs-centered: the buyers – our employers with the skilled jobs – are struggling to find qualified candidates for skilled positions and have to make do with employees who might have only 40% of the skills needed to fully perform the tasks of the job.  Along comes the seller – our post-secondary schools – with their graduates who are better skilled, enough better that the buyers are very happy to hire them.

Let’s say that I observe that the post-secondary school graduates have only 65% of the skills needed to fully perform the tasks of the job.  That leaves lots of room for improvement.  While 65% is much better than 40%, wouldn’t an employer probably prefer to hire a qualified candidate who has all of the skills needed?


I believe we can turn the corner with secondary schools’ career and technical education (CTE) curriculum to make it more rigorous and relevant; in fact, for me, locally, that’s happening.

These changes in CTE curriculum will make a terrific foundation to be built upon by post-secondary schools, which can result in complete pathways from 9th grade to job.  But the complete success of this effort – graduating students who have all of the skills needed, not just 65%, will require curriculum changes by the post-secondary schools, too.

Working together, they can do better than sell a horse – they can sell a real hot rod of a tractor.



Should HR Get Out of the Hiring Business? My Answer is No

2013 May 9
by George

I read an article online that attracted my attention because this was the headline:

Ask The Headhunter: The Talent Shortage Myth and Why HR Should Get Out of the Hiring Business

Here’s the link to it:

My immediate reaction is that it is no myth that there is a talent shortage, at least not for the technical, skilled jobs that I see go unfilled on a routine basis.  But I admit I was curious about the rationale behind suggesting that HR (Human Resources) should get out of the hiring business.

I read it with an open mind, but was expecting the bias of someone who wants the hiring work instead of HR.  Unfortunately, my expectations were met.

While I think the author makes some valid points, I think they represent what usually dwells in more extreme cases of HR isolation. While even the best-run organizations have occasional HR/Line/Staff excursions away from best practices into the realm of disaster, most make their way fairly well through a difficult jobs environment.

I say difficult in the sense that I do believe (and many facts bear this out) that there is in general a shortage of qualified candidates for skilled positions, which forces the broadening of recruiting practices in an effort to increase the population of viable candidates.

This presents a double-edged sword: the larger pool requires more initial screening to find viable candidates, and the larger pool potentially may prompt abbreviated screening in order to get through all of them, with the risk that some qualified candidates get screened out.

I found it also revealing that the majority of comments to this article were written as though HR is a monolithic silo within a larger entity, without connection or engagement with the actual hiring managers.  While I have had a few clients that match that description, most well-run, well-led large organizations make a concerted effort to keep recruiting/hiring practices and procedures relevant to the end user – they wouldn’t continue to be functioning well if they didn’t.  Most middle-size and small companies have management staff that necessarily covers so much ground that they typically are at full capacity – hence line and staff managers don’t have the time (nor the hiring expertise) to also take on the initial time-consuming task of preliminary screening.  They should, of course, be involved in the review and selection of the final candidates, as they are the ones to determine personal, behavioral and technical fit within their organizations.  Additionally, most trained HR staff are mindful of the legal do’s and don’ts of the hiring process, something that most line and staff managers are not knowledgeable of.

There are good reasons why HR departments exist.

Turning hiring over to a headhunter removes the ease of integration between hiring stakeholders – headhunters can’t walk down the hall to talk about a job or a candidate.  Nor are headhunters essential stakeholders in the long-term success of the hire – if a hire doesn’t work out, the headhunter can always walk away.  The company can’t.

Headhunters play a role, certainly, but they are no substitute for an HR department.

If It’s Worth Saying Once…

2013 January 23

…it’s worth saying again.


In December of 2010, I wrote a blog entry regarding China that focused on the argument that China has a bigger problem than we do.

I believe not only that China has a bigger problem than we do, but that it’s gotten worse, and will continue to worsen, while our situation will only improve.


Look at what’s going on at home in the U.S.:

  • Unemployment is down to 7.8% in December 2012 from 8.5% in December 2011.
  • Manufacturing continues to grow – output is up 4% in 2012 over 2011.
  • The economy is slowly picking up steam – GDP up 3.1% for the 3rd quarter of 2012.

Let’s look at what’s going on in China:

  • Demands for a greater voice in the political control of certain regions is growing, even if in fits and spurts.
  • Wages are rapidly increasing in the coastal areas where the greatest concentration of manufacturing is located.
  • Working conditions have become a flashpoint that manufacturers are responding to.
  • Access to the internet via cell phone is rocketing up.

It was the last point that caught my eye and prompted revisiting this topic.

In an article from Technology Review (MIT’s magazine) it is mentioned that there are 420 million cell phone users accessing the internet in China and overall 564 million online users in the country in 2012.  In 2010 the number was 450 million.  Keep in mind the U.S. population at the end of 2012 was roughly 315 million.  At this rate, by the end of this year China will have twice our entire U.S. population with internet access.

What does that mean?

In the Technology Review article, Chinese users are hugely susceptible to cell-phone-based viruses.

But from my perspective, it also means they are, again, more and more able to see what “everyone else” in the developed world has that they don’t: dishwashers, microwaves, flat screen TVs, comfortable chairs, different food, more stylish clothes.  Those accessing the internet are also the ones manufacturing all those goods that are shipped overseas to everyone else.

At some point, their economy will tip in the direction of building those products for themselves – a consumption economy – instead of shipping them elsewhere – an export economy.  When that day happens, and it is getting closer and closer, we better be ready to make those goods ourselves.

This is the time for us in the U.S. to lay the groundwork for our industrial renaissance – the concatenation of causes, as George Washington referred to them, is pointing to the inevitable upsurge in industry and manufacturing that we will need in order to remain self-sufficient as China undergoes its consumption-economy upheavals.

It was worth saying in 2010; it’s worth saying again now.