Productivity Boosts Can Come from Simple Changes

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 11, 2017
Productivity Boosts Can Come from Simple Changes

​VTC Enterprises of Santa Maria, Calif., enlisted SourceAmerica to streamline a multi-step gluing process for a medical product. Paul Nishman (standing, center), senior productivity engineer, was part of a team that helped improve employee productivity and output. Here he observes a supervisor trying out the work station. Jason Telander, CEO of VTC, (far left) looks on.

This is the second in a series of articles about working with different workplace populations. This article examines how simple tweaks in a process can improve productivity as well as prevent potential long-term health issues.

Operating a hand-squeezed glue gun repeatedly to put adhesive onto a cap for a medical kit at VTC Enterprises—a vocational training center in Santa Maria, Calif.—required a strong, ambidextrous grip.

It was difficult. Productivity at the work station flagged among the company's workers, some of whom have significant developmental disabilities, and they risked developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

Some simple tweaks, however, streamlined the multi-step gluing process to avoid potential long-term health issues.

"We used a foot pedal from a high-hat drum cymbal and mounted the glue gun to it so it could be foot-operated," said Paul Nishman, senior productivity engineer for SourceAmerica.

The nonprofit agency, based in Vienna, Va., manages the contracts of companies within its network that employ people with significant cognitive and physical disabilities. It offers training, resources and employment opportunities through those nonprofits. 

"We also rearranged the station for quicker, easier access to raw materials and a more convenient place to put the glued caps," Nishman told SHRM Online in an e-mail. "The change sped up production and avoided potential carpal tunnel issues."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing an Accessible Workplace]

SourceAmerica also sponsors an annual design challenge for high school and college students to improve the workplaces of people with disabilities. Teams of students pair with one of the more than 1,000 nonprofits in SourceAmerica's network, working closely with employees and managers to develop technological prototypes to solve a workplace issue.

One group of California State University students this year, for example, developed a new approach to a nonprofit's fabrication process that used a two-hole punch. By reconfiguring the workspace and work flow, they cut the work team's production cycle time in half, decreased work defects and made the process more physically comfortable, SourceAmerica said.

Training Supervisors

One aspect of what Nishman does is to "train the trainer" by helping supervisors look at processes in different ways. 

Nishman sits at the employee work station to study the layout and then has the supervisor sit in to duplicate the employee's experience. This allows the supervisor to learn how the activity impacts the body. After Nishman's visit to Helena Industries in Helena, Mont., for example, a manager there created a paper-shredding work station that was more physically comfortable and promoted collaboration. The result: a 30 percent increase in production at the shredder, according to SourceAmerica.

Having a process that is engaging is especially important for people with cognitive disabilities, according to Nishman, who is one of four SourceAmerica productivity engineers.

"In manufacturing, people work with piles [of items], not each other. We try to balance the lines so ... there is social engagement," he said.

A more balanced approach made a huge difference at a company in southeast Idaho that produced millions of dollars' worth of mermaid costumes for little girls. The demand was so great around Christmas 2016 that the company—which employed a mix of people with physical, cognitive and no disabilities—struggled to keep up with orders. Some subtle changes, including reorganizing one of the manufacturing lines, tripled production using the same people and equipment.

"With people working together, the work suddenly became engaging and the workers thought of [and communicated] improvements," Nishman said. "It turned what had been a boring and unengaging job into an engaging social job where everyone had a direct and visible stake in its success."

Visually demonstrating a job task can be valuable, Nishman said. Instead of telling an employee to mop the floor, for example, he advised breaking the job into sequences, demonstrating the sequences, asking the employee to repeat the directions and correcting the employee if necessary.

Using praise incorrectly can lead to problems, he said. Nishman recalled a custodian with obsessive-compulsive disorder whose need for perfection made it difficult for him to finish a job. His supervisor unwittingly exacerbated the problem with frequent compliments on how nice everything looked, and the employee's productivity suffered.

The supervisor learned to be specific with the employee about the process he should follow—wipe a sink three times on the right, three times on the left and three times in the middle—and to praise him for using that routine, Nishman said.

"It's extremely important," said Dennis McBride, SourceAmerica's vice president of strategy and innovation, "that we take the approach of not 'What are you disabilities?' but 'What are your abilities?' and we'll work with your abilities to get the jobs done."

Read the first installment in this series of articles.

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