LEGO receives knowledge to cross borders

Written by Sara Rosendal, Mediehuset Ingeniøren
Published in: Ingeniøren
Date: March 2011
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A rapidly growing production has forced Lego to systematize the knowledge sharing at the factories in Billund, Hungary and Mexico. It costs hours but accelerates production.

In Lego's foundry in Mexico, employees have always had the habit of taking a short lunch and sweeping the floor several times a day. The extra trip at lunch time prevents employees from slipping on pieces lying around, but this simple rule of thumb has not been customary in Lego's other factories. Until now.

Since May last year, the toy titan has invested in systematizing knowledge sharing and creating global production standards that can ensure that the company can go along with its own growth rate. And it has been soaring in recent years. Therefore it is crucial that knowledge can be quickly transferred and new staff taught in record time. This has required a completely new and systematized training program, says engineer and HR manager John Vellema.

"We had a huge problem of spreading knowledge fast enough between the factories. At the same time, we had bad experience of trainers who stepped on the toes of local employees because they did not have the necessary cultural understanding. Therefore it became apparent that we had to rethink our training," says John Vellema.

Previously, employees from the factory in Billund flew around to different factories and taught local employees. Today we have a global team of 15 people consisting of employees from Denmark, Hungary and Mexico as well as HR employees from the different countries.

The global team has taught about 50 local job trainers in the three countries, who in turn are responsible for training their colleagues at the individual factories. The global team is also responsible for continuously collecting input from local factories and integrating it into the best practice standards of the production.

"We make sure that we get the best ideas from all employees around the world, and at the same time we get a unified production that we can quickly transform and turn up," says John Vellema.

What, how and why

The global and local trainers have been carefully selected based on professional and human skills. After that, they have undergone a week-long teaching program where they have learned to train according to some highly specific principles inspired by the American theory Training Within Industry (TWI).

In short, there are four learning steps: 1. Prepare the worker. 2. Present the job. 3. Test the job. 4. Follow up (see fact box). This ensures that the employee can both perform the task correctly and understand why the task has to be performed. The learning principles may sound banal, but for Lego it is important that the training is performed according to the same template all over the world," says Jens Peter Clausen, Vice President of Lego Hungary.
 
"It is one thing to think you are training. Is it another thing to know that you are training and that is what we do today. It makes it easier to match expectations between managers and employees and it has given much more stability in production," he says.

Among other things, he mentions that the production downtime has decreased from about 200 minutes to about 60 minutes. This has been done as employees' learning time for individual processes has decreased from one year to three months. Employees have thus become quicker to learn new things and this accelerates production time.

In the past, processes were significantly less detailed in description, and sometimes, for example, employees forgot to plug in the machine that separates the leftover plastic from the molding machine. Without the grinder, the molding machine will not work and this delayed production.

Today, each sub-process is described in detail and the standards are updated regularly, and additionally, trainers and employees are evaluated quarterly to ensure that they keep track of the latest processes.

"I've met workers who felt uncertain when they were going to switch on the big machines because they did not understand how they worked. Today they say they feel significantly more certain," says John Vellema.

The investment is recouped

However, it has cost precious hours to implement such a systematic knowledge sharing program. The initial pilot project has required 8,000 hours and in the future, every trainer must spend 35 percent of his/her working hours on teaching and the rest of the time in production.

"There are no instant profits here, but we can already see that the trainers earn their own wages through improved productivity. In addition, it is a pleasure to see that employees have become much more committed because they get more involved in the development of new standards than before," says Jens Peter Clausen.

In 2011, Lego's mold manufacturing, packaging and parts of the depository will also be included by the new training principles.

Systematic knowledge sharing creates value

As more and more companies outsource their production, there is an increased need for systems ensuring that the knowledge of employees can be transferred quickly and easily.

Typically, knowledge workers are characterized by long educations and sedentary work in front of the computer. But a proficient employee may very well have to settle for easy work at the casting machine in the production hall. The LEGO Group has reached this insight following the turbulent change of recent years from first outsourcing production to subsequently moving it home again. For an efficient production, the knowledge of the production worker is crucial, says engineering student Marcus J. Bendt Haure at Aalborg University.

"From Lego's side, one was surely surprised at how many skills they had in production that couldn't just be transferred to others. For Lego - as for many other global companies - transfer of knowledge has become a competitive factor that can create outright value," says Marcus. J. Bendt Haure, who, in connection with his dissertation, has followed a pilot project at Lego on systematic knowledge exchange between production workers in Denmark, Hungary and Mexico.

So-called "quiet" knowledge

He points out that production workers possess important knowledge of processes in production that global operations should write down so that it can be transferred quickly and easily across borders. But for many production workers, it is subconscious knowledge - or so-called "quiet" knowledge of, for example, procedures that are difficult to put in words.

"It's a huge challenge to work systematically with sharing quiet knowledge. It requires professional knowledge of production conditions, but also requires knowledge of the human aspects of production," says Marcus J. Bendt Haure.

How do you get your employees to tell about the routines they consider to be banalities? And how do you educate pedagogical trainers that can ensure that the quiet knowledge is conveyed and translated into action? It is this type of questions that global companies should ask themselves when developing a systematic knowledge sharing program.

"If knowledge is to be made an asset for the company, the HR department should be involved. It's not enough to just send out an email with the new standards, which many companies are inclined to do," says Marcus J. Bendt Haure. Systematic training of the trainers and a well-thought-out program is needed.

"Just like in sports, the winning team is always the one that has had the best training. However, many companies are more focused on getting the game played than getting their workers trained. At the end of the day, the bottom line suffers when production is delayed due to improper work habits," says Marcus J. Bendt Haure.