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Step change in productivity

30 August 2013

Award-winning companies highlight the thinking behind a step change in productivity

Everyone running an organisation in New Zealand faces the same challenge: how to get more output from the same (or less) resources. It’s our national productivity problem. Until we can crack it, we’ll be stuck with moderate performance levels across the breadth of our workforce and limited in our ability to generate higher returns.

But now there’s a body of evidence from the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust Diversity Awards that shows Kiwi companies tackling the root causes of low productivity. For four years running, one learning provider has supported Companies in the Finalists or Highly Commended section – and on 29 August 2013, it was behind this year’s winning entry in the Skills Highway category.

The Learning Wave was proud to share in the accolades collected by the Skills Highway Award winner, the Pacific Homecare Trust. With 92% of its employees having English as a second language, the Trust provides home-based healthcare services primarily to elderly and disabled clients throughout South Auckland. Since early 2011 the Trust has worked with The Learning Wave to lift the capability of its staff and improve their ability to do their jobs effectively which leads to a lift in workplace productivity. .

One of Pacific Homecare’s key business drivers is for 75% of its workforce to have a minimum Level 2 qualification by September 2013. It’s on track to have 100 Support Workers certified in Health, Disability and Aged Support (Foundation Skills) Level 2 by this deadline. During 2012, 55 workers completed The Learning Wave programme and 26 of these then completed their Level 2 qualification. The remaining 29 learners are currently midway through the qualification. These learners would not have been able to attempt or achieve Level 2 qualifications without the foundation learning from the literacy and numeracy programme.

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A Pacific Homecare manager says, “We saw significant improvements in the pre and post literacy and numeracy results across the progressions and have achieved an 86% progression from the literacy programme to enrolment in a Level 2 or higher qualification. Qualifying our staff through this National Certificate means we are developing a more professional workforce to lead the way in our industry.”

This multi-layered approach to organisational change – by embedding a literacy and numeracy within industry-relevant training – is a feature of all four Learning Wave success stories within the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards over the last four years.

Four different companies, four outstanding successes

The Learning Wave first featured in the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards in 2009, when its client Downer won the Skills Highway Award for their Way2Work learning programme. Downer achieved groundbreaking results lifting the literacy and numeracy skills of over 1,000 employees, 71% of who had no educational qualifications. The need for today’s workers to control sophisticated machinery and manage serious risks on site made this an achievement that directly translated to productivity on site.

In 2011, it was the turn of another Learning Wave client. Highly Commended in the Skills Highway category, Stevenson Group won acclaim for its Stepping Up Together programme, which embedded literacy and numeracy skills in a series of learning modules aimed at lifting productivity by addressing the communication and problem solving skills needed at the frontline.

South Island Gold mining company Oceana Gold also won recognition as a 2012 finalist in the Skills Highway category. The company’s operator and supervisor skill development initiatives were designed and delivered by The Learning Wave. The Core skills programme and the First line Management level 3 programme were embedded with rich Literacy skill development and gave improvements across a broad range of fields including communication, health and safety reporting, IT skills and succession planning and a range productivity improvement projects.

These three companies are operating in the earthmoving and heavy machinery sector of the New Zealand economy. However, this year’s success with Pacific Homecare proves that workplace literacy is not just an issue for burly blokes in hard hats. Pacific Homecare mostly female and Pasifika workforce operates in the homes of its South Auckland clients, providing healthcare and practical support. Low levels of literacy and poor foundation skills, can be just as damaging to productivity and safe work practice here

So what are some of the performance-enhancing insights that have emerged over the last four years?

1. Technical training is not enough

Downer, Stevenson, Oceana Gold and Pacific Homecare might have looked at issues such as low compliance with on-the-job instruction and decided to equip employees with training in the particular systems the company used. However, this would not have addressed the root cause of poor compliance, which was low levels of literacy compounded by poor communication skills. To lift productivity on a broad front, an organisation needs to engage learners where they really need help.

2. Teach practical literacy, not just how to pass the test

A common trap in literacy programmes is buying an off-the-shelf package. The problem is that this is disconnected from the priorities of the learners and the mission of the organisation. A smart tutor can get staff to jump through the hoops of a standardised test, but real learning only takes place when the learners fully engage with the learning For this, they need customised materials that relate to their role at work, make the learning accessible to all levels and learning styles and for the learners to know where they can apply these new skills

With this in mind, each of the four award-winning companies embedded literacy and numeracy exercises within specially created modules about leadership, safety at work, understanding paperwork and other relevant topics. In each case the learning was aligned to the organisation’s goals and relevant to the individual’s job. This approach not only avoids the stigma of ‘remedial reading’ but has also led to measurable gains in literacy across reading, writing and numeracy and has given learners the skills and confidence to apply their learning back on the job.

3. Reading, writing, and number are only the beginning

Below-par productivity is typically not a single failing. It’s a cluster of problems that can include absenteeism, high staff turnover, poor record-keeping, risky health and safety behaviours, inability to learn new systems, and much more. It can be a lack of willingness to suggest good ideas as well as a failure to follow correct protocols.

All these symptoms have their roots in low educational attainment. When otherwise capable workers lack confidence in reading and writing, they may think of themselves as under-qualified. The result is a lack of engagement with operational requirements and an inability to progress.

Address the root cause, however, and the story is reversed. Employees who feel supported to gain new skills are then empowered to step up. In the case of Oceana Gold, one worker in the programme produced a plan for a new road to shorten the route that trucks took every day from the mine. The productivity gains from this project alone amounted to millions of dollars.

4. It takes a village (or a company)

Pacific Homecare, Stevenson, Oceana Gold and Downer all made learning a company-wide priority. Their workforce learning initiatives were aligned with organisational strategies and had driven by the companies’ executive teams.

For this sort of initiative to be sustainable long term it needs to be owned by the senior team, and linked to key productivity drivers such as a decrease in the cost of rework or an increase in HS reporting.

When employees and executives at all levels receive the right tools, and understand their development is a priority, transformational change becomes a reality. In the case of Pacific Homecare, the literacy skills programme has lifted the capability of a group of largely unqualified workers and set them on the path to becoming skilled caregivers.

If this approach can work for caregivers in South Auckland – or goldmine operators in Otago – it can work for any company looking to take productivity to the next level.

© Scoop Media

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