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Perspectives: A Learner

When Loewen, a manufacturer of windows and doors, recently introduced Demand Flow Manufacturing (DFM) into its Manitoba plant, the intent was to improve workflow understanding, efficiency and safety. Under DFM, the assembly-line worker’s focus is on filling a customer’s order (as opposed to anonymous production) and helping out at other stations as required to boost order-filling efficiency. Rather than just producing parts and stockpiling them until a lagging station catches up, workers are trained to alleviate bottlenecks occurring at the station ahead or behind them by moving over to pitch in when their own station’s work is complete. But this is only possible, says one pair of workers, through building up the Essential Skills knowledge that supports such occupational flexibility.

Married shop floor employees Alejandra and Mateo came to Canada in 2002 from Colombia, where she was a bank manager and he practiced law. Both were well educated, but the situation in their country was unstable and they left to find better opportunities and safety for themselves and their three children. The pair have studied English since their arrival, with Alejandra also taking four months of computer basics and a business communications course at Red River College in 2004.

A lifelong and enthusiastic learner, and the more vocal of the pair, Alejandra says that the company’s Essential Skills for DFM course was very different from the previous courses she’s taken. One of its two major Essential Skills streams was document use, reading and writing, while the other was communication, teamwork and problem-solving. These subject areas are critical to the practice of flexing: working at one station before or after your own station when you have finished your part(s) for the specific order. To be successful, workers must be able to read, understand and follow new documents detailing new procedures or sequences of events. Being able to identify problems, their causes, and options for solving them also become key factors in production efficiency, as do the skill sets required to communicate effectively with members of their own, and other, teams.

Prior to the course, Alejandra had felt limited to understanding only the information specific to her primary job and task functions. Unfamiliar acronyms were frustrating, as were instructional documents or signs that were new or outside her job function. And approaching others for help or information did not always meet with success, with the result sometimes embarrassment or incomprehension.

Now, she believes the pair’s value to the company has greatly increased. Document-related learning, in Alejandra’s view, was critical to achieving the aim of enhancing comprehension and practice of the company’s manufacturing philosophy. Using a broad range of authentic company documents, the couple engaged in strategies such as learning vocabulary and idioms, navigation, and information analysis. And through their new awareness of the people styles model and the techniques involved in flexing, they’ve improved their communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills.

Both can now explore task information and machinery-related instructions on their own, or develop their understanding with the help of others. She comments that: “Some people learn and read information that pertains to their task only: they don’t know about the other tasks in the process. I think that’s a problem. People should know about all of the work, because the company wants them to be flexible and be able to move to another work area.”

While Mateo focuses on his current position, Alejandra dreams of one day getting a job as an office worker and knows she’ll need more English, computers and business communications courses. She’s waiting for the right opportunity at the plant, reading the internal bulletins regularly and scouring them for announcements of job openings and their descriptions.

There have been trade-offs in coming to Canada. The culture, the language and their lifestyle is very different, but they don’t regret the move because, as she says simply, it is safer here. She doesn’t know when or even if she will be able to get that office job, but she’s determined to keep learning and keep trying.

The Essential Skills for DFM course was developed and delivered in partnership with Manitoba Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade, Loewen, and the Workplace Education Manitoba Steering Committee (WEMSC).