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How to create an agile workforce

Versatile employees need to be recognized for their efforts to gain new skills
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The last 20 years have seen manufacturers gradually shift away from a high volume, low variety production mix to a low volume, high variety mix.

To adapt, entrepreneurs have asked their employees to become increasingly versatile and to learn multiple skills. This new, agile workforce is allowing businesses to rapidly modify their production and respond to changing customer needs.

“The wheels had already been set into motion,” says Francis Vaillancourt, Director, Operational Efficiency Services with BDC Advisory Services. “Then COVID brought a lot of volatility. Businesses have had to readjust, and speed became even more important than it was before.”

Many companies have had the added challenge of being short-staffed because they’ve had to lay people off, or because of a persistent shortage of skilled and manual workers.

Unpredictable supply chains and fickle customer orders have further shown the value of versatile workers who can adapt their work methods to the changing needs of the business.

He offers these three tips to help entrepreneurs develop an agile workforce in their business.

1. Recognize and promote agility as an important part of your culture

If employees are to become more versatile, than their efforts to gain new skills must be recognized.

Salaries, for example, can be raised for employees who become proficient in new skills or workstations.

Employees should be recognized for their productivity, their behaviour and their versatility.

“Employees should be recognized for their productivity, their behaviour and their versatility,” says Vaillancourt. “If you don’t have objectives and rewards, employees won’t be motivated to learn new tasks.”

Employees should also be asked to go from one workstation to the other to develop their proficiency in different tasks. This can be useful if a bottleneck develops along your production process, or if a key employee can’t show up to work because they are sick.

As a bonus, this often makes less work repetitive, motivates employees and provide workers with more room to express their creativity.

“We want to avoid employees falling into complacency,” says Vaillancourt. “We want to promote a thirst for learning and sharing of new tasks. We want to equip employees to succeed at their job.”

2. Create a skills matrix

A skills matrix maps out the skills required for a team or project. It helps you visualize who has what skills and what skills are missing in your team.

Skills matrix example

Proficiency from 0-5
  Bill Stephen Christine
CNC millSet-up, program and operate the CNC mill Bill5 Stephen0 Christine1
WeldingWelding Bill0 Stephen5 Christine2
Drill pressDrill press Bill3 Stephen2 Christine5
Grinding machineGrinding machine Bill3 Stephen1 Christine5

Creating your competency matrix will provide you with an opportunity to determine what skills are required for a particular team and assess the skills of each team member.

For example, in the example above, we can see that the team in question likely needs to cross-train an employee on CNC machining as well as welding. However, they are in much better standing for the drill press and the grinding machine.

“The skills matrix is really a catalyst to create a highly versatile team,” says Vaillancourt.

3. Start using electronic work instructions

Workers have traditionally followed printed lists of step-by-step directions, but these are often cumbersome and difficult to keep current. Electronic work instructions software include visual tools in the form of videos, images, and even 3D visualization and simulation software to make learning more interactive and pleasant.

Electronic work instructions allow operators to view realistic animations of each step, practice multiple scenarios and sometimes even improve things right on the spot.

“Electronic work instructions facilitate the diffusion of correct work methods,” says Vaillancourt. “It’s easier and faster, because it’s not just texts and images, but also videos. In fact, we recommend that operators make their own little films to rapidly teach new ways of working to others.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Vaillancourt says that entrepreneurs and their operations team shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help.

“Operations people sometimes tend to focus exclusively on operation,” he says. “But in the current environment, we have to keep track of new government measures, understand how our industrial sector is evolving and look around at the broader society to understand these changes. It can be a lot to take in.”

“You don’t have to do everything by yourself,” he stresses. “If you feel you don’t have the expertise or you don’t have the time to make these changes, external advice can be useful.”

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