In this time of rapid change and economic turmoil, if there is one thing that we should all be cognizant of, it is that being complacent in the business world is not good enough. Actually, it hasn’t been good enough for a long time.

Most are familiar with quality improvement programs — the popular Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) or Total Quality Management (TQM) programs. The foundations of these programs were framed by American industry in the 1930s and adopted by the Japanese in the 1950s. It was Japanese industry that recognized the benefits that could be derived from institutionalizing a philosophy of continuous quality improvement. Today, variations of continuous quality improvement programs can be found throughout the world and are fundamental to the gains made by manufacturing over the past 50 or more years.

 We tend to look at and implement continuous quality improvement programs as major undertakings requiring extensive planning, formalized structure, company-wide participation and standardized methodology. And, for the most part, to implement and sustain a successful continuous improvement program, this is true. There are, however, learnings we can take from these programs and use, no matter if our workplace has implemented a full program. Training is one area where I believe this applies.

After we install and commission a new piece of equipment (an oven, flour system, bagger, etc.), or even a whole baking line, we train the operators, maintenance and sanitation personnel on how to safely operate, maintain and clean the equipment. Maybe in 90 days we make a second pass at the training, just as a follow-up to ensure everything is working properly and to answer any questions that might have arisen.

What about borrowing a page from the continuous improvement programs and taking a second look at the equipment? I suggest you start with ranking your equipment. Which piece currently has the greatest impact on achieving standard operation (or has the potential to do so)? That piece of equipment becomes your starting point. Evaluate it. What story does it tell? Has it been well maintained? Is it operating as designed? Is it performing at standard or better?

Take note of the condition and performance of the equipment, and think about if the personnel operating and maintaining it have the skills, tools and knowledge they need. Are those who operate and maintain the equipment suggesting any changes or modifications?

Take a second, look at those skills required to operate and maintain the equipment, and confirm if they have been properly identified and documented. Using the skill-set as a basis, assess the individuals who are ­assigned to operate and maintain the equipment. Do they exhibit the required skills in the performance of their job? Have they been trained in the needed skills, or was the training they received task-oriented? Do they have the right tools and the reference materials they need to effectively do their job? Are their skills current? Are they engaged in the process or just filling a void?

It is important to emphasize the skills required for employees to perform their jobs. Many times, the training operators and support personnel receive is task-­oriented. It focuses on the desired outcomes instead of the skills required to perform the task. Examples would be how to change speed, properly time the equipment, adjust scaling weight, replace a slicer blade, etc.

The weakness in task-oriented training is that workers are not necessarily prepared to handle exceptions. An inability to diagnose and handle exceptions can create the process variations and equipment performance issues that bakers face.

Skill-based training provides the learning tools required to perform these tasks: measuring methods, basic statistics, problem solving, quality sampling, food and personal safety, as well as the specific skills required to operate and maintain the equipment.

Take another page from continuous improvement — define the best practices that have emerged from those who are operating and maintaining the oven. This process will take some time, for it is likely that operators and mechanics use what they believe are best practices and have good reason why they do it their way. Narrowing it down to which one is the truly best practice requires time, patience, good communication skills, problem solving and perhaps some experimentation. Once you identify best practices, standardize and document them.

And the last page to borrow from continuous improvement is to use the learnings that you and your workers have gained in evaluating that first piece of equipment. Take the knowledge, analytical methods and approach to skills enhancement that you have gained, and apply them to addressing the next piece of equipment on your priority list.