Your Employees Are Smarter Than You Think

Manufacturers can do much better than "train" their employees.

Are you smarter than a fifth grader? You and I may not be. Today’s fifth graders are a lot sharper than they used to be. But, we are almost certainly smarter than our grandparents and probably even our parents, and this has important consequences for how we educate our workforce.

The claim that we are smarter than our grandparents comes from James R. Flynn, Ph.D., an American political studies professor now in New Zealand. For the past 30 years, most recently in the book Are We Getting Smarter?, Flynn has been arguing that the average IQ has been increasing about 3 points per decade. This means that a person having average intellect 100 years ago would only score about 74 on today’s scale. The idea that IQ is constantly increasing has become known as the “Flynn Effect.”

IQ is actually a rolling index. An average person at any given time has an IQ of 100 by definition. One standard deviation from the mean increases or decreases the score by 15. Psychologists consider a 130 IQ “moderately gifted,” while a score of 70 to 84 falls into the “borderline mental disability” category. (“Average intelligence” is actually anything between 85 and 115.)

Our grandparents were not mentally disabled. They just lived in radically different worlds, and so their frames of reference differed from ours just as radically. But, as Flynn points out in a Smithsonian Magazine interview, there have also been changes in the way schools teach. “In 1910, schools were focused on kids memorizing things about the real world,” he said. “Today, they are entirely about relationships.”

In other words, education used to be about memorizing and reciting. Today, we emphasize reasoning.

Manufacturers have failed to recognize the changes in the abilities of employees to learn and think. We continue to push rote conditioning rather than reasoning. Even the word “training” demonstrates failure to grasp the way minds develop. We train dogs. We train horses. And, sadly, we still train people. We can do so much better.

Memorization has dominated my industry of electronics assembly forever, and my experiences in other types of manufacturing indicate that electronics is the norm rather than an outlier. A-610 and J-STD-001 training, for example, consists almost entirely of memorizing rules and images of solder connections followed by answering multiple-choice questions rather than teaching process knowledge that would prevent defects. It’s rather like teaching driving by handing out maps; at the very least, the student needs to know how to start the car.

The prevailing attitude insists that engineers manage processes, while people such as inspectors or assemblers should simply take orders, keep their heads down and find defects. But engineers can’t manage processes without accurate knowledge of how the process is performing. The performance knowledge resides in the people closest to the results—the same people being told to take orders and keep their heads down.

American manufacturing has been beaten down by cheap-labor countries for decades. There’s well-founded optimism that the tide is turning. The buzzword now is “reshoring.” But simply doing things the way we did in the days before offshoring is not a strategy for success. We need to provide workers with the knowledge to do better. In other words, stop training and start educating.

Our assembly workers are smarter than their grandparents. It’s time we stopped treating them like they aren’t.

Editor’s note: Before “Shipulski on Design,” “Leading Lean,” and “Uncommon Sense,” there was ASSEMBLY magazine’s longest running and most controversial back-of-the-book column, “Unconventional Wisdom” by Jim Smith. A nationally known expert on electronics assembly, Smith never hesitates to question the sacred cows of manufacturing and economics. You can read more from him at his “Science of Soldering” blog.

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