In a manufacturing environment where machinery makes up a considerable piece of the workforce, training is still an essential component for successful, efficient process and project completion. This is true for Northwest Pipe Company, a leading manufacturer of welded steel pipe, but 15 months ago the company began its first structured foray into the learning and development arena with a financial business simulation called Decision Base.
Decision Base examines the cash-flow process to ensure that managers understand how their day-to-day actions affect strategic operations such as the company’s water transmission business. That particular segment represents some 70 percent of the company’s total revenue. In 2004, the Water Transmission Group generated sales of $177.8 million, up 21 percent from 2003, and projections suggest that the group contains a significant future growth opportunity. With that in mind, Northwest Pipe hopes that creating learning and development opportunities for its top 250 management positions will help expand the company’s capabilities and cement its place as a national presence in the pipe and tubing industry.
“As we move into 2006, we are in the development stages of putting something together that would be more structured—a management development framework—and out of that framework we’re going to hopefully be introducing some more business simulations in terms of training, and we’re also looking to perhaps introduce succession planning,” said Winsor Jenkins, corporate director of human resources, Northwest Pipe Company. “It’s a major step for us to embark on this path. We’ve never done it before and it’s a big step for a small company to embrace, not only financially, but just adding more process to what’s essentially an industrial business.”
Northwest Pipe has roughly 1,300 employees in seven manufacturing plants throughout the United States and Mexico, and that number continues to change through growth and acquisition. Leadership has always been a key concern. Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership was one of the company’s first management development programs, and despite the addition of newer, more technically advanced programs such as the Decision Base simulation, it remains a standard piece of the learning platform. To jump-start development offerings this year, Northwest Pipe introduced another business simulation called Symphony. Jenkins said that the company partnered with Advantage Performance Group, the same vendor that provided it with Decision Base, and the program lays out a diagnostic problem-solving approach to managing people and management issues.
“We’ve got another in the works that we hope to do in the latter part of this year called Conductor, which is kind of a coaching program, another way to teach people how to effectively lead others,” Jenkins said. “It’s sort of a bridge from Symphony in terms of giving people a little more how-to as opposed to diagnostic information. We introduced Situational Leadership and a number of other programs in the past couple of years to fill some gaps that we thought we had. But in 2006 we’re going to bring it all together, tie all the strings together.
“We’re going to hopefully establish a baseline. Fundamentals that all of our people would be exposed to and that would lend itself to having people across our operations function or lead or manage in a more systematic, consistent way when it comes to people. A big part of what we’re trying to do is get this baseline in place to take some variation out of the process in a big-picture way. From there it’s a case of customizing other development opportunities for individuals based on their individual needs relative to their jobs. At the same time, we’re looking to introduce a competency-based model that will help us define roles more effectively and then from there identify training gaps. The whole issue of using a competency-based model is totally new for us. Basically we’re using a management development framework to encompass everything. We haven’t come up with a name. We haven’t gone after that sort of descriptor yet. Right now it’s still a work in progress.”
–Kellye Whitney, email@example.com