Over 32 million adults are functionally illiterate, they’re in your workforce and more are coming.  Can your processes and management systems deal with this?


They can when you use the Lean Management System!

  • Lean Learning Model
  • Standard Work, especially Leadership Standard Work
  • Visual Management
  • Daily routine of Tiered Accountability


Functional illiteracy is defined as reading and writing skills that are inadequate to manage daily living and employment tasks per Wikipedia.  People who can read and write only in a language other than the predominant language of where they live may also be considered functionally illiterate.  The definition is subjective based on the particular environment, however as workplace processes incorporate more technological information input, data extraction and problem-solving ability, the consistent performance and quality of your processes is at risk.


Overall US functional illiteracy                     14%

First arrival immigrants                                  23% to 67%

First arrivals 15 years later                             still up to 67%

Second generationals                                      15% – 22%

High school graduates                                    20%


The number of adults who are classified as functionally illiterate increases by about 2.25 million each year.


After reading and writing, math literacy is the next key skill.  Math literacy means being able to understand its precise vocabulary, symbols and ways of formulating arguments and problem solve.  Half of all 17-year olds do not have the math skills required to work in an auto plant.  And, only 13% of Americans could calculate the yearly cost of a life insurance policy using a table that gave the monthly cost for each $1,000 of coverage.

(Overall sources: Michael F. Haverluck, OneNewsNow, June 24, 2017; Brandon Gaille 15 US Literacy Rate and Illiteracy Statistics, May 22, 2017; Is Innumeracy America’s Biggest Hidden Problem, Bob Sullivan, November 18, 2016)


Functionally illiterate does not mean incapable.  At a facility that just installed new coffee machines that offered everything from coffee to latte to hot chocolate an employee approached the machine at break time and froze upon see the machine for the first time.  He didn’t know what to do and there was a line of anxious people building up behind him and his nervousness was evident.  A friend of his came up to him and verified that he drank a large coffee with whitener and sugar.  The friend then took a small drill out of his shirt pocket and made one scratch by the large coffee button, two scratches by the whitener button and three scratches by the sugar button and told him to press the buttons in that sequence after depositing his change.  As I watched this I wondered where this guy was working in the facility because it had a lot of CNC equipment and made a variety of current production and aftermarket components.  Over the next week I looked for him and saw him operating various CNC plasma and turret sheet metal centers.  At first, I thought he was just loading and unloading material.  Then I saw him pulling a print from a new job packet and downloading its program into the controller.  He couldn’t read, but he had been shown how to recognize numbers, probably symbols to him, replicate them on the keyboard and follow a rather complex sequence of keystrokes through a map.  He was setting up the machine for the next part and was totally capable.  Intelligence and literacy can be two different things, and someone took the time to show him what to do until he was proficient.


The Lean Learning Model has to be as old as mankind and we fundamentally use it to teach our young children.  And for most of human existence we’ve been by definition functionally illiterate, yet we’ve developed and passed down processes.  During World War 2 Training Within Industry (TWI) proceduralized it when many male factory workers went off to war and women took over their jobs.  TWI broke a job down into closely defined steps with appropriate visual aids, and then the new worker was shown the process steps, learned them by working with the instructor, and then was tested by demonstrating proficiency in reproducing the process.  Essentially this was the creation of Standardized Work.  The Lean Learning Model follows the same process and is used for both tangible and intangible process entities.  Tell what is to be accomplished, show how to do it, allow the person to do it with you until they’re proficient and are sensitive to the process measurement and feedback mechanisms.  Then they eventually become the coaches and can demonstrate their proficiency by training others to accurately repeat the processes.  When applied within the context of Visual Management, there will be process method sheets, one-point lessons, graphical measurement and feedback mechanisms and the posting of the person’s progress through the tell, show, do and coach learning model so that cross training is reinforced and the overall process is more robust over time and various operators.  The Lean Learning Model is also used to mark one’s advancement though appropriate knowledge and application of Lean Six Sigma principles and tools and problems solving techniques.  It measures the upskill attainment and flexibility enhancement of the workforce.

Process Standard Work can be defined as the agreed to best repeatable practices known as of that point in time.  It answers the questions of who and how many perform the work, what do they do, when do they do it and when do they stop, where do they do it and how do they do it.  It defines measurable quality feedback points and timeframes, and sets the logistical criteria of material quantities, locations and replenishments.  It reduces wastes and variations.  The process standard work is often presented in a series of pictorial and graphical documents showing an overall workflow, instructions and controls.


Leadership Standard Work is all too often overlooked as part this process.  It’s the responsibility of a leadership team (management and management support groups) to facilitate the creation, development and refinement of the process standard work.  It’s also a set of repetitive and personnel engaging steps for various levels of direct leadership from coaches, working leads, supervisors and managers that focuses on the pace, stability and improvement of the work processes.  Leadership Standard work defines the responsibilities for the various levels.  It can include facilitating pre-shift meetings, auditing process standard work, coaching, performing Gemba walks focusing on eliciting waste identification issues and performance metric enhancements, facilitating problem solving and corrective action development and implementation and kaizen events and managing process standard work improvement projects, being a communications conduit and providing recognition and encouragement.  Leadership Standard Work could be characterized as 90% engagement and 10% Lean tools.  Leadership Standard Work diffuses responsibilities by creating clear and consistent expectations, practices and feedback at all levels.  It also includes a mechanism to improve both itself and the various leaders through frequent self-reflection and hierarchical managerial mentoring.  The form of the Leadership Standard Work is usually a checklist that is always carried with the leader and updated on the fly.

Visual Management makes the situation easily understood, allows for leadership and employee engagement and communication in the management process, and serves as a touchstone in culture change.  A Primary Visual Display (PVD) summarizes performance metrics such as Safety, Quality, Delivery and Productivity.  The PVD also includes information such as Standard Work for the area or process, 5S status, the progression of associates through cross-training via the Lean Leaning Model, problem solving and corrective action, Work Group Action Sheets (WGAS) which are requests from the work group for changes that will improve the standard work and 5S with resulting improvements in performance metrics.  Often these requests, when approved, will take the form of a kaizen event. The PVD can also have area related project status.

The PVD information is updated by the people in the work group area.  The best boards are ones that are manually updated by people in the group.  When it comes to engagement, there’s nothing like active participation in the ensuing discussions of the advancement of the status of the metrics or information.  Having an administrator post some pre-printed forms diminishes engagement.  People who are functionally illiterate benefit from the discussion that happens around the board, and some, learn by rote to update elements of the board.  Their ideas can be included in the WGAS by simply having someone be a scribe.  Updating the board and having a discussion with the workgroup only takes a few minutes.  Supervisors may have many PVD’s in their area of responsibility.  The responsibility for the facilitation of the quick stand up meeting at the board can be that of the group leader, or better yet, rotated through members of the work group.  The meetings should have a scripted outline so anyone can facilitate it and it’s a repeatable process.  Using visual management in this manner helps to change the culture through active communication and participation in the status of the work to be performed and also in its improvement.


Daily Tiered Accountability links the performance of the areas together and passes short cycle information and escalation issues up a chain of responsibility and cross-functional support.  Tier 1 is usually performed on an hourly basis, or even less.  Due to this frequency, it’s usually recording time periods that either made goals or did not, and if not, what the reason may have been.  Subsequent Tier levels maybe attended by working leads and/or supervisors and various levels of direct and/or cross-functional support.  These meetings help to break down silos and autonomously engage support personal into assistance with immediately escalated issues that go beyond the ability of the crew at Tier 1 to deal with while still striving to reach their next short-term goal.  Higher Tier levels are more involved with complex problem solving, project status, kaizen event preparation, and the linkage of lower level Tier metrics to financial performance.  There’s no formula for the number of Tiers or the timing of their meetings.  It depends on the size of the organization and even the geography of the facilities.

Each Tier has its appropriate Visual Display Board to keep issues and progress front and center and its own list of attendees and agenda in order to keep the meeting crisp and moving.  They manage the entrance of new issues and assignment of tasks, sign off on completed issues and prioritize and adjust resources for items that are falling behind.  At the start of a Daily Tiered Accountability process it’s not unusual for the Tiers to become quickly overloaded as the support groups and silos learn to come to the realization that they are there to support and remove the issues that plague the lower Tiers.  Experience has shown that there can be both active and passive aggressive behaviors associated with its introduction.  Often, attendees begin to not show up as they individually decide that other things are more important for them.  It takes discipline and upper management resolve to get past this hurdle.  This can be a tense time of adjustment, but it’s needed to drive the culture of improvement and as problems are solved and controlled the process becomes smoother and focus can change to a more strategic view.


The Lean Management System is an inclusive, repetitive, engaging system based on easily interpreted visuals, communications, personal engagement, recognition, and rapid response to immediate needs with appropriate use of Lean Six Sigma tools and techniques.  SBTI has been helping to create these performance enhancing systems for over 20 years.  Consider allowing us to assist in your creation of your Lean Management System and Structure so that your workforce with all its diverse constituents can thrive in satisfying your customers.

If you would like to request a listening session for your business, you can contact me, Bob Jeske, by email at bjeske@sbtimail.com.