Approximately one out of five adults in the United States cannot
read. This fact alone is shocking, yet it is even more significant
when considering the impact that the inability to read (and other
forms of functional illiteracy) has on performance in the American
workplace. Companies need to recognize that functional illiteracy is
a large problem of significant scope that costs them billions of
dollars each year. While the recognition of current costs is
important, the consideration of long term illiteracy effects is
vital in today's rapidly changing environment.
To become and remain competitive in the global market, organizations
need employees who can be trained to use high-level skills which
will allow them to perform with effectiveness in flexible,
team-based, self-managed, empowered work environments. Many
workers, however, may be ill-equipped to master such vital,
high-level skills. If employees are not functionally literate, they
will reach a bottleneck point where the effectiveness of higher
level training is minimized (if it is effective at all).
Illiteracy is a large, complex problem which companies need to face
head-on. There are many proven strategies and procedures which
organizations can use to break this troublesome bottleneck and move
to higher levels of performance.
A Perspective of Functional Illiteracy in America
The Concept of "Literacy"
Coming up with a precise definition of literacy is an elusive
proposition. Historically, literacy has been viewed from the point
of view of basic reading or math skills, and people who didn't have
enough ability to deal with day-to-day tasks in society or the
workplace were judged to be functionally illiterate. In an attempt
to be more precise, definitions of literacy were often tied to
abilities associated with a particular grade level in school.
Modern definitions of literacy tend to be more expansive, yet
perhaps no more precise. One widely used definition appears in the
National Literacy Act of 1991: "... an individual's ability to read,
write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at
levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in
society, to achieve one's goals, and develop one's knowledge and
potential." A significant perspective of this definition is that
literacy is a relative concept and may be tied to the requirements
of a specific work environment.
Another view of literacy comes from the U.S. Department of
Education's National Center for Education Statistics, which
conducted the National Adult Literacy Survey in 1992. In the survey,
literacy was defined in terms of three
measured skills: (1) Prose—Understanding basic written information
such as news stories, editorials, and fiction; (2) Document—Using
materials such as job applications, payroll forms, maps, and tables
and graphs; and (3) Quantitative—Using numbers for such tasks as
balancing a checkbook, calculating a tip, or figuring interest.
Individuals were then placed in one of five performance levels from
low to high.
A final view of literacy appeared in a 1991 report from the
Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which
identified eight essential requirements for jobs in the future. They
include three foundation skills (basic skills, thinking skills, and
personal qualities) and five workplace competencies (resources,
interpersonal skills, information, systems, and technology).
Regardless of the definition that is used, the inescapable
conclusion is that the concept of literacy is complex and is no
longer measured, as it once was, by whether or not a man could sign
his name or had completed the fifth grade.
The Scope of Functional Illiteracy
Because of the difficulty of defining literacy precisely, the
statistics on the magnitude of functional illiteracy are somewhat
imprecise. However, regardless of the method used, most estimates
seem to agree that the number of functionally illiterate American
adults is somewhere between 25 and 50 million.
The National Adult Literacy Survey mentioned in the previous section
reported that 90 million persons over 16 years of age, nearly half
of U.S. adults, have limited skills. Of these, 40 to 44 million are
at the lowest level, and are able to perform only simple, routine
tasks. Some could not even complete the survey. (Henry, p. 5D)
Motorola, in moving to their famous Six Sigma Quality program, "...
discovered to our utter astonishment that much of our workforce was
illiterate. They couldn't read. They couldn't do simple arithmetic
like percentages and fractions. At one plant, a supplier changed its
packaging, and we found in the nick of time that our people were
working by the color of the package, not by what it said." (Wiggenhorn,
p. 71) After evaluating all their installations, Motorola concluded
that "...about half of our 25,000 manufacturing and support people
in the United States failed to meet the seventh grade yardstick in
English and math." (Wiggenhorn, p. 78)
It is apparent that no matter how literacy is defined, the amount of
functional illiteracy in America is substantial.
To be Continued
For balance of this article, click on the below link:
Lean Manufacturing Articles and go to Series 02
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