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Workplace illiteracy

Part 1 of 6


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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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