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Workplace illiteracy

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Motivating People to Start and Stay

A major difficulty in adult literacy is getting people to start, and once they start, getting them to stay. A critical factor in getting people to start is having them see the benefit of increased literacy. In the past, organizations motivated people to become more literate by appealing to their emo­tions and suggesting that they would be "better people." This approach is relatively ineffective because people don't see the value in tackling a difficult process just to be a better person.

Successful motivation comes from individuals understand­ing that they are valued employees whose improved skills are essential to their own well-being and the future success of the company. Most programs are voluntary, so it takes a strong, continuing effort on the part of the organization to let people know that literacy is valued and valuable. It may be useful to include basic literacy efforts in a broader educational advancement plan, rather than singling them out. Polaroid, for example, created a very visible program called Technology Readiness, in which the motto was "Learning is part of the job." This idea was made visible and reinforced constantly. (Washburn and Franklin, p. 3) In the future, most companies may get to the point where participation is mandatory. Motorola did this, yet tried to soften the approach by getting key, veteran employees to visibly support the program, and to present it as simply another type of skills training. In the end, they were firm, and stuck by their mandatory approach to the point that people who refused to participate were dismissed from the company. (Wiggenhorn, p. 78)

People leave literacy training programs for various rea­sons. While many leave for reasons related to the program, material, and method of learning, some simply have diffi­culty adjusting other activities, such as babysitting and car pools. Organizations must make sure that these obstacles are considered and eliminated in the devel­opment of programs.

English as a Second Language
Large numbers of people in the American workplace are viewed as illiterate because English is not their native language. They may, in fact, be very literate, as well as technically capable, in their own language. Special pro­grams may need to be developed to provide work instruc­tions in the native language or intensive courses which focus exclusively on learning English.

Looking to the Future

Most American companies now realize that the only way to compete effectively in the world today is to embark on a program of continuous improvement. At the same time, they are frustrated at having to spend their valuable money bringing employees up to the most basic skill levels. Most of these efforts, while admirable, are reactive in nature. Companies sit back, take the workers as they find them, and then spend money to make them literate.
In the future, companies can have more of an impact by sharing what they know about continuous improvement with the public education system. By viewing themselves as customers of public education, and developing long term strategies with government and educational institutions, they can take a more proactive role in helping develop a workforce that is prepared to function in today's rapidly changing environment before they come to work.


To become and remain competitive in the global market, organizations need employees with high-level skills who can function 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 training required to acquire high-level skills is minimized (if it is effective at all). Organizations must develop strategies and procedures which will allow them to break the troublesome bottleneck of illiteracy and move to higher levels of performance.

For balance of this article, click on the below link:
Lean Manufacturing Articles and go to Series 02


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