top of page
  • Writer's picturehidet77

The multi-skilled worker is not an almighty worker.

One commonly misunderstood phrase in TPS is the “Multi-skill worker.” Some understand that as “almighty.” “Almighty” and “Multi-skilled” are entirely different.

An “Almighty” worker can do stuff despite many problems.

A plant was struggling. As we investigated, we found that the incoming material had wide variations. When we highlighted this issue, the manager said, “We know. That's the level our supplier told us.” The acceptable tolerance from the supplier was “pushed,” not designed based on process capability. There was one worker who somehow “understood” this variation. That person was magically producing products. Yet, that worker had many failures and retrials but made at an “acceptable” rate. Nobody was able to replicate that. The worker was doing slightly better without any logic. (Eventually, I learned that he only produces particular part numbers.) The management wanted to train everyone according to that one person. Ultimately, we went to the supplier process and discovered they were not following the control plan.

There was a “complicated” process. As we watched it, we noticed strange behaviors. A computer instructed the worker on which part to use, yet the worker used different parts. When we asked why, they said that the instruction was wrong. Whenever we follow the computer’s instructions, it becomes a defect. We asked the engineering department to fix the database. They responded, “It is the worker’s responsibility to memorize which part number to pick, even if the program is wrong.” There were about ten thousand SKUs. There’s a limit to how many things we can rely on memory.

Often, I observed people being " trained " to run a broken machine.

Behind these stories is this fantasy of the “Almighty worker.”

“Almighty workers” are those who can “deal” with problems. Here, they “deal” with problems, not necessarily problem-solving. They know how to survive and live with the issues. The survival techniques come with consequences: risking quality, variable output, unstable lead time, and high cost.

Despite these consequences, the management gets addicted to the “almighty workers.” In many cases, the management doesn’t care about the consequences. They like the fact that some output is there. It costs them but is not a problem since it is hidden. This relationship allows them to live separately, without any trust. In many cases, they hate each other. But the distance is comfortable for both.

The addiction becomes apparent when that worker leaves. The rookie will make mistakes, and disasters will happen. Yet, the manager keeps seeking the “almighty workers,” continuously hiring & firing ordinary people. The manager even pretends it had a good relationship with the “almighty worker.”

I don't know what to call such an individual-dependent activity. We must remind ourselves that this is something other than a system, organization, or process. It is not craftsmanship, too. Such individual-dependent processes exist outside of manufacturing. Once, I was problem-solving a material shortage. As I investigated the process, I learned that the new guy forgot to contact the “former plant manager” to get the order through. I'm unsure why the “former” plant manager entered this process. But this was the “formal” process. We contacted the supplier to discuss a new standard material ordering method without some “former” folks getting involved.

Note here that I am not trying to disrespect “high” skilled workers. Many “high” skilled workers are left abandoned as is and become “almighty” workers. Nobody showed respect. In some cases, they were treated as the “weird” person. Respect is acknowledging the existence of the “higher” skill and trying to transfer it. Appoint the high-skilled worker to be the coach. This is because highly skilled workers can show their skills. Also, when attempting to verbalize the skill, it gets fine-tuned. It is the Protégé Effect; we learn more when we teach. Of course, the highly skilled worker will need assistance to coach. They might not be the naturally born-to-be teachers but lone-wolf. Yet, there will be the discovery of skills through teaching.

A rotation program is a sound system highlighting the risks of individual-dependent processes and the highly skilled worker. However, a rotation system is often avoided in many places because it requires more human resource management and requires all rotation members to have some skill level. Yet, daily practice of the rotation system will mitigate the risks. After all, no worker works all the time.

Another critical topic is the standards. Many of today’s standards are designed to promote “almighty” workers. They have allowances that give time for a worker to deal with problems. Simultaneously, it hides the discovery of high skills or allows low skills to survive.

The Toyota production system develops “multi-skilled” workers, but not “almighty.” No matter how many skills they gain, if they have a fluctuation or a problem, they will pull the Andon and call for help. The team leader will come and help, stopping the line if necessary. If stopped, that signals the organization that there is a problem. Immediate attention and support is required. So many places have copied the tool, Andon. Yet, they keep this “almighty” worker fantasy. So, even if the light flashes, they expect the worker to handle the situation. Eventually, the light won’t flush, causing all kinds of problems.

Perhaps an important question is, “What is a fair skill level?”

280 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page