Innovation in learning for all stakeholders has been a priority at STIHL.
STIHL consistently has been the world's top-selling chain saw brand since 1971. Its users include homeowners, lumberjacks, firefighters, and even the military.
STIHL Inc., one of the group's most successful and modern manufacturing facilities, has had record sales for 20 of the past 21 years. Training extends not only to employees but to dealers, distributors, customers, and people in the community.
We spoke with Fred Whyte, president of STIHL Inc., at the company headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
In your view, how does the learning function support strategic goals and objectives at STIHL?
What we're trying to do here at STIHL is enhance people's learning and development and support their behavioral change to accomplish two things that are very important to us: productivity and safety.
Our learning programs need to be tailored to four very different audiences. The first is our internal customers—our employees here in Virginia Beach and around the country. The second and third audiences comprise our wholesale distributors and the more than 8,500 retailers who sell our products. And then, of course, there are the people who use our products.
We also focus on the customer satisfaction of each of those four groups, and that is another reason to create learning opportunities that meet each group's needs.
As a company that relies on and even creates technology for manufacturing your products, how do you keep your employees up-to-date technically?
We offer many learning and development programs in technical areas such as manufacturing and engineering. In addition there is process-specific training in areas ranging from blueprint reading to molding plastics. Our mechatronics training prepares people to design, use, and repair machines used in automated manufacturing. And we teach robotics and software.
You can't just place an ad in the paper to find tool and die makers or people who are skilled in mechatronics, for example. So to grow our own, we have an extensive apprenticeship program, which we conduct in a specially built laboratory. The completion rate is more than 90 percent.
What about people seeking a management career at STIHL?
Through our business residency program, which is like an in-house MBA, we educate intelligent up-and-coming professionals who are looking for a career in the company, not just a job. We're looking for character; for people we can develop.
Over the course of one year, they rotate through marketing, engineering, information services, and virtually all the departments in the company. It is a leap of faith on their part because we don't guarantee them a job. At the end of the program we ask, "Are you a good fit for us? Are we a good fit for you?"
So far, we have hired every person who has gone through the program. Because we already have invested in their learning, we want to retain them, which we do in part by offering above-average wages and generous benefits.
There is an old adage, "What gets measured matters." We don't want to have such programs because they sound glitzy. They have to be meaningful. And they have to be measurable.
What metrics tell you that such learning and education efforts are working?
A classic definition of marketing is product, price, promotion, and distribution. To that we always add people because you can have all of those things, but without the people to implement them, you're not going to be successful.
Twenty out of the past 21 years have been record sales years for us. For the past seven years, we have won an award for being STIHL's best manufacturing company worldwide. And we just won an award from the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.
I think that kind of performance speaks volumes about the effectiveness of our learning programs.
Power tool manufacturing is a business that requires a lot of innovation. What innovations have been introduced into your learning programs?
When it comes to innovation in learning, we have done well in three areas. One is a blended learning approach to the development and delivery of technical training. We have integrated ToolingU, an online learning source, with hands-on classes in technical training. By taking voluntary technical training at ToolingU, employees can become qualified and eligible for positions at another level than their current one.
Our tool and die apprentice lab includes innovative programmable logic controllers that can simulate real situations on the manufacturing lines. The apprentices use these to troubleshoot and solve problems.
Another innovation in learning is our outreach to groups, ranging from gardeners to forest rangers, to teach them how to use our tools effectively. That's a barometer for us as to whether our training is any good, but it is also a way to be active in the community.
For example, we work with first responders to natural disasters. We work with the U.S. Forest Service, especially in the Southwest where there are so many major forest fires, to train firefighters to use our products. We also work with the military. Even the Navy Seal teams use our products.
A third innovation is our involvement in the Virginia Beach education system, which feeds our employment pipeline. Several of our instructors teach at local colleges. We also hold manufacturing summer camps in conjunction with the Virginia Manufacturers Association.
Your company has a remarkable retention record. How do you pull that off?
In the 22 years that I've had this job, we have not had any layoffs due to automation in the factory. When we decided some years ago to use robotics, we knew the transition had to be managed well and that we had to communicate it effectively to allay people's fears of being displaced. So we decided there would be no job displacement; there would only be job enhancement. We would teach people either to repair or operate the robots, or we would retrain them for other positions in the company. That took away people's fears of the transition to robotics.
During 2009, when we felt the effects of the downturn in the economy, I assured people about their continued employment. I would say, "This week you might be working in crankshaft; next week you might be working in plastics; and the week after that you might be out mowing the lawn."
People understood what we were trying to do, and they were OK with that. This strategy enabled us to retain the people, so when the economy turned around, we could hit the ground running with the right people in place.
It's easy to be a hero when the business is going well, but when you hit a bump, as we did in 2009, you have to put your money where your mouth is. We achieved a lot of credibility by standing by our word.
What kind of effect did the recession have on the training budget?
In 2009, I approved almost a 10 percent increase in the training budget and we used every one of those dollars to re-educate and enhance the skills of our employees. We targeted the spending on areas of specific need in the departments.
Did the recession require any changes in your strategic directions?
No. That's one of the many advantages of being a European company, and being family owned. In terms of strategic planning, the Stihl family takes a long-term view. I don't have to plan for each quarter. We typically look one or more years out.
Mr. Stihl often has said to me, "If I were in this business just to make money, Fred, I would go about it completely differently." So we continue to reinvest and to stay the course, just as we did in 2009 when we increased rather than cut our training budget. We viewed that as an investment in our future.
What's the strategic advantage of training your retailers and distributors and their employees?
We sell only through servicing dealers, not big box stores. We expect more of our retailers than just putting our products on their shelves.
Let's say someone is considering the purchase of a chain saw. To match that person's needs with the right product, our dealer would ask a series of questions: "What is your experience using a chain saw? Are you a professional logger? Are you a farmer? What will you be doing with the saw? Are you going to cut firewood? Are you going up in the mountains to clear trails?"
Then he would show the customer different models and explain their features. He also could arrange for the customer to try using one or two of the models. He would also ask the customer if he needed hearing or eye protection, or protective chaps.
So, we must train our retailers to ask the right questions to qualify the customer. If we qualify up front and put the right product in a person's hands, he or she will be a satisfied customer. With the training of our retailers, one hand washes the other.
Are dealers trained to use today's communication technology in their work?
Embracing technology was a generational challenge for us. Fifteen years ago we had dealers who had never seen a computer, let alone used one. We knew that because we were geographically dispersed, we could communicate much more effectively by using technology.
Now, all of our field people have laptops. Our technical sales specialists who serve customers, such as the military and the Forest Service, all have iPads. We also have added a social media module to the online learning program for dealers, STIHL iCademy, so that they can better utilize those platforms to promote their business.
Do you participate in training any of your key target audiences?
The technical department reports directly to me, which helps keep me technically current. Recently at an industry trade show I was able to discuss the new filter system and the new cylinder design of one of our products with some of our dealers.
I go out on field demonstrations, which we have once or twice a year to demonstrate the use of trimmers, blowers, and cutting tools, for example. I always participate in these events and usually man one of the stations where I talk about the features of a new product.
How does the learning function support process improvement in addition to offering classes in specific processes?
We run a program called IdeaPlus through which employees make suggestions for process improvement. Many of these suggestions come from the people who work on the production lines and know what will make them work more efficiently and effectively.
If someone's recommendation results in cost savings, that person will be rewarded up to 25 percent of the cost savings. The IdeaPlus program assures employees they are part of the company and that management listens to their ideas.
What other groups benefit from sharing their knowledge?
In our supervisor training programs there always is an opportunity for participants to apply their own approaches to a given situation or problem. Feedback tells us that when people share their approaches, they experience the most growth. And often they feel rewarded by seeing their ideas used by others.
What future innovations are planned for learning and development at STIHL?
In our leadership program, we're using scenario-based training. We're using not only an experiential model, but also a failure recovery model. We realize that putting leaders in situations where they can fail safely and recover allows learning to occur during the recovery. We will be using more of that method in our business and negotiation skills classes.
We're also considering some experiential learning for our 112 territory managers who drive about 40,000 miles a year. Our executive team recently took part in some team building, which included a high-speed driving course to learn safety and accident avoidance techniques. We think such a course would be of value to the territory managers to increase their knowledge of safe driving and perhaps even reduce their insurance costs.