Editorial: Superpowered Communication

July 1, 2006
When it comes to employee education, the message matters more than the medium.

We all have our preferred learning styles. Some of us are better at learning by seeing. Others are better at learning by hearing or by doing. Academics categorize these learning preferences as visual, auditory or kinesthetic.

I'm a visual learner. I don't learn well by listening, which is why I tend to take a lot of notes. If you want me to remember something, give me words and pictures.

This visual tendency is one reason why Hytrol Conveyor Company's "Captain Hytrol" comic book recently caught my eye. The latest comic introduces "Power Lean," Captain Hytrol's new partner in the battle against waste and efficiency.

"Changing the culture in a manufacturing facility after it's been the same way going on 55 years is very tough," explains Bill Hawthorne, the company's vice president of marketing, when asked why they published the comic book. "We saw this as a tool to help our people who are going through the lean process, to help them understand it and to help get the rest of our employees on board."

Hytrol's superheroes, which include "Safety Lady," present many of the core concepts of lean manufacturing, such as value-added and non-value-added activity, cellular manufacturing, takt time, the seven wastes, standard work, the visual factory and total productive maintenance. The 55-page comic book is part of the reference material that the Jonesboro, Ark.-based company gives to employees who go through its six-week-long, lean training program.

Beyond its own internal training purposes, the conveyor company has also passed out copies of the comic to its distributors to help educate their salespeople about lean manufacturing.

"Our salespeople and distributor network need to understand some of these terms, like poka-yoke, kanban and 5S," says Hawthorne. This is because many of Hytrol's distributors' customers are working on their own lean initiatives. The better that the sales people understand what their customers are working on, and why, the better solutions they will be able to provide, he explains.

Starting in 1995, Hytrol has published several educational comic books about safe work practices and its employee-driven process improvement program. While hundreds of trade journal articles and hardback books have been published about lean manufacturing, a comic book is much more accessible to many people, especially visual people like me. Hawthorne says they borrowed the comic book format from lift-table manufacturer Southworth Products Corp. (Falmouth, Maine) as just another way of getting people's attention.

That's the real lesson here. To be effective employee communication and education has to go beyond the classroom or conference room setting. Be aware of everyone's different learning styles and take a lesson from Captain Hytrol and be creative. Creativity gets noticed, and what gets noticed is remembered.