The Skills Matrix

Several sites on the Van of Nerds tour in France in 9/22 maintain skills matrices on the shop floor. It means that the value of the skills matrix is widely known. Several questions must be answered to make it effective:

  1. The size of the teams represented in one posted matrix.
  2. The types of skills that should be in the matrix.
  3. The uses of this tool in daily operations.
  4. The integration of this tool with Human Resources.

A Skills Matrix for each Shopfloor Team

Skills matrices help assign operators to jobs and organize job rotations within a shop floor team in daily operations. For this purpose, you must post them in the team’s area, where the team gathers at shift start:

Zooming in on the skills matrix, we see that it visualizes the diffusion of skills in the team and answers a few basic questions:

  1. How many operators can perform a given operation?
  2. How many operations can a given operator perform?
  3. Who is ready to be team leader?

Hard Skills Only!

For hard skills, like operating a machine, skill levels can be objectively specified, like “can operate at full speed without supervision,” “can train others,” or “has improved this operation.” The 1st-line manager can test and certify each operatoras possessing skills at these levels, and update the matrix correspondingly.

On the other hand, you cannot objectively measure soft skills, like leadership or the ability to work with others. In addition, posting that a person ranks low in “working with others” can impair his or her ability to do just that. For this reason, 1st-line managers work one-on-one with operators to develop soft skills.

Like performing specific turning operations on a lathe, programming in Python is a hard skill, but one for which proficiency cannot be reduced to five certifiable levels. It goes from writing a “Hello World!” program to coding sophisticated functions in commercial-grade software. It makes no sense to make “Python programming” a column in a skills matrix. Yet people do.

Although graphic conventions vary, there are usually no more than five levels shown in a skills matrix, represented by filled quarters on a disk; here with the levels I recommend using:

There are other lists of levels. The merit of this one is to have objective criteria supporting a certification process. At the same time, the limits of the method are also clear. It applies to a lathe operation but not to proficiency in a programming language. There are also other graphic symbols to represent the levels. They are not a problem as long as the progression is obvious.

Integration with HR

Besides its impact on daily operations, the skills matrices play a role in Human Resource (HR) management. Their presence on the floor is a message that management appreciates the possession of multiple skills, but  HR must back it up with concrete advantages for individuals, in the form, for example, of a “pay-for-ability” component in wages, or career development opportunities.

For this to happen, the skills matrices must not just exist locally. The skills matrix of each department must instead be a local view of a table of operators and skill levels maintained by HR. During our visits, we saw such a system in use at one site.

We Don’t Know Who Invented the Skills Matrix

It’s a simple, practical tool with a limited function, so modest that no one is claiming credit for inventing it. Not even ChatGPT could say more: “It is not clear who invented the skills matrix, as the concept of a skills matrix has likely been used in various forms by different people and organizations for many years.” As we don’t know who first drew a skills matrix, we can’t tell what problem he or she was trying to solve or what similarity it has with the ones we are facing. 

Improving the Skills Matrix

Most applications we see are overly complex and, as a result, not nearly as useful as they could be. Some have attempted to enhance the tool. Lallia Cherif, for example, draws a competency matrix, with two characteristics for each individual and task:

  1. She assigns a skill level to both hard and soft skills.
  2. A discipline level, from “oblivious” to “congruent,” represents the ability to apply the skill in the organization’s service.

She credits software development manager Christof Braun with inventing the competency matrix. Perhaps, he needs a separate column for Discipline because of the notorious difficulty of managing programmers. Discipline issues exist on production shop floors too, but about showing up on time or following instructions. You do not manage them separately for every task.

Visually, a skills matrix is old-fashioned and not the kind of graphics you want to present in slides. Like an organization chart, it is mostly of interest to the individuals on it. Software suppliers like Muchskills claim to have improved on it. In their examples, they show skills like project management, user interface design, big data, or DevOps. Whether their tools are usable on the shop floor is an open question. The classical skills matrix is usable there.

#skillsmatrix, #multiskilledoperator, #tps, #lean