ACADEMY SOCIETY SPOTLIGHT: Teaching Techniques for a Central Fabrication Facility

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By Russell L. Eral

Many technicians were taught our craft by individuals skilled in their fields. We learned by watching them, listening to their insights, and practicing those skills ourselves. While some of us may have had excellent teachers who walked us through the hands-on process of fabrication, others were taught by great doers who were perhaps not great teachers. Even many of the upper-level courses in O&P are taught not by educators per se, but by O&P professionals who may or may not have specialized knowledge about teaching. There is a difference.

Knowing your craft and doing it well is very different from transferring those skills and conveying your expectations. There is a reason why great athletes don't always make great coaches. As an owner or manager of a central fabrication facility, not only do you need your inexperienced employees to learn the trade, but you also need them to understand your vision and buy into your company's philosophy. And for them to become competent, seasoned fabricators in their own right, you must pay attention to the teaching techniques you use.

Before working in a central fabrication facility, and eventually owning one, I spent seven years as a public school teacher. Facing 150 teenagers each day had its challenges; convincing them that what I had to say was important and relevant was almost too much to ask. The transition from high school teacher to central fab owner was made easier for me because I applied many of the techniques I had already honed while teaching.

Pay Now or Pay Later

If you're like me, having 24 hours in a day seems sadly inadequate when running a business. There is always a task that needs attention or a client to contact but little time to get to all of it. Taking the time and making the effort to train a new employee while simultaneously running your facility can seem like an overwhelming nuisance rather than the opportunity that it is. In the classroom, there were always teachers (including me) who wanted to jump into the subject matter without laying any groundwork. They rushed through basic classroom expectations in order to get to "Chapter One." Most of them paid the price later with an unruly and disorganized class, which is not an optimal learning environment. The teachers ended up starting over after a few weeks, losing vital time and wasting effort.

As a fabrication lab manager, your experience will be the same if you don't spend the time early on to train your employees. Even when you are busy, keep reminding yourself that the time spent now will pay dividends later when you need that employee to step up. Plan each day, incorporating time with your new employee. Don't make it a "when-I-find-a-second-I'll-show-her-how-to" situation. Set a time. Set a goal. Make it a priority. Show the employee that his or her training is worth your time.

Bite-size Chunks

That you can knock out an orthotic or build an AFO in record time doesn't mean a thing to your new employee. I learned many of my hand skills from my father, Charles Eral, who was in the O&P industry for his entire career. He'd seen it all. He was so fast, clever, and accurate that it amazed me. Because he was my father, I wouldn't hesitate to tell him to slow down or repeat what he said, or to show my frustration when he glossed over an important step. A new employee may find it difficult to be this candid because he or she is nervous or uncertain, and eager to please.

Employees will come to your lab with a variety of skill levels-some with very little practical experience. As experienced technicians, we sometimes forget the number of hours we've spent building our speed and skills, and then we expect our new recruits to pick up the process just by watching a few times. I've occasionally needed to set aside time to show an employee how to use scissors properly. We've all been there. It's funny (and frustrating) to a veteran fabricator, but if you've never cut anything more than a piece of paper in your life, cutting heavy fabrics and PORON® can seem like hacking through chewing gum, and the finished product can look as if a rusty hatchet was used rather than a precise cutting tool.

Little things matter, so break the fabrication process down into bite-size chunks. This works twofold for your rookie. It provides him or her with increments of success, and the overall process becomes less daunting and more attainable. It also allows you a chance to see a new technician's strengths and weaknesses before he or she moves on to other more complex and costly materials.

Use Your Common Sense(s)

We all know how powerful our sense of smell can be-freshly baked bread, your favorite cookie, sautéed garlic. Early in life, we experience and comprehend the world through our senses: smelling, touching, seeing, hearing, and tasting. As we get older, more and more of our education is absorbed through fewer of these senses. We become the stereotypical student in the classroom: reading, taking notes, taking tests, and rarely incorporating more than just one or two senses. In our field especially, we must use more than what was taught in a book. We instinctively use multiple senses to fabricate, and this should be reflected when you educate and train employees. The more sensory input you can tie into a particular skill, the better the student will retain the knowledge and ability.

Touching, seeing, and hearing may seem obvious in our profession, but even smelling and tasting can be added to our toolbox. For example, we know how correctly heated plastics and EVA should smell, and we definitely know when they are overdone. Heat guns, ovens, glues, and plastics are all part of our fabrication kitchen. It's just another part of the learning process.

How can you incorporate tasting? That is a bit more difficult, but think creatively. Food can be a powerful, positive reinforcement tool in your facility. Many of us never tire of food as a reward for a job well done. Don't order pizza for the staff "just because"-use it to recognize a productive week, to mark the success of a difficult project or the growth of your company, or as a team-building exercise.

We all know how food helps focus the mind of even the most disinterested teenager. We may not be children anymore waiting impatiently for grandma's special cookies, but food can continue to be a great motivator.

Custom Devices, Custom Training

It's likely that certain aspects of your worldview have been shaped by the shared experiences of your generation-the social, technological, and economic conditions that mark your generation's place in history. For example, in general, baby boomers see the world much differently than do members of Generation X, and millennials have yet another worldview. As a Gen Xer myself, I have learned from baby boomers my whole life. My teachers in high school and college were baby boomers, and baby boomers currently own many of the O&P businesses. Your position in this generational spectrum will impact how you interact with the people you are training, and you can choose to either ignore these differences, or you can recognize and use them to improve your training techniques.

"The biggest challenge with educating this generation is our lack of understanding about their lives-the technology and social media," says Shona Miranda, principal of Mountain Ridge High School, and 2010 Arizona Principal of the Year. "This generation is more collaborative, and much more open to new and innovative approaches to learning."

Educators are continually trained in new approaches, but are you aware of them?

When I was learning how to become a technician from my father, I already knew what kind of teacher he would be. Much of his early learning was hands-on and self-taught. He later followed up with formal classes, lectures, and assessments. I was the opposite; since my first profession was as a teacher, my initial training was through traditional, formal education methods. As a graduate in secondary education, I was accustomed to attending formal classes and lectures and undergoing routine assessments, and I only later developed the hands-on skillset I needed to perform the job. By the time I began my formal education in O&P fabrication, I already had a mix of classroom and hands-on experiences, so much of the training reinforced what I already knew.

Why does this matter? Your recruit may be 30 years younger than you, with vastly different experiences than you had as a fresh-eyed rookie, just as my father's experience differed greatly from mine.

Rick Sevier, BSEd, BOCO, CPed, CPOA, has worked for years at bridging this generational divide through technology and adaptation. As the owner of CFS Allied Health Education, which blends online and hands-on education approved by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics and the Board of Certification/Accreditation, Sevier is on the front lines of this transition. "We have truly leveraged technology," he says, "utilizing webcams and voice over Internet protocol to close the gap between student and instructor." CFS classes progress with the students being taught. "Instead of throwing education at the student and hoping it sticks, there is a plan and measures in place to ensure desired learning outcomes. [Our] videos, step-by- step written lab assignments, and hands-on practicums are all utilized to cater to various learning styles."

As an owner, you may not have the time to create individualized, high-tech training tools, but a few adjustments that skew toward the millennial generation mindset may go a long way.

Mistakes Happen

If you own your company, you can probably safely say you make few mistakes. You didn't get this far by doing things haphazardly. You care. I also own my own company and my name is on the door, so no one cares more about the company's products than I do. Your employees do not, and will not, care as much as you do. And they will make mistakes. How you deal with those mistakes, especially when a new employee makes them, says a lot about your approach to training. Do you want an employee who is so fearful of making a mistake that he or she is afraid to learn new skills? Do you want an employee who slows down so much that things take a long time to get done?

It is up to you where to draw the line, but decide ahead of time which mistakes you should chalk up to the learning process, and which ones deserve some time with the employee in your office. Never forget that some of the greatest advancements in technology stem from mistakes. A new employee may cost you time by committing a gaffe, but that person may also open your eyes to a new way of thinking about your products and production.

"I think of it like those of us who open a box of something and attempt to assemble [it] without reading directions versus those who read every direction and assemble step-by-step," explains Miranda. "Today's learners will assemble without direction much more readily; we need to facilitate their assembly because sometimes their product is even better than the intended product."

Confidence can lead to some miscues, but as long as the employee learns from them, the door may open to new and improved production advancements.

The Student Becomes the Master

Depending on the size of your facility, having a "go-to" associate can make all the difference. The only way a person becomes a go-to associate is through your teaching process. One of the most effective ways to reinforce new skills is to have the student teach someone else. As your employee develops professionally, have him or her teach particular skills to the next new employee. There is much to be gained from that trust. You will experience the satisfaction of knowing your lessons are being retained, and you will have more time for the other tasks you should be doing. In addition, your apprentice will find satisfaction from using recently acquired skills while also gaining a sense of ownership in the company and process.

Obviously, not every employee is capable of training the next one. To be honest, I've had some associates I didn't want to train newbies. But learning from each other can be invaluable.

"In this field, there is never only one way to do things," says Al Jorgensen, CO, Brownfield's Prosthetic and Orthotic Technologies, Boise, Idaho. "Our residents learn from at least six different practitioners, then are encouraged to pick and choose which methods work best for them. The approach, thought process, and techniques that I use now and pass on are vastly different than what I learned and used when I started in the field."

Not all education needs to be top-down. Let the student/employee become the master occasionally.

The defining element for these educational approaches and ideas is the need and willingness to adapt-to throw out the "this-is-how-I-was-taught" mentality. As devices change and advance, so too should our training styles. Using a few simple strategies and adjusting your overall philosophy can pay huge dividends down the road.

Russell L. Eral is the owner of South West Orthopedic Designs, Phoenix.

This article is presented by the Fabrication Sciences Society of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy).

Academy Society Spotlight is a presentation of clinical content by the Societies of the Academy in partnership with  The O&P EDGE.