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In praise of learning.

How an adult education program changed lives at Cumberland Hardwoods and earned John Keisling the WMIA's Educator of the Year Award.

John H. Keisling is neither an educator nor a woodworker by training, but that did not stop him from streamlining his family's woodworking business to make it more profitable. Nor did it prevent him from developing an adult education program for his workers that would result in a myriad of accolades and national awards, including the prestigious Woodworking Machinery Importers Association's (WMIA) 1992 Educator of the Year.

The WMIA Educator of the Year Award, established in 1988, recognizes companies, institutions and individuals who are leaders in the field of woodworking education.

Keisling, former CEO of Cumberland Hardwoods in Sparta, Tenn., was recognized for initiating Cumberland's unique work-site educational program, explained George Force, immediate past president of the WMIA. "Keisling and the revolutionary technical and basic learning program he developed for Cumberland Hardwoods is an example of what can be done to improve skills and the quality of life of the U.S. woodworker," Force said.

Learning the hard way

Keisling, 50, was born in Sparta, Tenn., and pursued an engineering degree at Georgia Tech. He also received an MBA from Georgia State University. Upon graduating he worked for South Central Bell in Atlanta in marketing and systems management positions. He then served two years as national coordinator of state trade development activities for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In 1984, Keisling returned to Sparta and took over Cumberland Hardwoods, a business his father had founded as a sawmill in 1947. The business, however, has evolved into a hardwood dimension and component mill.

"When I came back, I had the option of selling it or of pumping new blood into it. I decided to stay," Keisling said. Keisling embarked on an ambitious modernization program which included purchasing state-of-the-art machinery imported from Europe. At the same time he was forging ahead, the state of Tennessee was luring some major Japanese businesses including Nissan and Bridgestone. Cumberland Hardwoods lost some of its most talented workers to the Japanese start-ups.

Undaunted, Keisling pressed on. He figured the addition of the technology would offset the subtraction of the employees. He would soon learn otherwise, the hard way. But at any rate, he had another more immediate challenge to contend with.

"I at first concentrated my efforts on bringing in technology and working to form a cohesive unit out of my employees to take the business to the next level," Keisling said. "I basically had three groups at my plant. The A group consisted of workers who had been there some 15 to 20 years and knew their skills from experience -- the 'what works, what doesn't work', trial-and-error methods. The B group people were those workers coming out of school who possessed skills and posed a 'threat' to the A group because of their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. A third group -- the C's -- was comprised of young, unskilled workers, including some who grappled with learning disabilities."

Keisling explained that in the "culture" of the workplace, the A's responded to the B's by ostracizing them in the lunchroom, shutting them out socially and spreading rumors about things affecting them. However, the C's, who posed little threat to the A's, were warmly embraced.

As Keisling was putting his energy and efforts into high-technology machinery and harmonizing employee relations, a series of events forced him to face the fact that capital expenditures were not going to be enough. "In 1986, one of our customers, Thomasville Furniture, came to me with a request that we change the tolerances in our drawer side grooves. They found that by changing it + or - 1/32 of an inch they could put together 50 more drawers a day," Keisling said. Keisling accepted the challenge and worked to improve the tolerances at his end. "As a good Georgia-Tech trained engineer, I thought it could be done and I set out to find a way to do it."

Keisling bought the necessary technology, but what tripped up his grand plan was a workforce that could not relate to the machinery. "I had maintenance people who had maintained machinery with sledge hammers. We were moving from tape measures to dial calipers. It was a transition some people just could not handle," he said.

The second eye-opener was a $50,000 shipment of drawer sides machined with a groove that turned out to be 1/32 inch too deep. "Expensive kindling was what we shipped our customer," Keisling said. At this point Keisling enlisted the help of his management team and consultants to try and find out what was wrong. A simple measuring error had led to the drawer side mistake, but it unmasked the fact that few of the workers were equipped with basic computation skills. "After the first error, no one down the line caught the mistake. It was packaged and shipped that way. We knew we had to quit the bluffing that was going on," Keisling said.

Back to the basics

Keisling approached local high school officials with his tale of woe. "We don't know how to measure at my plant," he told them. The school responded by sending its basketball coach out to Cumberland's plant to teach employees how to measure.

While Keisling had never had an education background, he did know that before embarking on a skills program, one should do a pretest to measure how much the group ultimately learned. "We did a very simple pretest. We gave them four nails of different lengths and at the end of the 8,000 hours of overtime we repeated the test using four pencils. The results were disheartening, to say the least. Thirty percent improved skills; 30 percent showed no improvement; and 40 percent got worse."

Keisling realized that the bottom 40 percent had not really gotten worse, they just did not respond to the method of adult education they were given. "I was confronting the culture head on and what I learned is that you have to act like General George Patton by launching a flank attack."

At this point, Keisling decided to try and change the dynamics of the culture. As part of his offensive, Keisling said he established a goal to hire more female employees. He bought a building near the plant and turned it into a daycare center for Cumberland employees and offered them subsidized daycare services for their children. This move helped changed the make-up in the plant from 100 percent male to some 40 percent female. This also served to "weaken" the hold of the A group. Some of the group left the job permanently.

With a more cohesive group, Keisling again attempted to beef up the skills of his workers. "I followed the words of educator Malcolm Coles who cautioned that you never try to teach adults what they already know. Our philosophy became: 'What can we teach them that they don't know?' We decided that they did not know how to communicate and collaborate as a unit. So we developed a program that focused on teaching them basic manufacturing strategies and the end result was that everyone began working better. "Self-esteem blossomed. People accepted much more responsibility at work. We set up GED (Graduate Equivalency Degree) classes at the plant, offered cash rewards and in less than six months, some 34 employees had earned their GED.

Keisling said hindsight has made him appear brilliant in the ways of adult education, but at the time it was often trial and error. "Not all workers were empowered at the same rate. One management employee resented taking classes with the rest of the group. He kept failing his GED until we managed to give him an untimed tests and he soared. It seems he had an undisclosed learning disability and only required additional time to do the work correctly. He has blossomed as a manager and has done great things at Cumberland."

Keisling said that while mistakes were not immediately eliminated, he knew right away that Cumberland was on the right track. "Thomasville had a 60 percent jump in quality and there have been no more $50,000 mistakes," he said.

In addition to quality improvements, Keisling cited a variety of other success stories. "People began expressing themselves. They added more to their job performance and became much more productive. People grew and matured. Everyone in the company was being empowered. I got a handmade quilt from someone's grandma. Another employee's mother cried when she talked about the impact our educational program had had on her son's life. I learned a lot about education in the process. I kind of worked myself out of a job," laughed Keisling, who sold the business in May of 1992.

Removing the blinders

Today, Keisling is head of Performance Learning, a consulting company designed to bring the methods and message to other companies facing similar workforce problems. "You have to teach people how to say, 'I don't know,' before you can teach them. There is a lot of sophisticated covering up going on by people who don't want to admit they do not have the necessary skills. I am in tune to those things now," Keisling said. "Before I walked through the plant with blinders on. Now I can spot the worker who can't read but has refined his listening skills to the point that no one ever knows."

Keisling feels that the not-so-new philosophy of using an employee's experiences are coming back in vogue, replacing the school of thought that jobs could be "dumbed down" as long as the machinery and technology was brilliant. "Adults come to work with a variety of frames of reference. To teach them effectively you need three conditions present: they can answer the technical questions on their mind, empower them and interest them in the subject.

"I think we too often want a quick fix in America. We spend $300 billion on education for students up to age 17. We spend $30 billion on the older workers. We need to get excited about the workforce and put some emphasis on properly training people."

Keisling does not point the finger of blame on the current educational system. "That is just the tip of the iceberg. Many children today don't have the role models they need, mentors to teach them. They come from broken families ill-equipped to serve their needs."

Keisling believes in listening to the educational experts and sought them out as he progressed with his on-site educational programs. "I dragged four of my management team to a weekend seminar to hear a famous education specialist talk about working with adults. On the way I asked them to guess what percent of our workforce is 'lazy and unmotivated.' They all came to the conclusion that 40 percent fell into that category. However, the educational expert Dr. Demming maintains that only 2 percent of American workers are lazy or unmotivated. After hearing that, the group revised its assessment to 8 to 10 percent falling into the lazy-unmotivated category. What we learned it that our present workers are a talent we can mine -- the result being increased productivity and savings to the company that invests in educating its workforce.

Every American company is full of untapped resources. President Clinton was proposing a 1.5 percent tax increase on payrolls to finance worker education. In Europe they already pay 1.5 to 3.5 percent per year for all companies. President Clinton backed down in the face of criticism, but programs like that are needed. We also need a way to motivate our workers to learn more when they realize that increasing skills may likely not increase their pay. It is not much in the way of motivation," Keisling said.

Keisling has won a slew of awards for his work, among them the first annual National Outstanding Workplace Literacy Award presented to Keisling in 1990 by Barbara Bush. Cumberland Hardwoods was honored by the state of Tennessee with the Sequoia Award, the state's highest award for a literacy project, plus two national workplace awards from the U.S. Office of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor.

One of Keisling's personal favorite tributes, though, came from a worker at Cumberland. "He said, 'John you didn't come down to our level, we came up to yours.'"
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Title Annotation:The Competitive Edge; adult education program at Cumberland Hardwoods
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:May 1, 1993
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