Sitting around a conference table with some of the creators of Honda's Skills Olympics, it is evident that each and every one is excited to elaborate on their piece of an event program that focused on three key areas:

  1. Technical skills;
  2. A predictive maintenance focused vendor fair;
  3. Identification and sharing of best practices.

The concept of a Skills Olympics is an intriguing one. The idea of a company planning an event that would give its equipment service technicians a chance to demonstrate and be recognized for their technical knowledge and skills was something new. This author first heard about the event in a meeting last fall with Honda North America's reliability engineering team. While excited to hear about the event itself, it was fascinating to dig deeper to learn about the work that went into creating such a competition. Here's how it all came together.

Gary Cundiff was the Skills Olympics project team leader, Darrell Stafford headed up the best practice team, Gary Barr led the predictive maintenance vendor fair, and Mike Kibler was the team leader for the technical skills events. In planning this two-day event, the team worked together to create a schedule of events that focused on developing a proactive maintenance culture through employee development and exchanging best practices.

The theme for the event was "Predictive Technologies," the tools maintenance technicians can use to detect potential failures and correct defects before they shut down the manufacturing equipment. With the understanding that the maintenance technicians are Honda's equipment subject matter experts (SME), the team wanted to ensure that as Honda introduces new technologies, such as airborne ultrasound, it has a way to educate and exchange information to accelerate their use. The end result would be a maintenance tech who is not only a manufacturing equipment SME, but a predictive technologies SME as well.

Keeping to the theme, Barr and Stafford had their teams invite a number of vendor companies who specialize in predictive technologies or proactive maintenance techniques, asking each to showcase its equipment in a vendor fair. Seven of these companies were asked to give a one-hour breakout presentation in an effort to educate associates on how their companies would be working with Honda to implement proactive and predictive maintenance solutions.

Kibler's team focused on two separate events, the individual skills competitions and the team trivia competition.

Kicking Off the Games

The event kicked off with Cundiff welcoming the group to the first Skills Olympics and telling Honda associates that, "We believe our associates are the most important resources. We're investing in you. You may not win, but the knowledge you take away from this event will be invaluable."

Technical Skills Olympics team member Harry Wagner said, "You could feel both the excitement and nervousness of the participants as the event kicked off, and at the same time, you could see bonds of mutual respect being formed between team members."

Each participant was given a detailed schedule of events. The following two days were packed with presentations, a Genba tour (Japanese for factory floor in manufacturing) of the East Liberty Auto Plant, where associates were able to see fully assembled engines automatically installed into cars, and, of course, the team events.

Technical Skills Competitions

For individual skills competitions, teams selected from three different manufacturing areas of the Honda North America site. Each team would participate in one of the three selected technical skills events.

In these three events - robot mastering, PLC troubleshooting and logic troubleshooting - teams would each be given a goal to accomplish, a problem to resolve and a time limit. The technical skills events were held in a lab environment under the watchful eye of a judge and a closed-circuit camera that transmitted the teams' progress live to where all Honda executives, leaders and associates from each area could cheer them on.

The technical skills events were open to all Honda North America maintenance technicians. All one had to do to participate was to form a team for one of the three listed skills and attend the qualifying events. In the end, the three teams selected were the top three finishers in the qualifying events.

Robot Mastering

In the robot mastering technical skills event, the teams were given a goal to restore the robot to operational status. Each team had a problem to troubleshoot on a FANUC S-430i RJ3 robot; the team had to identify the problem and master or re-teach the robot to return it to operation within a set degree of accuracy. Teams were required to verify the accuracy of the robot following mastering and penalties were assessed for each millimeter off location. The team with the fastest time after penalties to make the robot operational was the winner.

Skills Olympics participants

Figure 1: Skills Olympics participants Paul Sandrus and Mike Seif from the East Liberty Auto Plant work against the clock to troubleshoot a FANUC robot and make it functional to within a specified degree of accuracy.

PLC Troubleshooting

The PLC troubleshooting event teams were required to work through the following scenario:

  • You are called out to a piece of manufacturing equipment where you have no experience.
  • The machine operator informs you that his/her machine has stopped.
  • In order for it to continue, he/she needs to see the "finish light" in the corner of the display screen.

The task here was to make the finish light come on without changing any programming or forcing any devices in the program. To accomplish this, each team was given the prints and program needed to determine the proper operation sequence and data register values required to turn on the finish light. Teams were timed for the event and the team that completed the task with the fewest steps in the least amount of time was declared the winner.

PLC Troubleshooting

Figure 2: Delbert Lang from the Anna Engine Plant works with a PLC to identify a problem and restart the equipment.

Logic Troubleshooting

The logic troubleshooting event dealt with a simulated car wash. Each team was given a problem to troubleshoot and had to identify it, resolve it and complete a car wash. Like a real car wash, the system was automatic, but electromechanical problems were built into the event. Team members who identified their problems and completed a car wash in the least amount of time were the winners.

Logic Troubleshooting

Figure 3: Honda Associate Mike Hall from the Anna Engine Plant working at the car wash to troubleshoot, locate, repair and restart.

Technical Skills Trivia

The final team competition, technical skills trivia, was led by Greg Williams. The event featured five categories: electrical, maintenance management, mechanical, predictive technology and general trivia. Participants used handheld devices to respond to each question, with live results tracked on the auditorium screen.

Competition Results

In the technical skills events, Matt Turner from MAP (Marysville Auto Plant) Weld brought home the gold medal and avoided a sweep of the podium in the PLC skills event by AEP (Anna Engine Plant) competitors. Joining Turner on the podium was Joe Freeman from AEP FMD (Ferrous Machining Department) with the silver and Kyle Bailey from AEP ALMC (Aluminum Machining) with the bronze. In one of the shocking moments of this event, participants were very surprised when told by the event judge that the easiest way to have won this event would have been to click on the "Help" button. Had any team done this, a troubleshooting guide would have given them detailed steps on how to resolve the problem.

Jon Parks from MAP Forming was able to complete the car wash in the fastest time for the logic troubleshooting event, earning the gold medal. Bill Koch from AEP ALMC captured the silver and Steve Bates from ELP (East Liberty Auto Plant) Paint secured the bronze.

The team of Derek Ivy from Weld and Brian Bays of Paint were able to give MAP a clean sweep of gold medals for the Skills Olympics event, with the fastest time in the robot mastering competition. Kevin Hale of FMD and Joe Souder of ALDC (Aluminum Die Cast) took the silver for AEP. Another MAP team, Scott Fortner of Assembly and Bob Moser of Weld, were able to earn the bronze.

"My partner, Brian, and I had a blast," Ivy said of the event. "Our thanks go out to Mr. Iwata (retired HAM (Honda of America Manufacturing) president and NA E (North America Engineering) leader) for his investment in all of us. I've always been proud to work here at MAP."

The Closing Ceremonies

Athletes who participated in the Olympic Games, when interviewed later in life, often reflect on one special moment that gave their participation meaning, or a lasting impression that, win or lose, they look back on and say it was all made worthwhile when they witnessed this specific event. For most at Honda's Skills Olympics, it was Hidenobu "Hide" Iwata's closing ceremony speech. Iwata spoke with passion about his career at Honda and the culture of challenging spirit and teamwork he experienced throughout his career.

Iwata began his career in weld maintenance, working with Honda's equipment service technicians to overhaul the sealer pumps to ensure they worked each day. He remembered how dirty he would get doing this job and, because of this, they worked to figure out how they could reduce the overhauls and keep the equipment reliable. He also worked to develop techniques where Honda could predict when kickless cables were about to fail so they could replace the cables at lunch or on weekends before the failure occurred, thus saving the company a significant amount of downtime.

Iwata stated: "I am glad to join you here today to celebrate the challenging spirit you have shown at the Skills Olympics. Your competitive spirit has added great excitement to this event and this is what drives us to be the best. You were selected by your management team to represent your department and your plant and you should be as proud of that as I am of you. Honda's continuing success depends upon the skills and knowledge of its associates to improve our daily job."

Participating and winning an event such as this is special, but in learning that your company president once worked in the same type of role as you, you get a sense of just how important it is to continue to learn everything you can about new equipment and the technologies available to detect potential failures.

The event concluded with a special recognition luncheon where Iwata presented the award winners with limited edition Carhartt jackets and black hats.
Beltran is proud to say, "The black hats, like the black belt in martial arts, signify the mastery of an expert level of capability. No one else at Honda will ever have one of these jackets or hats, only the gold medal winners, Mr. Iwata and Mr. (James) Wehrman, (retired senior vice president). When these guys walk around their plant with those hats and jackets, people know they earned that special recognition by proving they are the best in our business."

Skills Olympics Gold Medal Winners

Figure 4: Skills Olympics Gold Medal Winners

Feedback and Key Learnings

Always striving for continuous improvement, the Skills Olympics organizing team went to the games’ participants looking for feedback on what the participants liked about the event and, just as important, they wanted to know about ways they could improve the event. Regarding the things that went well, the group thought the entire event was well planned. The actual event exceeded most people’s expectations, specifically the technical skills events and the closing ceremony, where nearly everyone commented that Mr. Iwata’s reflection on his career and the importance of equipment services was a highlight.

With regards to the things the group felt could be improved, they would like to see more technical skills events and more detailed presentations on predictive technologies at the vendor fair, as well as additional and longer Genba tours. While this might sound a bit strange to those who work outside the industry, it is quite rare for most employees to see the entire assembly process, so the Genba tour at the East Liberty Auto Plant was very popular.

Path Forward

It is safe to say that after the success of the first Skills Olympics, it will not be the last. The organizing team already has its sights on setting up an event that will include teams at all the Honda plants in North America. But perhaps the largest bonus that comes from this event is the identification sharing of best practices.

In the past, Honda, like many other large companies, has struggled with silo mentality. Beltran states: "We have several departments that are doing some fantastic things with predictive technologies and reliability tools, such as root cause analysis and RCM Blitz®. With events like the technical skills competitions, we now have a forum where we can begin to share these best practices, along with new maintenance strategies that might come from these events."

Passing the Torch

One challenge companies all have in common is dealing with an aging skilled trades workforce. The average age of today's skilled trades workforce is now over 50 and they have begun to retire at a rate that makes backfilling at a one for one rate extremely difficult. Companies just don't have the abundance of apprentice programs and technical schools that were available 30 years ago. Add to this issue the fact that companies are replacing people with three decades or more experience with those who have little or no experience. As a result, what you are looking at now if you are a company operations manager are some extended periods of downtime for often very simple failure modes.

This is what is so intriguing about the Skills Olympics. While most company leaders are crossing their fingers and hoping these skills and experience will magically transfer from one generation to the next, Honda has put its best equipment service technicians in the driver's seat by recognizing the best of the best.

It doesn't matter what job you're in, recognition goes a long way and those who are recognized are always willing to share information - in this case, passing the torch to the next generation!

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