Milwaukee

Milwaukee Tools Increases Worker Retention by 174% Using Poka’s Connected Worker App

Accelerate Onboarding Skills Management

Executive Summary

Milwaukee Tools, like many manufacturers today, faces challenges in hiring and retaining workers due to a tight and competitive labor market, threatening the multi-billion company's ability to sustain its impressive 20% year-over-year growth.

With unemployment at a staggeringly low 1.6% in Dane, Wisconsin, the leadership team at the company’s Sun Prairie facility recognized that enhancing the onboarding process and boosting the confidence of new hires through clear skills development milestones were key to success, benefiting both its workers and operations. That’s why the plant adopted Poka to digitally connect workers to all the onboarding and training resources they need to understand what is expected of them and how to develop the skills needed to be successful.

In the following interview, Ryan Heiar, Senior Manufacturing Manager at its Sun Prairie facility, details the transformative impact of these changes. Ryan explains how the plant’s worker retention rate skyrocketed from 30% to 74% by bringing its new hire onboarding, skills development, and skills monitoring processes and resources into Poka, and giving everyone improved visibility and access to what they need to be successful.

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Read the Full Interviews

Ryan Heiar is the Senior Manufacturing Manager at Milwaukee Tool’s Sun Prairie facility. Ryan scoped and implemented Poka’s connected worker app for onboarding new hires, worker skills management, plant-level, leadership development, and plant floor communication.

Ryan Hejar Milwaukee
Ryan Heiar

Senior Manufacturing Manager

Tell us a bit about Milwaukee Tools

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

Milwaukee Tools is a professional tools company. Our customers are mainly professional users, such as tradesmen, electricians, and plumbers. We have different business units focused on power tools, accessories like plant hand tools, PPE, and outdoor power equipment. We have over 20 manufacturing locations, 10,000 employees in the US, and $10 billion in annual growth. 

Our Sun Prairie Facility specializes in oscillating, multi-blade tools. Since 2008, we've grown at a rate of over 20% every year and that isn't slowing down anytime soon. We acquired Imperial Blades in 2018, and since then we've seen 400% growth - not just in the revenue brought in, but also in the number of people we have to onboard every day. So, where others are pulling back on some of their digital initiatives - especially when it comes to training and support activities, we're pushing forward.

What are some of the labour challenges Milwaukee Tools is facing at your Sun Prairie plant?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

We have an unemployment rate of 1.6% in Dane County, Wisconsin which is where Sun Prairie is located. This means it's a challenging market to get people in the door, and also to get experienced people in the door. So, you end up getting people with limited to no manufacturing experience. So, how do you get them up to speed? How do you introduce them to what they need to be a professional on the floor in a manufacturing space? We have a ton of good practices. We have good documentation. We have great leaders on the plant floor at that lead level who can communicate with our new hires. But how do you tie them all together? Also, English is a second language for 60% of our team here.

How does Poka’s connected worker app help improve new hire onboarding and training?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

Poka helps us to organize what we do and say, here are all the things that are important for new hire training, orientation, onboarding, and be able to set milestones in those skills to reinforce that. We can build the skills and the assessments that allow the team lead to check that off, to build that visibility for everyone else on the floor who might need that information, whether it's a supervisor, whether it's myself, or, a new lead who needs to know where do they pick up on this person's training. 

So, it helps tie all of this together and acts as a conductor to make sure we are accountable with our training. Also, the translation services built into Poka are invaluable for ensuring that we have a successful training and development platform here in this area.

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What were your worker retention rates before and after implementing Poka’s connected worker app?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

Our retention in 2021 before implementing Poka was around 30%, which is not great. That was a big issue that we had to tackle and figure out. Our retention in 2022 after we implemented Poka drastically increased. We went to 74%. We were keeping the right people, we were able to upskill them for our vertical integration journey that we're on and the 250 employees that we project to onboard over the next year to support our growth increase. Our ability to use Poka and understand where we have issues and where we have opportunities is critical to what we do.

How were you onboarding workers before, and what challenges did you face?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

Before Poka, onboarding was about 45-minutes. New employees would come into the conference room, get a quick intro to who we are, and then out you go to the floor. We had team leads and trainers that would help people once they got on the floor. But there was a big gap in what they needed to know. Put yourself in someone’s shoes who maybe has never worked in manufacturing on the floor. You don't know what to expect. You don't know what “right” looks like. You don't know what “wrong” looks like. So, giving ourselves the ability to extend that onboarding process a little bit and really help build those skills from the start has been key to our success.

What improvements have you made to your onboarding process?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

We now do a 10-hour orientation. The first couple of hours are spent reviewing safety videos and benefits in the classroom. Then, the rest of the day is out on the floor with our training team on a line where they learn exactly what they are supposed to do. It’s a low-risk environment where we're not pushing productivity. We’re focusing on safety and quality, and focusing on questions that they might have. 

We also move our leads from other lines over to give introductions and to work with the teams to show them what they find important from a new hire out on a new production line. We make sure that people feel welcome and they know what the expectations are. Then on day two, they're released to their team leads and supervisors with confidence that they can do the base of the job. And then when they get out there, they meet the rest of their team.

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How has the improved training format in Poka led to more effective skills development?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

Everything before Poka existed in a PDF form. We had a very good document control system. So, the training content stayed up to date. The reference numbers all matched. So, we were doing the right things. But it really lacked that dynamic ability to speak to our employees who might not have English as their first language, or not speak English at all. So, we were able to create content that speaks to everyone. We have a great mix of leads and supervisors on the floor who are bilingual as well, which makes the process much easier. But Poka gave us that opportunity to refine and really speak to people in the language that they were comfortable learning.

Also, one of the things that I think was most beneficial was to be able to have that content in different mediums, whether it was in video format, written instruction, pictures, or whatever it may be. We were able to really intermix that and build a total package to capture and engage the highest percentage of people coming in. And so, they were able to use the training documentation through Poka to effectively get the skills needed to be successful here.

What milestones must new hires meet before they're released into production?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

We have a baseline metric for each of the three major things that we're concerned about: safety, quality, and delivery. So, they have to demonstrate the ability to do each of those things to the standard that we have set. Examples for safety are consistently wearing eye protection. If they're at a place in a department where it requires steel-toe shoes, right? This is something that a team lead goes in and assesses. 

And then for quality, we have a standard where we say you have to hit a 1% quality defect rate during your training time. If not, we're conducting retraining. 

As far as delivery, we have standards that we have to meet and Poka allows us to clearly demonstrate those standards and give the team members absolute certainty of what that standard is and what they need to do to achieve it. So, it really builds that visibility for everyone in the whole system to know what the role is and how to move forward as a company and as an employee.


How are employee’s skills set up and tracked within Poka?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

When a new assembler comes in, they go to packaging first. They spend about four to five weeks in packaging, and then they move over to laser where they'll spend another four to five weeks learning that position before they're allowed to move up to that level two role. So, how do we track the onboarding process itself? Really it comes down to consistency, consistency, consistency. 

We make sure that we hit the same topics, and through the same process to ensure that we can get the right result out the door. So, everything is based off the work instruction and SOPs that we have. We bundle those into certain skills. For example, we have a packaging operations module, a packaging quality and a packaging safety module. Each of those is made up of work instructions and SOPs. And then we are hyper-focused on creating the right assessments and how to conduct the assessments under those skills in order to make sure that we can trust that someone's checked off on this training. 

We can trust them out on that line to be safe, to produce a quality product, and to meet the cost requirements.

What KPIs are you using to measure the success of your connected worker app investment?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

We're looking at our time to onboard new hires, our new hire turnover rate, our one-week, 30-day, and our 90-day follow-ups. And then we also do quarterly engagement surveys with our teams, as well as round tables. On a quarterly basis, we are doing one-on-ones with most of our employees. 

We're looking at their skillset as they come in, what they're learning, and getting their feedback, as well. So for us, skills progression equals positional progress here in Sun Prairie. So, our ability to utilize this tool (Poka) as a framework builds equity into our promotion process as well to make sure that people understand exactly what it takes to move up in this company. 

And with that we really have the ability to lay it out for the employees and give them that confidence that if they do these things, they will be able to progress and move forward at Milwaukee Tools.

What are new hires saying about their onboarding and skill development experience?

Ryan Heiar
Senior Manufacturing Manager

Overwhelmingly, the feedback for the onboarding experience has been positive. (New hires are saying that) no one has ever spent this much time and effort getting them up to speed. Usually, they get dumped off with somebody and then the first day after they do some of the less fun things like watching videos and reviewing some of the HR things, like benefits. 

But (at Milwaukee Tools, they’re) really feeling like they're part of the team right off the bat and that they can go to day two and feel confident that they know where they need to be, what they need to do, and having confidence. Because it is hard to start a new job in a field that maybe you've never been a part of.

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