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What is Competence Management?

The term Competence Management is derived from the broader world of business at large. In the realm of automotive functional safety, there are many terms and methodologies that are shared with or are similar to, terms and processes that are utilized across all types of manufacturing and business. However, within the automotive realm, these terms are naturally scoped to the requirements of the automotive business. Not only do many of these methodologies govern how a product is developed and tested, but they can also apply to the selection, management, and skills development, of the people performing the work.

Graphic describing an eBook entitled The 2023 Guide to SOTIF ISO 21448. With the eBook cover and a car.

One of these terms is commonly referred to in the business as Competency Management which, simply put, is the process of identifying, managing, and developing employee competencies so that the employee’s skills and behaviors align with the company’s goals and requirements. Competency management can also be utilized as a structure upon which a company’s recruitment, development, engagement, and retention initiatives can be built and deployed.

The management of competence brings several benefits to both the employees and the organization, including:

  • Increased productivity
  • Improved morale
  • Better retention
  • Lower training costs
  • Professional growth

By clearly communicating and broadly applying sound competency management practices and keeping them consistent from a person’s initial recruitment through their full term of employment, an organization can optimize the use of their people and achieve a real competitive advantage.

In the international standard ISO 26262-2:2018, “Road vehicles — Functional safety — Part 2: Management of functional safety”, a similar term is used, Competence Management. Within the standard, the automotive functional safety-oriented term ‘competence’ management shares many of the characteristics of the more broadly scoped business term ‘competency’ management. However, there are important distinctions focused on the automotive realm and functional safety. Competence Management is the term and scope we will focus on for the remainder of this article.

 

How is Competence Management achieved?

What is competence?

To effectively manage competence, it is helpful to start by defining what competence is. Simply put, competence is the sum of a person’s proficiency, expertise, and qualifications. At first blush, those might seem like redundant terms. But when examined in detail, important distinctions emerge.

To illustrate these concepts, let’s examine a real-world scenario from a manufacturer that makes components vital to the construction of an automobile, a roller bearing factory:

Roller bearings are used in wheel assemblies, steering columns and assemblies, pumps, electric motors and alternators, actuators, and anywhere else in a car where a shaft has to rotate with accuracy and stability under force. They are precision parts that directly impact safety.

In this factory, a person in a machine operator role supports one of a chain of manufacturing steps that result in the creation of a roller bearing. In our specific example, a machine operator is operating a honing machine that is used to achieve the finished dimensions and surface quality on the bearing races, inner and outer hardened steel rings with grooves machined into them. These races serve as the ‘tracks’ that the rollers of the bearing fit into. They receive the load that is transmitted by the moving bearing elements and, in conjunction with other parts, help hold the bearing together.

The machine that the operator is controlling ingests pieces that have already been hardened and formed to a general degree of tolerance by upstream processes. It then hones the races down to their final dimensions and surface finish. The final dimensions must fall within precise, narrow tolerances, for the bearing to properly interface with the other components it was designed to work with. And, achieving the proper surface finish is essential, because the surface finish dictates the retention of lubricants. If the races are too smooth, the lubricants will slide off the metal, resulting in a dry bearing that will quickly fail. If the races are too rough or have chips or dents, the bearing could damage other components, not fit where it is supposed to, or prematurely crack and fail.

Honing these bearing races is a multi-step process that is performed under the watchful eyes of the machine operator, who must manually feed, control, and unload the machine as it proceeds from one pre-programmed step to the next. They must also render an initial inspection of the parts as they exit the machine. The final product is a bearing race of acceptable dimensions and finish, that is ready to be polished and assembled with other finished components into a completed roller bearing that is then inspected, lubricated, packed, and shipped to customers.

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What is the difference between proficiency, expertise, and qualifications in this scenario?

  • Proficiency: The operator knows how to load, operate, and unload the machine properly and safely. They know which buttons to push and levers to move to engage the machine’s pre-programmed processes, and what the proper order is for executing those steps and using those controls. When a part is completed, they know how to perform an initial visual inspection and pass the part through a go/no-go tolerance gauge. Their work is essentially defined like a recipe, and their job is to follow that recipe every time, for every part. It is a pass/fail world, and if a part fails, it is someone else’s job to figure out why and correct the issue.

  • Expertise: The operator not only knows what to do, but they also have an accurate understanding of why things happen. They have been doing this job for years and understand the impacts of other roles and processes that feed into, or are fed by, their station. They understand the fundamental metallurgy of the parts and the physics that affect them when they are in the machine. They have learned, through mentoring and personal experience, the quirks and unique nuances of each machine in the department, and those of many of the machines (and their operators) who perform the upstream operations. They know how to tell when their machine is operating properly and when it needs repair or adjustment, and they can perform many of those tasks themselves. They go beyond the go/no-go gauge and measure quality in detail using statistical analysis. With this broad knowledge and deep experience, they bring critical thinking to bear to either solve problems or avoid them in the first place. They like to solve problems themselves, but they also know when to ask for help from other experts. For the experts, theirs is a world of solving problems and maximizing efficiency.

  • Qualifications: A person might possess a lot of experience and expertise, but it is fair to ask… is what they possess actually valuable? Does it meet the minimum requirements of the task or role? An informal ‘gut check’ assessment is problematic because it is inconsistent and subjective. What one person thinks they know how to do, might not actually be important, or could even be inaccurate or unsafe. What is needed, are qualifications. Specific, measurable, accurate, and complete knowledge of key topics has to be demonstrated by the person seeking the certification, using vetted and impartial testing criteria. Qualifications are industry-accepted evidence certifying that a person has demonstrated that they know the right things to do for a given role. And then, they have to be placed in an appropriate role and given the support and authority required for them to turn their qualifications into useful work that drives the organization forward.

 

How does Competence Management support the proper execution of the safety lifecycle?

What does ISO 2626 require of Competence Management?

ISO 26262-2:2018, Clause 5.4.4.1 states: “The organization shall ensure that the persons involved in the execution of the safety lifecycle have a sufficient level of skills, competence, and qualification corresponding to their responsibilities.”

A typical organization has a mix of people with varying levels of proficiency, expertise, and qualifications. It is a fluid and dynamic mix that is constantly changing as people grow, join the organization, and depart. Indeed, the roles themselves tend to be much more stable than the staff rotation of the people coming into and out of them. Regardless, it is the organization’s responsibility to make sure that the person in a given role is competent for performing that role, either through experience, training, or a combination of factors. Placing the right people in the right roles at the right time is what managing competence is all about.

What is proficiency?

In our roller-bearing plant example, achieving and demonstrating proficiency is the minimum for an operator role. It is two or three steps above a plant entry-level position, a role that usually sees people transition from a general laborer role to one of a specialist. It is a good role for becoming familiar with parts and processes. These operators gain foundational knowledge and experience that can be built upon for their future professional growth while performing useful work that contributes to the organization’s present business needs.

What is expertise?

The experts have typically risen through the ranks. They are the veteran operators and first-line managers who have been there and done that. They are known and reliable entities. There is no substitute for years of day-in and day-out experience in a manufacturing plant. Not only have the experts learned the finer points of their department’s machines and processes over long periods of time, but they have also learned to navigate the tricky waters of interpersonal relations. They can work effectively with the people in their team, with their supervisors, and with other departments. These soft skills are very important and often overlooked.

What are qualifications, and how are they utilized?

Qualifications are an integral part of modern automotive manufacturing. They are earned, not given. They can be tightly focused on one task or skill, or they can be broader in nature to the point of encompassing part or all of an entire discipline. It all depends on the context.

For example, in automotive manufacturing, one of the most common and fundamental skills for a worker on the plant floor is knowing how to safely operate an electric pallet jack. These heavy and powerful machines are not only used on the docks and warehouses for moving supplies and products and loading and unloading trucks, but they are also employed by the manufacturing machines scattered throughout the plant. They are cheaper and smaller and more maneuverable than a forklift and are the primary tool for moving heavy items from one point to the next. But by necessity, they have aggressive controls, and in the hands of the untrained or unqualified, they can be quite dangerous. One accidental tap on the throttle paddle while grabbing the steering handle can cause the machine to lurch powerfully in an unexpected direction and can inflict a lot of harm to both people and things in the blink of an eye. So, being properly trained and certified to operate an electric pallet jack is a really big deal and one of the most important areas of safety focus in a plant. In many facilities, you have to wear a special badge that prominently shows you are certified, and everyone is trained to look for that badge on people operating the jacks and to report anyone operating them without that badge. Operating a pallet jack without the proper certification can get you immediately banned from a facility or fired on the spot.

A person might have to become qualified on an electric pallet jack in order to safely move skids and bins of parts in and around the work area surrounding their machine. In this scenario, the pallet jack qualification supports their primary role in conjunction with other certifications that a person must earn before they are considered qualified to operate a given machine. For example, that person might also have to earn a qualification to run the machine itself, a much more complex task. But with all these certifications, come benefits not only to the organization but to the person.

Earning certifications opens doors of opportunity for the person and gives the organization more flexibility. Sometimes, certain certifications can result in roles that pay better or offer opportunities for increased overtime. And if that person were to transfer from one of the company’s facilities to another, the qualifications are often valid in the new location as well, given that the machines and processes are suitably similar. This gives the person flexibility, increases their value to the organization, and frees the organization to place the person where they can do the most good.

Keeping track of and managing these qualifications is a significant task that is an important part of modern automotive manufacturing. It is not uncommon to have entire teams devoted to managing personnel qualifications and staffing to help make sure that, after accounting for sick days, vacations, and other time off, there are still an adequate number of qualified persons in the proper roles for all shifts.

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How do qualifications, certifications, and higher education, support functional safety?

The concept of qualifications extends beyond becoming certified on one machine or process. It can be said that the people who have achieved higher and more complex formal qualifications have made the transition from having a job to belonging to a profession. They are the highly qualified persons with formal certification acronyms in their email signature blocks, the machinists, tool and die makers, quality engineers, inspectors, safety engineers, metallurgists, lab analysts, and department supervisors. Many of them hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Some have doctorate degrees. All share a desire to better themselves and work in the automotive industry at the highest levels of competence.

These people follow a formal education and training path. They must be tested and assessed and must pass those tests. It does not matter how many years of experience they have if they do not pass the tests. But once they do, they earn degrees and certifications that have a consistent meaning and are recognized across the industry. Most importantly, employers are assured that they can be trusted with the most critical, complex, and demanding tasks. The certifications prove that they already possess the knowledge and skills to accomplish this work. If you hold a certain degree or certification, you are a known quantity.

How do you address skill gaps?

With such a broad mix of persons possessing a range of proficiencies, expertise, and qualifications, the organization can draw from this pool to align their people with the responsibilities that need to be fulfilled and start looking for gaps that need to be filled. In some instances, there may be a need to seek qualified people from outside of the organization, either through partnerships with other organizations or by hiring the people outright. And often, an organization must put together a training and qualification program that considers;

  • typical safety practices, concepts, and designs tailored to that organization and the work it performs;
  • the ISO 26262 series of standards and, if applicable, other relevant safety standards;
  • organization-specific rules addressing functional safety;
  • organization-specific rules for other disciplines that interact with functional safety; and
  • functional safety processes instituted by the organization for specific processes and locations.

To properly evaluate the skills, competence, and qualifications needed to carry out the activities that are required for complying with the ISO 26262 series of standards, the experience from previous professional activities should also be considered, such as:

  • domain knowledge of the item (the specific, specialized discipline, profession, or activity);
  • expertise regarding the environment that will impact the item;
  • the management experience of key stakeholders; and
  • the expertise of the persons who will perform the production, operation, service, and decommissioning activities.

ISO 26262 allows the organization to define the criteria regarding the sufficiency of the corresponding skills, competence, and qualifications. In other words, ISO 26262 tells the organization what it has to achieve, but the organization has the flexibility to fulfill those requirements in the manner that makes the most sense for its unique situation. Because of the potential impact of possible liability implications, it is not uncommon for an organization to adopt industry-vetted and accepted criteria and certification programs, tailored to their unique circumstances.

Competence management is the art and skill of applying people to processes in an optimal way, to maximize both safety and the return on investment. It is not just a key requirement in ISO 26262, it is a foundation need that must be properly managed if a manufacturing facility is going to operate at all, for even one shift. The management of competence is the key function for an organization taking care of its most valuable and powerful assets, its people. As such, it has the greatest potential for realizing the largest and most impactful productivity and safety returns on its investment.

 

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Steve Neemeh

Written by Steve Neemeh

Steve joined LHP in 2015 to lead the expansion of the west coast operations. He is the leader of the strategy and solutions architects as well as president of the delivery consulting organization. Steve has over 25 years of Functional Safety experience prior to joining LHP. Steve has launched multiple start-up operations and has taken them to full production. Notably, a complete ground up electronics and software development group to service commercial aerospace electronics and military vehicle power electronics. For LHP, Steve pioneered the implementation of safety critical applications in California, launching functional safety for autonomous driving applications as well as air mobility.