SNOWMOBILE – Arctic Uses State Grant for Training

On a Monday morning in early May, seven hand-picked supervisors of Arctic Cat Inc. met in a training room set up with computers.
Over the next two hours, the group had a hands-on lesson in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and how to best utilize SAP, the computer program on which everything from Arctic Cat accounting to shipping is performed.
Arctic Cat hopes to give 200 more employees the same training over the next three years.
The class is a part of a three-pronged, three-year training program called Race Track To Operational Excellence, executed through Northland Community College, the company’s Thief River Falls, Minn., neighbor, and funded in part by a $399,129 educational grant from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership (MJSP).
After three years of training an estimated 255 employees, Arctic Cat’s operations should be more efficient and more empowered to handle various workplace situations, said Kirsten Melby, director of workforce development at Northland Community College.
It’s part of a mission of Arctic Cat not only to improve its bottom line, but to provide employees with the advanced skills needed to survive in a competitive market.
“In the Twin Cities and all metro areas, people move from one company to the next, and their knowledge moves with them (and spreads),” said Ron Ray, vice president of operations at Arctic Cat. “People are up here for a reason, and may not have the core knowledge for a position. Management has a responsibility to teach it to them.”
Arctic Cat and Northland have proof that it can accomplish these goals through employee training. A recently completed round of MJSP-funded training of 800 employees resulted in $2.5 million in cost reductions, reduced accidents and lost time due to injuries and a leaner, better organized factory. It was so successful that the program, called The Race, continued after the grant ended. The company received its current grant in June, 2004, and put the training in motion in the fall.
In this latest round of training, Arctic Cat and Northland will concentrate on three performance aspects: work efficiency, centralized database training, and production/inventory management certification.
Portions of the new training is a continuation of The Race. “Training should build on each other and be a continuation of what we’ve already started,” Ray said..
The Race is directed toward floor workers. For three consecutive days a month for three months, 20 workers gather in a classroom to learn problem-solving techniques, particularly pertaining to efficiency and waste. The students break into groups to develop projects that identify waste and come up with solutions.
“A lot of it is identifying better ways to organize and order supplies, so if they know they go through 50 widgets, that we don’t have 75 to stumble over and that waste space,” Melby said. “Maybe they’re lifting too much and there’s too much back strain, and they figure out to make lifting easier or more efficient.”
To date, employees have submitted 371 projects that have resulted in a demonstrated savings of $4.2 million. “This doesn’t include safety improvements, either,” said Dennis Buckley, Arctic Cat’s manager of ATV assembly and industrial engineering. To keep with the competition theme, the creators of the best projects are recognized each quarter with significant bonuses: a trip to the snowmobile-related Winter X Games in Colorado, or tickets to a NASCAR event.
The third aspect of the program to train and certify employees in the nationally recognized American Production Inventory Control (APIC) inventory control standards.
“APIC standards are very high and the terms, philosophies and concepts are hard,” Ray said. “Through th training, they’ll become more professional, more attuned to the seriousness of inventory, understand the processes and objectives and different management objectives of doing things.”
Currently, the factory has one APIC-certified employee, Ray, but by the end of the three years, he hopes to have 20. “This is a very aggressive goal,” he said. “It’s like taking the CPA exam.” The certification involves five tests in different skill sets, and passing one or more of these tests may become a job requirement for certain positions, Ray said.
“How can your improve systems if you don’t understand it,” Buckley said. “It’s the mundane of the numbers, not the pretty-ness and speed of the machines that we make. Where’s the he cash? The cash is in the inventory. The same issues that dealers have with inventory, industries have it, too.”
Reaction to the training overall has been generally positive, Melby said. “Some people are very enthusiastic because they’ve seen some of the things prior projects have accomplished,” she added. Employees comment at the end of training that they feel the management is empowering them to make improvements in the workplace.
“It’s a perception that management doesn’t listen, but this is definitely a wonderful forum for breaking down barriers.” Buckley said. “Some of my favorite stories from the Race class is when a negative person leaves with a different approach because they got a chance to make a difference. I say, if you’re frustrated with something, don’t complain about it, make it better.”
In the APIC training, the first group of students volunteered for the classes. “These people are curious about the subject as much as anything, and they understand the value of knowledge,” he said. “The interested the the part of many of them is to be professional in what they do.”

Arctic Cat and Northland Community College have a longstanding relationship which has aided in the training process.
“Northland and Arctic Cat, we know each others’ business,” Melby said. “It’s definitely a joint venture.” Trainers, she said, develop an intimate knowledge of the company, the culture and corporate needs.
“[Trainers] really get to know the company,” Melby said. “They get in there and really learn the people, what they’re doing and know their whole process.”
Buckley agreed. “It’s been a very good partnership,” he said. “When we started this, we challenged them to get here, get their hands dirty and see what’s going on, to learn, research. They did. The two guys they sent us were really tenacious.”
Still, Arctic Cat is the driver behind the program, Buckley said. It comes up with the goals, and works with the college to achieve them. Curriculum can take up to six months to develop, and undergoes constant tweaking, even as the program is carried out, he said.
Arctic Cat’s success has turned into a bright star for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) network, of which Northland is a part. Its success is highlighted in a outreach programs brochure and on the MNSCU Web site.
This is the second grant Arctic Cat and the college have received from the state for continuing employee education. Polaris Industries, in nearby Roseau, Minn., had the final classes in its MJSP-sponsored training last year.
Northland also works on a contract-basis with Polaris to offer credit-earning classes toward a certificate in manufacturing. The certificate is comprised of seven classes equalling 17 credits.

In 2004, MJSP awarded $7 million in grant money to 31 businesses, including Arctic Cat.
Rules for receiving an MJSP grant are tight, with the main criteria being new and innovative business-relevant continuing education for current employees, said Paul Moe, director of the MJSP program. Grant requests must be made by US Department of Education-accredited colleges, and detail the curriculum.
The partner business has to match or better the grant either in cash or in-kind payment. Grants cannot overlap. Arctic Cat’s in-kind payment includes things such as employee salaries and space.
In its first grant for $400,000, Arctic Cat put up funds and in-kind payments worth $750,000, Buckley said. For the current program, Arctic Cat is on a dollar-for-dollar match, he said, with the possibility that Arctic Cat will again go above its expected contribution.
Prior to the grants, Arctic Cat had done scattered small-scale training, but nothing to this magnitude, Buckley said. “It’s a horsepower thing,” he said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do [training] to this scale without the help of the state.”

– Lynn Keillor

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