WHEN Mr Soon Fook Heng started work as a part-time contract production worker at 3M in 1999, he did not have any grand career ambitions due to his low educational qualifications. But he had a capacity for hard work.
To add to his monthly income, he zealously worked overtime at every possible opportunity. During his early years at the global diversified technology company, his mantra was “make more money”.
Things changed one day when his department head offered him an individual development plan (IDP), which included specific steps to raise the bar for his performance and skills. He could take up part-time study courses that would be sponsored by the company.
It was only then that Mr Soon realised there were ways he could advance his career in the manufacturing sector. Greatly motivated, he finally dared to dream of becoming a qualified engineer.
Work in progress
Working by day and studying by night is never an easy task, but through sheer determination and perseverance, Mr Soon first earned a Higher National ITE Certificate (Higher Nitec) in Mechatronics Engineering from the Institute of Technical Education in 2004.
Next, he enrolled at the Singapore Polytechnic, where he obtained a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering in 2008.
Now, the affable 30-year-old is gunning for a Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical Engineering from the National University of Singapore.
Says Mr Soon: “I’ve now gone through seven years of continuous part-time study with the sponsorship of 3M. It’s tough but the payback is worth it.”
His employer has recognised his commitment, promoting him six times to date.
In his 11 years at 3M, he has worked his way up the engineering ladder — from a production operator to manufacturing assistant, then as a production technologist to his current position of associate engineer, where he manages a team of 12 workers.
Employee innovation counts
Armed with his hard-won qualifications, Mr Soon now has the necessary skill sets to consciously improve working conditions at the workplace.
“It is part of the 3M culture to upgrade workplace methods to raise efficiency and productivity.
“The corporate culture also encourages employee initiative and innovation, which means ideas that could help the company are not limited to just the managerial or creative staff, but extended to the rank and file,” he says.
Mr Soon and his team are active members of kaizen (Japanese for “improvement”) groups. If staff feel there is a need to make manufacturing processes better, a kaizen group can be formed.
The team takes the equivalent of three to five days off normal working hours to brainstorm and generate solutions.
In the past few years, Mr Soon and his team have submitted several ideas that have made their manufacturing processes more efficient and productive. These include redesigning and modifying the cooling coil in a manufacturing process to improve the evaporation rate, and raising cost-effectiveness by reducing inventory on the shopfloor.
Says Mr Soon: “I believe that the major reason for the success of 3M’s innovation is the management principle set down by Mr William L. McKnight, who served as the company’s chairman from 1949 to 1966. He advocated a tolerance for mistakes.
“This philosophy enables me and my crew to make courageous decisions during process improvement and problem solving. We’ve had no fear of coming up with outrageous ideas for rectifying problems as long as an effective solution is reached!”
For his dedication to continuously improving himself and conditions at the workplace, Mr Soon was awarded a May Day CBF Model Partnership Award from NTUC two months ago. Not bad for someone who, 11 years earlier, did not have any hope of a career beyond its lower rungs.
Says Mr Soon: “It is my duty now to develop leaders from the next generation. With my experience, I’m confident that I can replicate similar success stories from within my group.”