When it comes to training, there is no free lunch

If someone were to come in and audit your training and development program, would they find it consisted solely of “Lunch, and Learns” and tribal knowledge passed down from your most senior craftsmen and operators to your new hires?

While I am not opposed to a free lunch now and then, I would suggest that if your strategy depends solely on these two avenues of learning, you will not create the knowledge-based, empowered workforce necessary to deliver world class results.

I Googled training and development and found the following definition:

Training and development is a function of human resource management concerned with organizational activity aimed at bettering the performance of individuals and groups in organizational settings.

Please do not interpret “a function of human resource management” to mean the responsibility of the human resources department. One of the primary functions of the reliability excellence leader is to ensure that the people in the organization who report to them are successful; and success starts by equipping people with the tools, knowledge, and confidence to perform their essential duties to best practice levels. While I am not suggesting that human resources or your most experienced operators and craftsmen are not excellent resources, the ultimate responsibility for developing your team to their fullest potential lies with you.

Effective training takes a strategic approach. The first thing I would like to emphasize is that training and learning are different, and it is learning that you are after. How many times have you heard someone say they have not been trained on a certain subject only to find a training record indicating they had? If this seems all too familiar ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Were the learning objectives clearly understood by the facilitator and the employee?
  2. How did you test for understanding?
  3. Did the employee have the opportunity to quickly apply the learnings?
  4. Did you follow-up with the employee to find out if they applied the learnings and if so, were the intended learning objectives achieved?
  5. If not, what are you going to do different?
  6. Was the employee motivated to learn?
  7. Was there some kind of feedback mechanism from the intended audience back to the instructor so the opportunity to facilitate learning can be improved?

Notice how I changed the word “training” to “learnings” in that list. Before diving into ways of making your learning opportunities more effective (i.e., the "how"), I would like to discuss the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why" of effective learning.

I would suggest that the “why” and the “what” are the first questions that should be asked. There are two key reasons to conduct training and both address a strategic need. Learning is about continuous improvement and solving business opportunities. The biggest problem I have with most “Lunch and Learns” is they always seem to have a marketing angle; they are used to introduce someone’s product. I much prefer to tailor my learning opportunities to the elimination of common failure modes, or as we call them in the SAP world, cause codes.

Learning and applying best practices that eliminate defects or result in increased efficiency will ensure training dollars produce a return on your investment. Learning is also about risk management. Learning involves succession planning and coverage. As you identify the critical roles in your organization, are plans in place to backfill the positions in case of planned or unplanned absences? And what about your star players? If you do not have development plans in place to help them grow into the next position, opportunities will come knocking at their door which will entice them to leave your organization.

Now that you have answered the “why” and the “what,” it’s time to ask “who”. Sometimes we take a blanket approach to training. While all knowledge is interesting and therefore of some value, people can only retain so much information. If there is not a compelling business need, an immediate opportunity to apply the learning, and an interest by those receiving the knowledge to apply what they have learned, you will not realize the maximum value for your efforts.

So, there should be a direct link between the learning objective and the reliability excellence strategy: the training and development program should provide the essential skills to allow each individual to perform his or her assigned duties. I am a big fan of written training and development plans. I see program elements, people, and training and development coming together to form a grand mosaic; the perfect picture of excellence. The “who” not only involves the intended audience - it also involves the instructor.

One of your most senior craftsmen might know how to perform a given task to best practice, but might not be effective at teaching others how to do so. Consider using instructors who possess professional facilitation skills; this is where a tag team approach can be extremely effective. Can the facilitator talk to and observe the craftsmen performing the work so an understanding of their expertise can be gained and transferred to others? We effectively use this approach when our planners create tasks lists, asking our most skilled craftsmen to review the finished product before they are approved.    

As for "when," in many things in life, timing is everything. If people do not quickly apply what they have learned soon after the training session occurred and often enough for habits to form, culture change will not take place. Therefore opportunities to apply learnings should be created to coincide with the date training is scheduled.

Also, be careful to match the number of skilled professionals with the frequency the task is performed. If you have a precision skill which is required on average twelve times a year, do not provide the training to all of your craftsmen. If you do, they will not be able to apply the learning often enough for it to become habit. In this instance, it makes more sense to select two craftsmen to teach this specific skill. You can always pair a skilled craftsmen with one who is less proficient with the task. And by having two skilled craftsmen, you will have created the backfill necessary to cover for planned and unplanned absences.

Finally, "where" learning occurs will have a direct impact on how much knowledge will be retained. Remember the goal of learning is application, not a piece of paper in an employee file documenting that training took place. Most people, especially operators and craftsmen, learn best by doing. Create a comfortable atmosphere that offers hands on opportunities.

We have created a plant reliability training center to teach essential SAP skills to all of our employees (see Figure 1). We keep the class size small, usually around six people, so instructor-led training can be hands-on. Each employee signs onto the system and follows along with the tutorial, increasing the chances the learning will be retained.

We have also created “hands on” training labs to teach essential craft skills. Figure 2 shows our electrical, instrument, and controls training lab. By sprinkling injudicious doses of theory with hands on application, we hope to create the 21st century skilled craftsmen who will maintain our plant to best practice reliability standards. 

So now that we have discussed the “why”, “what”, “who”, “when”, and “where” of effective learning, let me offer some suggestions that might make your training and development program more effective. Whenever you start a training session, see if the facilitator can create an atmosphere of curiosity and a compelling reason for the intended audience to want to learn. Most people want to do a good job. Consider tapping into the frustrations people have with performing a task. If you can remove a frustration, people will want to learn a new way of performing the task.

Also, have some way of testing whether learning occurred. Written tests are not always the best way to determine whether knowledge was retained. Some people are not good test takers. I tend to watch my audience when I facilitate a session. I am looking for engagement and interest. I will ask questions, but avoid singling people out repeatedly. Instead, I follow-up one on one at a later date where the person might feel more comfortable asking questions.

Keep lessons simple; too much information overwhelms people. We like to create knowledge retention opportunities by utilizing single point lessons. Keep the lesson short, keep it focused on one topic, make sure it is hands on, and give people an opportunity to apply what they have learned soon after the knowledge transfer has occurred. And do not forget to follow-up and see whether the learnings have been applied correctly.

Finally, be open to opportunities to improve your facilitation skills. I always use evaluation forms and ask open questions in the hopes of getting something more than a circled answer. In these comments are hidden the opportunity to improve your employee development as long as you are open to act on the feedback given.

This concludes my sixth post as we travel down the road to reliability together. In the spirit of continuous improvement and learning from you, my audience, I leave you with these questions. “Take one moment and tell me how I am doing?”

  1. What specific nugget of knowledge have you found helpful from this post?
  2. What, if anything, have you taken from my previous posts back to your factory floor and applied?
  3. How can I serve you, my audience better in the future?

I will look for your comments, I would be extremely grateful if I opened this post a week after publication and saw 1000 comments posted. Trust me, I will read each and every one and take them to heart as I strive to improve as a thought leader in this space. Will you do your part? It will only take a moment and just might help me grow and develop as a professional.

As always, enjoy your weekend with friends, family and loved ones as your plant hums along on the road to reliability excellence. See you at mile marker 63.