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Three Questions to Ask Before Starting a Training Program

Three Questions to Ask Before Starting a Training Program

By Scott Converse, program director, Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development

There’s a common trap I see when individuals and teams work on solving complex business problems.  It doesn’t matter if the problems involve streamlining a form submittal process, automating a production area, creating a new interactive website, or reducing customer complaints in a service environment.  When it comes to identifying root causes, teams often say, “We know what’s broken, we just need to do a better job training our (fill in the blank) workers, customers, suppliers, subject matter experts, or other stakeholder group.”

Lack of training, or “we need to train this group,” is often cited as the root cause to complex business problems.  When I hear teams make this statement, I know we’ve got some more work to do.  Poor training is often a symptom associated with complex problems, but it’s not a root cause.  Providing training rarely solves the problem or results in improved performance.  Let me explain this paradox further.

Education and professional development are very important endeavors that help individuals grow.  I’m all for that.  However, solving complex business problems requires an understanding of complexity, then coming up with solutions that reduce or remove complexity.  Training programs that are developed to address a group that has been perceived to be performing poorly rarely address the real complexity. Often, the training program just accommodates complex and broken systems.  Training programs implemented in this way are also a polite way of saying, “We really don’t think there’s a complex business problem here, and this is really a people problem. When training is proposed as a solution to the root cause, I put on my facilitator hat and ask one of three follow-up questions to help the team drill down further to discover the real issue.  Why is the system or process the team is using so complicated that you need an elaborate training program?  Training is nice, but what are the underlying reasons the process is so complicated to begin with?  Are there ways to simplify, streamline, or reduce steps, inspections, and / or hand-offs?
  1. If the system or process requires a certain skill level or competency to be successful, why did the system allow individuals to perform tasks that they don’t have the skill level to complete successfully?  There are some cases where the system or process needs to be complex to accommodate a wide diversity or differences in skill sets, and having individuals with pre-determined levels of mastery is one approach for handling this environment.  It’s a very expensive approach and still requires a deep understanding of what’s important for “mastery,” but it begins to dig deeper at the support functions needed to help manage the complex system.
  2. We all know that it doesn’t take long for the concepts covered in a training room to be forgotten, even if the instruction was great (and often it’s not.) We also know the people trained on day one are not always the same people working in the process six months, one year,or five years later.  Training sessions are nice but what are the job aids, checklists, and support tools available to help?  Are there visual cues and tools available where the task is being performed?  Are there ways to mistake-proof the activity through effective user interface design or engineering so it’s almost impossible for the task to be performed incorrectly?
Don’t get me wrong, training should be part of the transition plan to standardize a new way of working, and it’s needed to help understand the “new-normal” and an important part of an effective change strategy.  Training helps everyone understand how complexity has been removed and how the system has been updated to be easier.  In this way, training helps explain how the real solutions attack the root causes that were created the past frustration.  None of this positive change could have happened if the team stopped their hunt for root cause at lack of training phase.  Say NO to training as a root cause!
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