For a business to maintain its edge, all players in an organization need to perform their jobs at optimum levels. When things aren’t going well, management often looks to the training team to boost employee job performance and correct the problem.
Business performance issues aren’t always training issues
It is almost axiomatic for management that all performance improvement problems can be solved through training. As learning and development (L&D) experts, we know that isn’t always true, but let’s look at how to tackle a performance challenge from an L&D perspective.
One of the first things you’ll need to do is define the problem. This can be tricky; one pitfall is defining the problem too broadly. For example, a problem may be defined as orders not being shipped quickly enough. Does that definition provide you with sufficient information to determine if additional training is the correct approach? Most likely not.
The first step is to determine what should be happening. Once you have a full understanding of how things are supposed to work, you can begin the process of identifying the areas that need improvement. This is a good time to talk with your management team and set objective measurements for what should be happening. Doing so will help you not only as you fashion a solution, but also when it comes time to measure the effectiveness of your efforts.
You’ll also need to dig into the problem to see what’s causing it. One of the tools I like to use comes from the world of Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement that was introduced to Motorola in the mid-1980s. Jack Welch made it a centerpiece of his business strategy at General Electric in 1995. If you want to learn more about Six Sigma, you can visit the International Association for Six Sigma Certification.
The particular tool I’m referring to is called the 5 Whys. The approach may seem simple, but it is an excellent way to drill down to the root cause of an issue.
Determine the root cause using Six Sigma’s “5 Whys”
To perform the 5 Whys, you start with your problem and ask why it is occurring. Then you ask why your answer is happening, and again for the next level down, and on until you’ve answered the question “Why?” at least five times. You may need more than five levels if you have a particularly complex problem, but don’t worry—just keep asking “Why?” until you find the root cause.
Here’s an example commonly used by Six Sigma trainers:
Problem: One of the monuments in Washington D.C. is deteriorating.
Why #1: Why is the monument deteriorating?
Answer: Because harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the monument.
Why #2: Why are harsh chemicals needed to clean the monument?
Answer: To clean off the large number of bird droppings on the monument.
Why #3: Why are there large numbers of bird droppings on the monument?
Answer: Because the large population of spiders in and around the monument is a food source for the local birds.
Why #4: Why is there a large population of spiders in and around the monument?
Answer: Because vast swarms of insects, on which the spiders feed, are drawn to the monument at dusk.
Why #5: Why are swarms of insects drawn to the monument at dusk?
Answer: Because the lighting of the monument at dusk attracts the local insects in larger numbers.
Solution: Wait until it is entirely dark to illuminate the monument because the birds who feed on the spiders do not fly at night.
In this example, it took all five levels to reach the root cause of the monument’s deteriorating state. Any solution to a higher level “Why?” may have solved part of the problem, but wouldn’t have solved all of it. For example, if you had switched to less harsh chemicals, you may have slowed the deterioration, but the bird droppings would still accumulate at a high rate because of the insects and spiders.
You can apply this same exercise to any problem your company is facing to help you understand all the causes of a problem, which may or may not be related to employee skillsets, behaviors, or knowledge. Knowing the cause will help you define your problem clearly and fashion a suitable and lasting solution, regardless of whether or not that includes performance improvement training for individuals or teams.
Decide if training targets the root cause
Next, you need to ask yourself, “can training solve this issue?” If the answer is no, you’ll need to meet with the management team and walk them through what you’ve discovered. No one likes to hear the word “No” in response to something they’ve asked for, so this can be a challenging meeting. Instead of focusing on why training isn’t the right solution, try to take them through all the steps so they have an opportunity to understand how you reached your decision. If you can provide other options, you’ll be in a position to help them solve their problem in a different way.
Let’s take a look at our the shipping issue mentioned at the beginning of this article and see why training would not be the solution in one case, but would be in another.
The company’s originally stated problem was that their orders weren’t being shipped quickly enough. You talked with the management team and determined that “on time” means 95 percent of orders are shipped within 24 hours of being received. You look through the data and discover that only 75 percent of orders are being shipped on time. When you go through the 5 Whys, you find that the reason for the lower number is that weekend orders cannot be shipped within 24 hours because the materials do not arrive at the company until Monday afternoon, meaning the employees cannot get all the weekend orders out on Monday. In this example, no amount of training will make the materials arrive at the warehouse earlier on Monday, so you’d want to help the management team look for valid solutions, which may include weekend deliveries or increasing the amount of material delivered on Fridays.
In contrast, let’s say your research reveals the problem is one that can be solved by additional training. For example, if the department is assigning one order per person, regardless of complexity, it would be possible for complex orders to throw off fulfillment times. In this case, you’ll want to identify the area in which staff are deficient in handling a complex order. From there, you would use focused, targeted training that will help them—your learners—master the skill or skills they are missing. In this case, they may need training on how to streamline steps to filling orders, identify complexities early on, triage complex orders, or correctly recruit or allocate team resources to expedite the fulfillment process.
A key deliverable of the training launch, particularly to those receiving the training, should be an explanation of how this training will benefit the learners. The “What’s In It for Me” discussion is vital to gaining learners’ commitment to change, but can often be overlooked in a rush to improve. Once learners understand how the performance improvement training will help each of them personally, they will be more open to instruction. (In my previous blog, I talked about changing employee behavior. The techniques I discuss there also apply here, so you may want to take a minute and read through it as well.)
Deliver needed performance improvement training strategically
It’s essential to home in on the areas that are deficient, and make those skills the centerpiece of your training. Resist the temptation to offer learners broad instruction. By focusing on just what the learners need to know to improve their performance, you can construct a shorter class that will grab the learners’ attention without boring your students with what they already know or losing essential skills.
Build in practice sessions.
Likewise, practice should be an essential element of the course. Telling someone how to do a task is not as effective as letting them practice the task. Practice can help learners truly understand how their skills need to improve. If physical practice isn’t possible, consider using scenarios to help the learners understand where they’ve been underperforming.
Develop a follow-up plan.
Another essential element of your performance improvement training should be the follow-up plan. You should think about how you’re going to keep the momentum of the class going once the learners are back on the job. You or their supervisor may want to set up weekly check-ins with learners to discuss their progress and look at ways to improve. Alternatively, you may want to host a review class with all the learners so they can share tips and tricks with one another.
Now is also a good time to revisit the company’s new hire training to see if the topic was appropriately addressed the first time. If not, you can adjust it so that new employees won’t face the same challenge faced by existing employees.
Finally, go back to your definition that you built while researching the problem. Then look at the team or company’s performance after your training and compare it to the data you accumulated before the training. Hopefully, you’ll see an improvement in the team or company’s performance. If you don’t see improvement, or not enough improvement, you may want to go back and reexamine the answers to the 5 Whys to find issues you may have missed.
For more on how to evaluate training, see Kevin Gumienny’s article, 3 Essential Elements for Evaluating Training Effectiveness.
If you do see performance improvement, then congratulations, you’ve accomplished your goal. However, change is not always easy to maintain, so you’ll want to check in several times in the following weeks and months to ensure that company gains are still holding. If you see the metric begin to dip (for example, right after the training, the team was fulfilling 24 orders per hour, but six weeks later they are down to 20 per hour), it may be appropriate to augment the training with additional refresher courses.
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