Ten Dos and Don’ts

From the top on down to superintendents in the field, management has a crucial role to play in training. There are multiple levels all along the way that require input and decision-making, and passing these off to a trainer or neglecting them because of perceived time or commitment pressures can be a recipe for failure. Here’s a summary of critical management responsibilities recognized by the companies who take training seriously and the training experts who serve them.

1. Do know what you’re training for. The advice here is to be sure you know exactly what the problem is you’re trying to rectify. You can get a handle on it yourself, by interviewing your staff to proof your own assessments, or you can hire someone to do this for you. The key here is to drill down until you hit pay dirt. When you say something like, “My mechanics aren’t responsible,” do you mean some of them don’t follow procedure as they should, or as a group they lack initiative, or that generally they’ve fallen into the habit of not following through? The best way to clarify your thinking on what’s wrong is to have someone provide feedback to what you say until you hit the jackpot. Only then can you design a training program that will help your employees succeed on a level that’s appropriate to them.

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If this feels beyond you, invest a few dollars in a consultant who can interview you and the key players in your operation and help you define the source of reduced productivity. It’s interesting to note that software developers often report that people who call in to technical support don’t always have a technical problem: They simply are not familiar with the program they’re working with, a likely result of inadequate training or that they’ve failed to assimilate what they’ve learned and require remedial help.

2. Do get out there and visit with the troops. It is not productive to sit in your office and complain about declining productivity. Whether you’re a midlevel supervisor or an infield superintendent, you need to know what’s going on with your employees. One trainer at a large construction company literally spent hours with a stopwatch recording how long it took individual backhoe operators to load a dump truck. Once you identify the cog in the wheel, the choice is yours. Provide the training that’s needed to remedy the situation, or else fall back on false economies, which too often takes the form of arguments about how much you’ll lose if you to take that person out of production. You’ll lose more if things continue the way they are. When it comes to training, the old adage is golden: Pay now or pay twice as much later.

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The buck stops somewhere in the organization, and often the best insights on where productivity is lacking is the person closest to where the action is.

3. Don’t consider yourself an a priori expert on what your employees need. Too many training dollars have been lost because someone in management is inclined toward wishful thinking. If the material employees are presented are of no use to them in their job, they’ll shine the whole process on and you’ll get what you paid for, training that “didn’t work.”

As one of the major software developer puts it, for employees to be engaged, they have to know how their training is going to make the job easier.

4. Don’t expect too much of a trainer. A trainer’s job is no more or less than to make what you want to have happen happen; to help you sort out approaches (will it be instructor-led training? web-based training? self-paced learning?) and either develop the materials you need or help you acquire them. “You’ve got the final word. Training is not simply popping in a DVD,” says Angela Remington at Vista Training Inc. “That’s only one component. You need to be working with your people both in the classroom and in the field.” Which means training is an ongoing process.

5. Do use downtime to be prepared-If you’ve got a couple of crusty mechanics or operators out there who are experts at their job, pair them with a couple of your up-and-coming stars on those hard jobs so the newbees can see how it’s done. Recognize what you’re losing if you let an expert mechanic or operator retire without passing on his knowledge and expertise.

6. Do recognize the training that’s already going on in your organization. The top winner of the 2011 Case Construction Equipment Triple Threat Rodeo and three of the top finalists reported they never received any formal training, but each of them acknowledged they learned a lot of what they know from someone in the organization who took them under his wing and showed them the ropes. Your goal is to formalize that relationship, give the people doing this the recognition they deserve and establish a program that makes it work better. One contractor legitimizes this relationship with a formal program of peer-to-peer training. The senior operators who do the training get kudos as the big men on campus.

7. Do take advantage of free training, webinars, or online tutorials. But set it up so that, first, your employees are accountable for what they’ve learned (quizzing them after they’ve completed a program or module) and, second, provide them opportunities to apply it. This means knowing what’s in the training, what it’s preparing your employees to do, and offering them on-the-job opportunities to actually put to use what they’ve been taught. Critical components of Caterpillar’s dealer-sponsored training courses, for example, are pre- and post-training tests to measure learning and to monitor a trainee’s growth as a reflection of the training.

8. Don’t send someone to an offsite conference or seminar or workshop without having a game plan. One contractor holds a meeting of involved personnel before the offsite event to determine what the staff wants to know, and another when the participants come back so they can share their knowledge. Which means know who you’re sending and why and what you expect to happen after they’re back home and on the job.

9. Don’t expect one approach to work for everyone and for every type of job. Some people pick up things visually, some people assimilate information better when they hear it face-to-face, and most people learn better when they have a chance to practice. The latter applies particularly to jobs involving psychomotor skills.

Technical skills instructors at junior colleges know this, which is why those programs invest in simulators and pull out the stops to have the actual equipment onsite to provide students hands-on experience.

Your best bet is to present the material in more than one format and always give your employees a chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Years ago we used to talk about media packages that included written material so trainees could pick up the technique or theory, visual presentations so they could see what they were learning actually looked like in practice, and then an all-important practice module so they could proof themselves on what they’ve learned and when they had to go back to the drawing board. This approach applies even more today, when so much content is available on CDs and through the internet and students can be consigned to learn in a vacuum.

10. Do be sensitive that your employees have a life outside the job. As one training expert notes, someone whose productivity is down may be having issues at home. Managers who are in tune with what’s going on with their employees will pick this up a lot faster than someone who’s not connected. It’s your job to be tuned in and to lead.

That’s what good management is about.