Training: Spring Training

March 15, 2013

Time to gear up, get the equipment in shape, start lining up the operators, and get them up to speed. And that means training: at the least a refresher course for the guys who are coming back and a little this-is-how-we-do-it-here advice for new hires. The question is not only what you think you want your crews to know, but also why, and how you’re going to get them what they need. Otherwise you’re wasting their time and your money.

What follows is a compilation of the best tips and techniques we’ve tracked down since we began this column and some of the best ways to go about getting the most from your employees-just in case you forgot.

First off, have a plan and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but flying by the seat of your pants will get you nowhere. As Dr. Arnold Free, a specialist in simulator-based learning describes it, good training requires thinking in three stages: planning, execution, and assessment. Or as Jon Goodney at John Deere likes to put it, good training requires “analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation.” Elaborate or simple isn’t as important as having a plan and sticking to it, says Bob Huculak at Nuna Training Technologies. “Develop a simple and basic statement of policies and procedures and follow them,” he says. “OEMS make a great deal of information available. Use it and modify it to fit your situation.”

This type of thinking requires moving from the general to the specific. It isn’t rocket science, but it does require time. It helps if you give some thought to how you describe your business. The experts call it defining your mission. For purposes of discussion, let’s say as a contractor it’s something like, “To make money in as competent and safe a way as possible.” But how will you accomplish this? Being productive would be one thing, so right away you’ve got yourself a goal. Next up is to identify the factors that affect this productivity you’re aiming for, which in the earthmoving business typically involve personnel, resources, and management. Right now you’re concentrating on personnel.

Know who you’re training and why. This is an exercise that’s particularly important when you’re consolidating jobs or switching responsibilities among employees in an effort to cut costs. One of the biggest mistakes employers make, especially in tight economic times, is wasting precious training dollars on high-profile people who don’t need it, who are already functioning at an acceptable level, and neglecting employees who may appear to have less of an individual impact but who are in effect fundamental to the smooth running of your business. The point of training and employee development is to get your crews from where they are to where you want them to be, which means you have to know what they’re doing now and what additional skills or capabilities they need to get them to that next level.

Make sure the people you’re spending your time on are worth it. Have they demonstrated competence, initiative and a commitment to your organization? Three of the top scorers in the 2012 Case Construction Equipment Triple Threat Rodeo, which drew contestants from across the United States and Canada, attributed their success to drive, ambition, and a sense of responsibility. Opportunity knocked and they answered the door. When Tim Edes of Eastpoint Lasers LLC in Hooksett, NH stepped up to design a training program to help get contractors up to speed on new technology, he specified that companies select the guy in their operation who’s a worker but doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life on a pipe crew, a guy who’s already shown an aptitude for math and doing layouts and will be sticking around for a while.

It should go without saying that for training to be effective, the content of the program and the way you go about it must be relevant to the people being trained. Training must be delivered in a way that makes sense to the people you’re training and shows them how to apply what they’re learning to their job. That means your organization as a whole has to support the training, that is, be prepared to make use of the increase in productivity and efficiency that’s the aim of this exercise. At the very basic, this means project managers and supervisors and superintendents must be prepared to provide trainees opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. Involve your management personnel in setting expectations for your training and brainstorm their expectations and how they plan to utilize the improved skills or productivity of their crews. This is a collaborative process.

And no daydreaming. Quantify. The only way you’ll know whether you got what you’re looking for from your training dollars is to be very specific about your objectives. You say you want to increase individual productivity in a certain area-but by how much and what will that look like? Do you want your operators to get the job done X many hours faster, or do you want them to become more versatile? Only then will you be able to develop effective training strategies. Maybe you send your best operators to a manufacturer or dealer-sponsored course to learn new technology, or dispatch your head estimator-or the enthusiastic novice you just brought on board for almost nothing-to a users’ conference to learn how to get the most out of your software, or bring in an expert for half a day to clear up glitches in the way your employees are handling paperwork or data collection.

Give your operators a chance. Number one, that means the opportunity to practice, and, two, don’t depend too much on other crewmembers for training unless you’re sure they know what they’re doing. One of the things that Edes discovered is that some of the more experienced guys can be doing things wrong and not knowing it; ditto for some of the more technologically savvy younger hires. “It never hurts these guys to see the old-fashioned way of doing things again, to confirm what they’ve been doing and to get a chance to see there might be a different way. Kids are getting so used to technology that they don’t know how it was done before. So if the instrument is giving them the wrong answer, they don’t know it’s the wrong answer. Watch these companies making a $35,000 to $40,000 investment and giving it to a young guy and saying, Go ahead. The young guy doesn’t know whether what the instrument is telling him to do is right, because he doesn’t have the background to know how the math was done in the first place. That’s one of the important things we’re trying to do: nip this in the bud so the guy knows right away when something doesn’t work right and has a way to check it the old way just to make sure.”

And while you allow time for practice, add in opportunity for asking questions. The Case Rodeo winners all agreed that younger operators can be too slow to admit when they’re wrong and too fast to brag about how much they know, especially if what they know turns out to have been learned in a classroom.

Garrett Speer had the highest score heading into the Case Rodeo finals, despite the fact that as manager of the Excavating Division at Dick Construction Inc. in Garden City, KS, he doesn’t get on a machine much anymore. But he swears by practice time, by which he means on-the-job. “I tell my guys, “˜When you’re an operator, you’ve got to function on multiple levels. Your eyes have to be seeing everything that’s going on, your brain’s got to be going 100 miles an hour, and you have to be smart enough to be able to relate back to previous situations so you don’t make mistakes. And if do make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up. Just do it right the next time.'”  Typically Garrett finds new operators from among laborers who’ve shown an interest in getting out of the trenches or otherwise displayed aptitude. “We start them on something small to give them the feel of operating equipment and get them over the initial excitement. Then maybe we’ll have them move snow or do a little dirt work out in the open. Eventually we work them through the different types of equipment, because I like everyone cross-trained.”

No matter whether your crew is running a machine or a computer, problem solving is critical, and so is recognizing potentially difficult situations. “Anybody can go out and dig a hole,” says Garrett, “but the hard part is getting the hole level at the bottom and digging around utilities.”

Build in follow-up. No matter how good their initial training, operators “find their own little ways” of doing things, says Lamar Hester at Trimble. “They limit themselves and may not be aware of a function that would allow them to complete a task easier.” Not to mention that technology continues to evolve, and to ensure your operators stay current, you should be prepared to invest in advanced workshops and seminars.

Train enough people. “I want the operator, the grade checker, the foreman, even the mechanic if he’s available, to learn at the same time,” says Tony Vanneman at Topcon. “That way everybody’s reading from the same sheet of music. And if someone leaves, all that knowledge doesn’t go with them.”

In plain English, what all this means is: Know what you’re doing and why, pick the right people to invest in, design their training so it relates to the job they’ll be doing, give them plenty of time to practice, and then check that they’re doing what you want. It’s practical advice, common sense-and failsafe.