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Blame the environment

April 21, 2010

This third post on training program failures looks at the training environment i.e. the actual workplace.

A student is subjected to the same demands and complexities of the workplace as the remainder of the work staff, but without the benefit of the their experience, knowledge, familiarity and ultimately, their resilience. Large or constant fluctuations in the work’s complexity and tempo will affect the student’s progress, often considerably enough to alter the outcome less favourably. Unreasonable problems, insufficient practice opportunities or irregular training bouts can mean inconsistent, and therefore ineffective periods of training.

To identify if there were any ineffective periods of training and if so, how many, you need to look at three main areas.

The People: Each of us responds to challenges differently and will leverage our various strengths to tackle problems in our individual ways. This means that our supervisors, co-workers and even customers will achieve their objectives using unexpected or undesirable methods that we may not understand or have the skills to complete. Different personalities can also result in different management styles, varying levels of support for the student and inconsistent policing of standards. Not to mention how the team dynamic can shift when we are short-staffed, overstaffed or introducing new members to the organisation.

ASK: Was there sufficient staff to balance workload or Too many staff involved, getting in each other’s way or fighting for time on the floor? Were they sufficiently skilled? Was there always a trainer available? Was there adequate supervision? Was there support for the student? The trainer? What about the co-workers? Was there any other training going on? Was their a change in staff or staff numbers? Was there a change in management, any promotions or demotions during the period that may have caused a shift in power or reshuffle of priorities?

The Facilities: Equipment maintenance or unavailability can affect the amount of training time allocated to the student. Introducing new equipment or procedures during the training can add extra challenges, even if the student isn’t directly involved. Any difficulty faced by other team members can easily encroach on the student’s performance or alter the challenges they would normally face.

ASK: Were there any equipment failures, maintenance or upgrades during the training? Was the student forced to modify practices for any period to compensate? Were the training facilities shared and if so, where was the priority afforded? Were there sufficient tools for the student (in number and in quality)? Was there opportunity for remedial activities or additional training to target specific weaknesses?

The Work: Balancing the workload with the student’s ability can be difficult in a controlled training environment (simulation, classroom etc), but in an actual workplace, it can be near impossible. Surges can tax the student, leaving them disappointed and exhausted. Lulls can be equally challenging by not allowing the student sufficient opportunity to hone their newly developed skills. Priorities can also change as the organisation responds to the demands of it’s customers or suppliers. Anything that shifts the company’s goals away from the training objectives will result in slower progress for the student.

ASK: Was the workload consistent enough to allow the student to practice, but varied enough to be representative of their expected duties? Was it challenging, but not over-taxing? Were there any quiet periods? Did the complexity and intensity evolve with the student? Did the student spend any time on the sidelines (too challenging)? Did they need to maintain existing responsibilities or conduct other competing work tasks? Were there any risks involved that made autonomy difficult?

Ideally we want the student to progress by facing progressively more difficult challenges, in a workplace that must respond to a sometimes extremely volatile environment. It is an unfortunate reality that the fluctuating workload won’t shift to meet the student’s needs and will at times, hinder the training process.

Download my free e-book: “IMPROVING YOUR TRAINING FROM WITHIN” Using the ‘hot wash’ to refine your training program.


Blame the trainer

April 14, 2010

It is time to shift our gaze from the student and onto the person(s) directly responsible for the delivery of the training program. I’m focussing on the trainer, but this could equally apply to anybody who had a role a play in the student’s induction into the workplace. Again, this is not an occasion to simply highlight the trainer’s shortcomings (again some of these will be through no fault of their own). This is your opportunity to provide feedback, development and improve the likelihood of achieving success the next time around.

Again there are six areas to look at.

Training: Sure, some trainers have a natural flair for passing on information or stepping the uninitiated through the machinations of the workplace, but when it comes to actually training some one properly, there a few skills that turn the amateur into a professional. Most of us know the basics of adult learning  (we are adults ourselves and we learn stuff every day right), but its when things get a little more difficult that you need a few extra skills or ‘tips of the trade’ to turn failure into success. Additionally, we want all of our training to be effective, efficient, consistent and in harmony with the workplace.

ASK: What training do they have? Have they been briefed in local administrative procedures? Have they attended any refresher training? Do they follow contemporary trends (blogs, periodicals, magazines, recent books etc) or are their methods outdated? Do they seek additional opportunities to improve their skills? Have they trained other trainers?

Experience: You may be tempted to immediately opt for the most experienced person when it comes to mentoring. Although this is generally true, experts can forget what it was like to be under training and often don’t understand how difficult it is to complete relatively simple tasks without a solid foundation of other related skills. Don’t get me wrong, experience in training is as equally important as experience in the workplace and it takes time for trainers to learn how to balance ‘letting go of’ with ‘holding onto’ the the student’s leash. Don’t just consider time in the seat. Consider also the types of students they have had, the specific challenges they have faced and their outcomes.

ASK: How long has the trainer been mentoring? What was their success rate? Have they dealt with previous failures or struggling students in the past? How long has the trainer been in their current role? Do they have other OJT or classroom experience? Have they been assessors or developed the workplace standards for the organisation? Do they have a wider background and fulfilled different roles in the organisation or are they limited to this one solely? How long since they have attended any training of their own and felt the pressure of an impending assessment?

Practices: Training is more than just what we know. The whole purpose of this blog is to inform trainers that what we do during the training is just as important. Training will extend beyond the actual sessions and weigh on the student’s mind well into their home life. It is also much more than just show and tell. How they correct the student, report their progress and offer remedial advice can be more influential than the actual information being passed.

ASK: Did the trainer give adequate instruction, demonstration and feedback? Did they record training efforts and activities under taken? Did they report regularly? Did they pre-brief and debrief? Did they offer remedial action? Did they try to learn what the student responded positively / negatively? If so, did they adjust their technique? Were they consistent? Did they plan? If so, was the plan adjusted with student progress?

Skill: It goes without saying that the trainer must know the area that they are teaching, but to what level? Is basic competency sufficient? Should the trainer also complete a qualifying period to ensure that they have a solid grounding in the ‘real’ conditions? The reputation of the trainer and their ‘perceived’ expertise is critical if they are to command some respect from the student. We also need to continually practice our moves to keep them sharp. Not only that, jobs evolve with new equipment, standards and practices. Trainers must keep up with the latest trends and challenges to teach the avoid teaching outdated methods.

ASK: How long has the trainer been competent in the area being taught? Are they experts or high performers that have some additional tricks of the trade to pass on? Are they respected or sought after as a trainer? What about co-workers and supervisors, do they share they same enthusiasm and respect for them? Does your process of assigning trainers involve a higher standard in the area being taught? Have they worked in the role recently and even if so, was it enough to keep themselves at the ‘expert’ end of the competent scale? Do they adapt to new challenges readily and are they themselves ‘proven learners’?

Personality: It happens far more often than we like to admit – some people rub us the wrong way. As a trainer, we need to adjust our stance to suit the student and the task at hand. Additionally, we must pay attention to details and be rigorously disciplined with our approach to training. We must also be steadfast in workplace standards, but flexible enough to be open to suggestions. Confident in our knowledge in ability, but humble enough to accept that we too have something to learn during the training process.

Ask: Is the trainer flexible, empathetic and have a open view on the various socially accepted diversity aspects (religion, culture, relationship status etc)? Do they accept feed-back? Do they act on it? Can they respond to the student’s needs and balance that with the needs of the organisation? Do they strive to be better mentors? Are they nice? Open? Reliable? Honest? Do they have a sense of humour? Do they come across as confident, but not arrogant? Flexible, but not pushovers? Tough, but compassionate?

Communication: As the arbiters of what constitutes success or failure during training, the student will learn to adjust their own actions based on the feedback and advice that we give them. As such, it is critical that we give them clear, relevant and reliable information. Students will become confused if our feedback is inconsistent or irregular. Likewise, sugar coating poor performance won’t protect them, it will leave them more vulnerable. Focussing on one aspect of the training or only on the shortcomings can give them a false impression of their own overall performance. The student’s greatest challenge at this stage is accurately self assessing their own performance and this skill can only be learned when the trainer does likewise.

ASK: Was the feed back given specific? Was it regular? Was it accurate with performance indicators, not just general ‘lift your game’ pep talks? Were the daily / weekly reports consistent with the student’s progressive evaluations? Were the shortcomings identified in the assessment consistent with those highlighted during training? Was the balance of positive feedback and remedial advice in reporting consistent with the student’s performance or too positive/negative? Was the student aware of their own shortcomings? Did they think that they had the advice/opportunity to succeed?

Once again, we are only looking a single part of the equation when it comes to solving why our training plan was unsuccessful. In the next post, I’ll discuss the training environment and the elements that will affect the outcome of your training program.

Download my free e-book: “IMPROVING YOUR TRAINING FROM WITHIN” Using the ‘hot wash’ to refine your training program.

New e-book: Improving your training from within

April 13, 2010

I’ve just added a new e-book to the resources section of this blog.

It explains how to prepare and run a post-training hot wash to generate ideas for improving your training program. Its completely free and I hope it helps provide some great insight into making your training more effective.

Blame the student

April 7, 2010

In the previous post, I spoke of the four areas you should investigate when a student fails your training program. Everyone’s finger is probably aiming toward the former trainee anyway, so here is a good place to start. Don’t just focus on the student’s shortcomings however, because there are a variety of ways that the student could have contributed to the lack of success and some of these can occur through no fault of theirs. There are six main areas to look at here:

Motivation: Motivation is a very important factor and can mean the difference between success and failure. It is one of the four golden rules of training and a massive learning multiplier. Motivation is a difficult aspect to measure, but there are some behavioural indicators that the trainer will observe during the training. Additionally, motivation is really only a symptom and it is most often the result of external factors, some of which are outside the view of the training team.

ASK: Were they enthusiastic about the training? Did they really try hard, put in extra curricular effort and seek additional assistance for the areas that challenged them the most? Did they initiate the training themselves or was it thrust upon them? Did they actually want to do it? Were they always on time? Early? Late, and if so on occasionally or consistently? Did they speak fondly of the challenges or complain about them to the bitter end?

Incentive: This ties in with motivation and is the external factors that the organisation adds to the training program. However, this is related directly to them due to the way that different students will respond to various incentives. It is the training team’s responsibility to identify which ones have greater value to the student and leverage them successfully.

ASK: Was there a valid reason for them to succeed? Was there added responsibility, credibility or promotional opportunities to enhance their workplace status? Was their a financial incentive? Was the training relevant to them or did it at least equip them with skills that were either transferable or improve current work practices?

Expectations: If the student has a preconceived idea about the training that is vastly different from reality, they may be over whelmed by the complexity or difficulty of the challenges. If it doesn’t equip the student as they’d hoped or give them access to improvement opportunities, they could become disillusioned or even question the value of their own efforts in the process. This ties back into motivation obviously, but could also lead to stress related problems or self-suspension if they consider success unreachable.

ASK: What were their expectations of the training? Were they accurate? Was it challenging? Not challenging enough? Did the training prepare them for the assessment? Were they confident of success? Did they think they would fail? Did they feel that the overall objectives were met? Did the training team live up to their expectations?

Conditions: It is important to consider what else is going on in the student’s life and may have had an affect on the outcome. This need not only be related to personal issues, but could also be the result of competing demands of the workplace. A student already entrenched in the organisation may have other operational responsibilities that demand their attention, whilst new team members have the burden of learning team dynamics and workplace etiquette whilst meeting performance objectives. There is also the additional burden or worry when their continued employment is conditional of a successful outcome.

ASK: Were there and personal factors that affected the training such as family problem, housing issues, financial difficulties, illness etc? Is the student having any legal or social problems? How new is the student to the workplace? Are they having personality problems with other team members? How different is this workplace from others in the same field? Other fields or professions? Does the student hold other responsibilities or subject matter expertise that is continually called on? Are they treat differently as the ‘new guy’? Is it team or solo performance oriented? Is it supervised or self regulated? Is a safety critical role? Is a student treated as a respected member of the team or seen as a burden? Is that the perception anyway?

Preparation: Preparing the student for the training is an essential start to the learning journey. They should have an opportunity to review the the objectives, the training schedule and milestones before taking a single step. They should also have a clear outline of their goals and how they are to complete them. Access to the training materials or pre-training activities will also assist their understanding of the importance of the training in their overall development. Likewise, they should have had some sort of pre-training meeting to discuss the program, commit to the activities and meet the team that will support them along the way.

ASK: Did they know they were going to be trained? Did you conduct a pre-training meeting? Where the objectives made clear? Were all of the training activities outlined? Did they know when and where it was to be conducted? Were they aware of additional support that was available? What about contingency plans should any difficulties occur? Did they meet their trainer beforehand? Did they have an opportunity to request another or at least discuss their own training needs? Do they know the failure policy? Did they have the chance to make their own recommendations? Were they mentally prepared? Physically prepared (if applicable)?

Suitability: A student who lacks the required level or prerequisite skills or experience is facing a tougher experience with a greater likelihood of failure. There is nothing to say that you can’t adjust these  benchmarks to accommodate the variety of strengths each student will bring to the challenge, but you must sure that you can modify the program to account for these relaxed criteria. Instead of asking if the student is suitable for your program, ask yourself “Is the training suitable for this student?”. If not, make the changes or cease the training?

ASK: Did they actually meet the pre-requisites? Do they feel the same? Did they have enough experience, the right qualifications or even the right temperament for the program? Were there physical challenges that increased the complexity of the training (injury, disability, upper body strength etc).  Was past experience actually relevant? Was the program modified? Was it even checked to see if the student qualified?

As I indicated in the previous post, the student is only one part of the training program and shouldn’t be treated in isolation when you are searching for a reason behind an unsuccessful outcome. In the next post, I’ll move on to the trainer.

Dealing with students failing your training program

April 2, 2010

After days, weeks and sometimes months of preparation, the student steps up to the assessor’s plate, takes a valiant swing and … misses.

In some cases they get a second chance, possibly a third, but like all previous attempts, success proves to be beyond their reach. The student has, dare I say it, FAILED.

With that simple statement, the blame has been lifted from the workplace and unfortunately with it, responsibility for any past or future actions relating to this iteration of the training program.

I’m not (completely) serious of course. A failure in the workplace is quite a serious occurrence. Resources are lost, futures are on the line and there is a sense of loss (occasionally relief) that sweeps through the team. Not everybody feels responsible as such, but we all can’t help wondering if things could have been done a little better.

So who do we blame? If it is a single occurrence, it is easy to point an accusing finger at the student – the program worked last time didn’t it?. If it is a chain of failures, we start looking for a common denominator. Of course one of these recurring factors is a ‘failing student’ and with the help of a misguided loyalty to our training program, we end up dragging them back into the equation, albeit with a little more compassion or justification for their lack of success e.g. recruiting can’t get the right people, they needed more life experience, this job isn’t for everyone etc.

I’m not saying that everyone is this near-sighted about an opportunity for improvement, but in my experience, this is an alarmingly frequent response. It’s almost like pinning the blame on a single point of failure allows the team to move on and get back to work, comfortable that the mystery has been solved.

The best advice I can give to training managers is something that was said to me by a four year old (who was suffering a vigorous lecturing at the time); “you know, when you point at me, three fingers are pointing back at you”.

So what do those disarming words mean to a training manager?

Well, it means that we should take a long hard look at the the entire process and not just the poor sod facing the unemployment line. They are rarely the only cause and in all likelihood, would have been successful under different circumstances. This is a opportunity to make your training program better, more effective and less demanding on the student (not to mention the trainers and the rest of the workplace).

Start with changing your view. The student hasn’t actually failed, it is the training program that failed.

Your student is in fact only part of the training program. Don’t get me wrong, they are a significant component and may in fact be the major contributing factor to the outcome. However, a failure is typically the result of many smaller constituents (usually insignificant in isolation and often present throughout previous iterations of the training program) combining with some new element/s (weaker student, inexperienced trainer, lack of resources, new material, evolving workplace etc).

The key point is to examine the training program in its entirety to identify the areas that need improvement and avoid a recurrence of this resource wastage. There are four main areas that you should assess to achieve this.

  • The Student
  • The Trainers
  • The Environment
  • The Program

You probably notice that it forms a nice little acronym ‘STEP’. The order of these isn’t particularly important with the exception of the last one. By tackling that particular area with the information obtained from the other three, you you can better determine exactly where things became ‘unstuck’ and identify the necessary changes to remedy the problem next time around.

I’ll examine each area over the next few posts and finish with an action plan for dealing with multiple student failures.

Is effort relevant?

March 27, 2010

In a previous post regarding observable behaviours and measuring performance,  I made the statement;

You cannot measure effort, interest or care. These are not and should not be included as a result …

I still believe that this is critical for assessing individual task competence, but in conjunction with something I read in Atul Gawande’s book “Better” (great book by the way – if you haven’t read it and his earlier work, “Complications”, you are doing yourself a disservice), I’ve started to reconsider the importance of student effort in the determining overall workplace proficiency.

I’m not referring to a student’s motivation or their apparent attitude toward the training, but instead the actual physical or mental exertion that is required by the student to complete the work related tasks in the actual work environment.

Is there a difference between a student who can complete a task with relative ease and another who must apply 100% of their capability to be successful? If so, should it be a serious consideration; i.e. could it mean the difference between a successful assessment or a failure, regardless of the actual outcome?

On pondering the answer to this question, I immediately thought of the physical fitness test employed by the Royal Australian Air Force. On face value it appears to be quite tame in terms of difficulty – just a few sit ups, a flexed arm hang and a 2.4 km jog. But when you consider that it is to completed sub-maximally, that is without overly exerting yourself, you start to understand how it could challenge someone who has let their fitness level deteriorate. If the test arbiter thought that you were applying too much effort during the examination or it looked like you needed to (eg sporting a couch-potato physique), you were promptly issued with a heart monitor set to betray your accumulated laziness as a high-pitched squeal to everyone within ear-shot.

Not the best analogy I’d agree as the test is really assessing your physical limits by extrapolating your result from the lesser challenge. However, the concept of testing the student sub-maximally, in terms of effort, not via a modified set of standards, ensures that they are able to manage an increase in workload without detriment or have the capacity to elicit additional assistance should it be required.

Can we actually measure the amount of effort that a student is using to complete a task? Not directly, but if we look carefully, we should be able to use a few other metrics that signal when the student requires additional effort to complete their allotted duties. As we approach our work capacity, we have less time to devote to individual tasks. We begin to make more mistakes, spend additional time correcting them and start overlooking things that were previously readily apparent or no longer appear important by comparison. A few physical signs also appear; raised vocal pitch, edginess in our responses, a small sweat, abruptness with our co-workers and less tolerance to distractions (and peripheral incompetence, perceived or otherwise). Of course this is only a sample of possible physical reactions to the exertion and can be quite subjective , dependant on both the person and the working conditions. None-the-less, you can still use measurable such as; time, accuracy, quantity  (or  voice volume, word choice, number of corrections) etc.

In conducting simple tasks, this is usually an irrelevant factor and its the outcome that counts.  But what about the real world; the complex environments that we actually work in where you task-share, prioritise demands, manage multiple competing responsibilities, scan the environment for additional actions and respond to contingencies? Being able to just complete a single task is insignificant on the competency schema and a student who falters when the pressure increase slightly will usually have an affect the workplace and/or it’s workers. Additionally, work complexity will wax and wane with activities depending on the time of day and task at hand forcing the student to ramp up at short notice and then identify opportunities to relax or ‘regather themselves’ afterward.

Shouldn’t competence include the ability to surge on demand and identify when additional resources are needed in sufficient time to employ them?  Shouldn’t your assessments therefore cover this intangible element?

Do you measure error rates, time between tasks or the physical markers for workplace stress that indicate the student has progressed beyond comfortable capacity? Do you test how well the student can prioritise their tasks, identify their own limits and call for assistance in time for the work to be shared? Are you accounting for  the impact the student is having on the entire workplace, not just the direct results of their efforts? Most importantly, are you assessing the effect the workplace is having on the student and whether they are truly proficient, not just simply competent?

Eight Assessment Don’ts

March 22, 2010

In my previous post (long ago it seems), I discussed the concept of Assessors decreasing the validity of their assessment by introducing a little entropy into the assessment process. It was spawned by an assessment of my own and I just couldn’t help myself, I had to rant about a few of my pet peeves. It appears I’m not alone and a few other assessment do’s and don’ts that annoy the ranks of ‘the assessed’ have surfaced.

I’ve actually amassed more than these eight here, many more in fact, but I thought I’d save some of the simpler ‘faux pas’ for a later date.

So, here are eight things that you should not do whilst assessing a student in the ‘real world’

  1. Don’t refer to yourself as the authority: Sure, as a standards enforcer, you are an authority on the topic, but you are not necessarily ‘the authority’. The student doesn’t need to hear about your interpretation of a standard, how other people continuously misinterpret it, what the intent really is or how you have decided that that is not the best way of doing things. An assessment is also not the time to be ‘clarifying’ or ‘debating’ the correct procedure. You may understand the political machinations behind a particular standard’s evolution or take pride in how you ‘know better’ than your peers when it comes to ‘plying your trade’, but this is definitely not the time for you to assert your sovereignty over the laws of the realm.
  2. Don’t confuse technique with standard: Don’t get me wrong, the particular methods that you use can be valuable advice for a the workplace journeyman, but these are better delivered as part of the debrief. Just because you like it a particular way shouldn’t tarnish the outcome. If it clearly violates workplace practices, stop the assessment or succinctly correct the student, otherwise, its just an opinion that can wait.
  3. Don’t give up: Even if things are going completely awry, you are not wasting your time by continuing the assessment. In some cases, you can use this opportunity to find out where the root of the problem lies (it isn’t always the student). Persist as long as you can because even a student with a plethora of critical weaknesses still has a few strengths that can be built on. Having said that, if it is a matter of safety or the future viability of the company is at stake, by all means save the student from a moment that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Just give them the opportunity that they deserve. They can learn from this experience and may even surprise you with their resilience in the face of adversity.
  4. Don’t disparage any other other members of the team: Your coworkers may not do it exactly the way you like it or share your passion for exactness or efficiency, but calling into question their motives, professionalism or work ethic is will make the student uneasy. Are you trying to undermine their credibility, are you hoping to increase your own or are you just driving a wedge into the team? Is the student supposed to pick a side or bolster their own independence to meter the ineptitude that apparently surrounds them?
  5. Don’t question every move: Allow the student a little room to move during the assessment. Give them a chance to correct a mistake or change their mind about a decision that they have made. If you ask the student to explain their every action, thought process or motivation, it will wear the student down. Sure, query them if you are unsure as to what they are trying to achieve or why they chose a particular path, but allow them to demonstrate what they know without having to justify each step of the process. Want to test their theory? Do it after the assessment, or better yet, before-hand to give them a chance to bolster their confidence by ‘showing off’ some of what they know.
  6. Don’t do it for them: Yes they are still the same person that they were yesterday and will be probably wear the ‘new kid’ tag for a little while longer, but you will not be giving them a fair chance if you turn this into another training session or ‘lend an expert hand’ here and there. You are an impartial observer. The student needs to feel responsible for their own actions and outcomes. What if it goes wrong? What if it isn’t how they would have done it (now, during the assessment, they have the added burden of implementing a solution born from experience – the very thing they lack)? What if it goes right – who gets the credit (was it an assist)?
  7. Don’t focus on the periphery: Know what is important and draw the student’s attention to these critical areas before the assessment. Targeting irrelevant or trivial points will distract the student, confuse their prioritisation and potentially hamper your own assessing ability (If you are so busy scrutinising the “Reverse Overhand Williamson grip” the student has chosen to wield the broom, you may miss the opportunity to see if the floor was actually swept).
  8. Don’t excess: Don’t harp on a particular point by repeating it every few minutes to remind the student of their previous shortfall. If it requires a complex, comprehensive explanation and it must be done immediately, stop the assessment. If it doesn’t warrant stopping the assessment, then why are you bothering the student by trying educate them through a steady intravenous drip of information that is continuously interrupted by their efforts to continue working without making an error. Intervening is a valid assessment tool providing you carefully balance the consequences of interrupting the student with the ramifications of not enlightening them.

I understand that this may be infringing on the assessor’s task a little. Isn’t it your job to scrutinise, assess and deliver your verdict on the competence of the student? Of course it is, but if your methods actually hinder their efforts to demonstrate competence, then you aren’t getting an accurate sample of their ability.