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Six Ways to Strengthen the Link

Between Training and Business Performance

When training goals are linked to employee performance, the leap to business performance improvement seems clear. Yet, too often, progress stalls and new skills are underused or ignored when employees get back to work. Based on over four decades of helping organizations improve performance through training, we have identified six key actions that will encourage employees to change and use new skills. Taking these actions can help ensure the success of any good training program by clearing the path from training to improved business performance.

1. Set Expectations Before Training Begins

People are enrolled in a workshop and know the date and time it begins. But do they know what to expect, how to prepare, or how the learning is relevant to their work?

A pharmaceutical manufacturer tracked a direct relationship between setting training expectations and achieving results. The company had received an FDA warning letter citing their backlog of open investigations and their failure to consistently get to root cause. A select group of employees went through our train-the-trainer program to become Program Leaders, certified to conduct our workshops and facilitate corrective and preventive action programs. Initially the Program Leaders conducted workshops for all employees involved in the writing of investigations. This was followed by facilitated corrective and preventive action programs using troubleshooting skills learned in the workshops.

In one facility, the Program Leaders also conducted hour-long pre-workshop meetings that set expectations for the workshop participants. This facility outperformed all others in reducing backlog and finding root cause. In addition, the departments in this high-performing facility that had managerial participation in the pre-workshop meetings outperformed the departments that did not have managers attending the pre-workshop meetings.

Taking the time to set expectations and provide management support before training begins helps learners to understand what will be expected of them and how the training relates to their work. Management involvement demonstrates that the organization is committed to the training and considers it a high priority.

2. Provide Coaching to Support Success

Many organizations recognize that applying new skills in a rapid-paced, day-to-day work environment can be daunting. A good coach or facilitator can make this transition easier. Following our troubleshooting training, our clients often turn to us or to their in-house trainers to provide this function. Coaches can guide employees as they apply their skills on the job and ensure that skills are used properly. For issue resolution, facilitators should structure a facilitation before it begins, manage the participants as they struggle with important issues, and then follow up until the issue is resolved. Supplementary training can help trainers develop advanced coaching and facilitation skills.

A medical insurance company enhanced training with coaching to support performance goals. After expanding its IT infrastructure, the company began soliciting data management contracts to leverage this new capacity. As the business grew, there was a need for improved skills in problem solving, decision making, and project management. Employees were trained as Program Leaders, certified to teach our skill development workshops. During training, Program Leaders helped workshop participants apply new skills to IT-related issues and projects, and then followed up with them after class.

Within the IT group, the Program Leaders developed a reputation for helping resolve issues and plan projects effectively—which spread throughout the organization. As other groups began requesting their coaching help, many of the Program Leaders were redeployed to spend over 50% of their time coaching and facilitating others to perform better. Employees have been trained to replace coaches who are promoted to other jobs or leave the company. For the coaches and the fellow employees they help, it is rewarding to work more effectively and perform well. For the company, the coaching program focuses resources on the key issues and projects that produce the most significant results.

One critical factor for performance success that coaches can provide is feedback. People need feedback if they are to improve. Practice makes permanent; feedback makes perfect. Coaches can use feedback to address application errors in real time when leading individuals or a group. Or they can provide short interval monitoring if they are reviewing material prepared independently. Coaches give learners an opportunity to correct their work and learn from their efforts. Plus positive feedback of work well-done encourages others to take the extra effort and risk of using a new skill.

3. Require Evidence of Application of New Skills

Once people have received training, they are ready to apply the ideas. But they may not know that they have the opportunity to do things differently, especially when surrounded by others who do not share their new skills.

Engineers at an oil refinery were hesitant to apply our troubleshooting process after completing our workshop. The process required them to go out and ask questions of the operators. They were not accustomed to asking the operators questions because they were “supposed to know what was going on.” They thought the operators would laugh at them.

Managers overcame this by setting the expectation that participants would be required to begin specific troubleshooting applications during class and then complete them back on the job. Managers asked for status reports, gave participants enough time to complete their applications, and had them present the results of their work.

The training produced immediate benefits. One participant had chosen to work on an increase in gasket wear—gaskets were wearing out faster than in the past. Some colleagues thought this might not be very important; replacing gaskets is an inconvenience, but it is a cost of doing business. However, the analysis uncovered that an explosion that had occurred in the recent past, had loosened gritty material that was working its way through the system. The next question asked was, where else could this material be? The answer turned out to be in an important but rarely-used part of the plant that was due to be started up shortly. If they had not applied new skills, asked questions, and found true cause of the gasket wear, this line would have shut down at the moment it was most needed.

Requiring learners to overcome on-the-job barriers and demonstrate their use of new skills quickly transitions training to application, integrates skills into the workflow, and accelerates the return on training investment.

4. Create a Work Environment that Supports the Use of New Skills

If the work environment makes it difficult to use new skills, training dollars are wasted. Program Leaders at a manufacturing plant had trained many employees but no one was consistently using the troubleshooting process learned in training. This became apparent to the plant manager when he observed a group of operators standing at a malfunctioning machine discussing possible causes. He called them into a conference room and asked a Program Leader to guide them through the process to address the issue. Within half an hour the problem was solved.

A week later, he observed the same group of operators, standing at a machine and jumping to possible causes and making no progress on resolving another problem that had developed. His initial reaction was to provide a refresher course, because he knew the process worked if people used it. On reflection, he realized that this was not the appropriate response—the crew had successfully used their training a week earlier. The difference was that the week before, the manager clearly communicated that he wanted them to use the new troubleshooting process, provided a facilitator, and gave them a suitable work environment.

The manager took action. He provided the Program Leaders with facilitation training so that one would always be available for each area of operation. He set expectations that the process should be used after no more than 20 minutes of downtime. Finally, he provided a dedicated workspace with log books, easels, white boards, and coffee. Within two months, facilitators were trained, the new skills were used, and downtime was significantly reduced.

An appropriate work environment can be virtual. After completing Project Management training, project managers at many of our client organizations rely on a Project Management Office to support them. In addition to providing project governance for the organization, this virtual office can offer project support with Intranet-based project tools, a centralized repository for sharing project documentation, and access to coaching/facilitation support via e-mail and telephone.

5. Integrate New Skills into Routine Activities

Training is a key resource when the opportunity is in place for people to excel. This is achieved by setting clear priorities for how and when the training should be applied. The skills learned in training need to become the rule rather than the exception. One way to accomplish this is to incorporate the intent of the training into daily operations and forms.

A steel manufacturer provided the training and opportunity needed to successfully transform a mill that was a potential candidate for closure. After providing training in problem solving, decision making, situation appraisal, and risk/opportunity management to all employees at the mill, management used shift-to-shift change-over meetings to set expectations about what employees needed to address over the course of the next shift. In the past, this had been done with the outgoing chief hastily scribbling notes for his in-coming counterpart to decipher. Now the outgoing chiefs, who understood the existing situation they were leaving behind, ran shift-change meetings that were attended by the outgoing and incoming key shift operators and key support staff. Meetings were held in a workroom with tables and chairs where defective products could be brought in and shown.

Over the course of eighteen months, the mill improved against all metrics by 30% and moved from worst to first. The division head arranged for other plant managers to visit and observe. During one of these visits, a skeptical plant manager asked one of the mill’s shift coordinators what he thought about the shift-change meetings. He said, “I hate them, but I would never go back to other way.” The new skills had been integrated into the way work was done, which was sometimes painful, but the results were dramatic.

Another of our pharmaceutical clients, also responding to FDA concerns about the way they conducted investigations, trained investigators and facilitators, and then set expectations for the use of their new skills by integrating them into SOPs. Quality and Operations representatives streamlined issue resolution by integrating Decision Analysis into the SOPs that govern how deviations are treated. They reduced cycle time to close out investigations by integrating Situation Appraisal and Problem Analysis into the SOP that governs writing investigations. The manufacturing director noted that the new SOPs, reduced the time he spent reviewing investigations from over an hour to under fifteen minutes. In addition, first-pass approval rates of investigations increased significantly.

Given resources and opportunity people will excel. A good training program needs to be supported by appropriate opportunities to use the skills learned in training. Experience demonstrates that management involvement, clear expectations, a supportive setting, and a well-integrated program can strengthen the link from good training to real business performance improvement.

6. Monitor Ongoing Application of New Skills

Your people have received training and have begun to apply the ideas. But how do you encourage them to continue to use them in the future?

A major food manufacturer initiated a program that added the application of newly acquired skills to their associates’ scorecards. Managers required documented use of the new skills each quarter. In this way, managers set expectations for participants and provided them with self-regulating feedback. Trained facilitators were provided to help employees apply their training and meet scorecard requirements. As people started using their training, they achieved better and quicker resolutions. Within a year, the application of these skills was simply the way work was done.

Under stress, people revert to their comfort zone, the way things have “always” been done. Managers need to provide encouraging consequences to people for changing the way they work. If managers maintain an interest in the use of the new skills, so will the people they manage.

Training is often a necessary component of a change initiative. But training alone is not sufficient. Organizations can improve their success at achieving training and organizational goals by setting expectations before training, providing motivation and support, integrating new skills into the workflow, and monitoring training and results over time.

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