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Don’t Train, Teach

Consider the last time that you were invited or directed to attend training on a method to be applied to your own work. It might have been leadership training, process training, Six Sigma training, a Lean workshop, or training on the use of a new machine. The subject doesn’t matter.

Consider the last time that you were invited or directed to attend training on a method to be applied to your own work. It might have been leadership training, process training, Six Sigma training, a Lean workshop, or training on the use of a new machine. The subject doesn’t matter.

The subject doesn’t matter because, chances are, the phenomenon I want to discuss was probably the same regardless. Were there arguments or discussions about how much work you would miss while in training? Did someone grumble about the training being a waste of time because it wasn’t really important, or it wasn’t effective?

If you were the one who requested the opportunity to get a little education, did you have to fight for the privilege? It’s not necessarily a bad thing for resource managers to challenge the whims of personnel and make sure they are justified, but the justified challenge often feeds the phenomenon.

The phenomenon to which I refer is that we often treat education in the workplace like an interruption instead of an investment. We try to minimize it instead of maximize it. Why?

I find the phenomenon to be overwhelmingly common, and also very curious. As parents we don’t approach our local school board as say, “Hey, can’t you teach my child to read and write and do math in 3 years instead of 12?” The discussions we have with teachers and schools and administrators are quite the opposite. “Hey, how can my child get more exposure to science and technology and why does she have to choose between advanced math courses and music? Why can’t she have options for both?”

The platitudes from all over the world and quotes from our favorite leaders and scientists abound with the same message in a thousand different phrases. “Experience is the best teacher.” “Wisdom comes from making mistakes.”

So if we all logically and intuitively know that in order to truly learn something we need to experience it, and if we all value education as something essential to be maximized, why then do we short cut it or pay so little attention to making it effective in the workplace? My theory is that we get caught in a phenomenon I wrote about last week, which I call “check-the-box syndrome.” Simply put, we get focused on getting it done instead of focusing on the value we want from it.

From a business and process improvement standpoint it should be obvious that if we have made the decision to send personnel to be trained in something, we should ensure that the result of that decision is defect free and that we get a return on our investment. But we don’t approach it that way. Instead we just want it done and over with so we can get back to business-as-usual. Here’s the irony: the whole point of the training, regardless of what it’s about, is to change business-as-usual.

From a leadership standpoint, the purpose of the training is to facilitate some form of change, whether it is to improve safety, facilitate diversity in the workplace, or improve our ability to better our processes. We want to enable that change by setting expectations based on our vision and enabling our personnel to meet that vision and those expectations. Again, minimizing the interruption to business-as-usual is not going to aid us in affecting the change we envision.

When we engage in professional and on-the-job training and education, we must focus on maximizing the value of that decision; not on minimizing it’s impact on the status quo. The status quo is not the objective. A new and better skill set and behavior is the objective.

Drop the focus on getting everyone marked for training through the training. That’s not the objective, even if the metric seems to suggest that it is. The objective is to educate everyone identified and to drive an improvement in performance through new skills and understanding and behavior. Therefore, the focus must be on learning.

To facilitate the learning, as we all know, we should not simply talk at our audience and send them away with pre-printed notes. We must engage our audience in actually doing and experiencing what we are asking them to learn. We must change how we train. We must teach!

Take a look at the training materials and methods you have in place for your processes and methods. If they simply explain out loud what a person could just as easily read from the notes, then you are indeed just wasting everyone’s time and you are exercising the very interruption to business-as-usual that everyone seems eager to avoid. Ironically, it was probably that fear of disruption that drove the failure in education because we tried to minimize instead of maximize.

Redevelop your training materials and methods to exercise the skills and understanding in real situations. For example, if you are teaching Lean methods, let the audience of the training improve a real, meaningful process. Design your training in terms of a menu of tools and techniques to analyze and improve the process instead of a college auditorium style of lecture.

The objective of your training should be to have the students leaving the experience speaking the following words. “I admit it, I’m surprised we have improved that process. I can’t wait to do that again on our other processes.” We must abhor the experience that results in students leaving the training session saying, “I’m glad that’s over and that I can get back to work.” Admit it. We have all left training saying the latter. Make it stop!

To get the desired reflection and prevent the undesired one, we must completely, effectively execute the method we are trying to impart, on a real situation, to a complete, conclusive, and successful conclusion. Yes, that means that the college-style lecture to a large audience in an effort to reach the maximum audience with the minimum time must be abandoned. We must teach each small group with dedicated focus.

It takes more time. It requires a greater investment in energy and resources. It can be more disruptive. But that is what we want! We want change, which requires disruption. We want effective learning to take place because learning is an investment in driving and affecting our vision. We don’t want a waste of everyone’s time and energy with an event that accomplishes nothing.

I chose the word “train” for the title of this piece because the word has been used in business for so long in association with events and sessions that are interruptions to our work that the word has taken on a connotation of an event. The word “teach” still possesses an implication of a mentor imparting knowledge through a process. Learning is not an event (unless we learn instantly from a catastrophe). Learning is a process.

Design or redevelop your on-the-job training to be teaching focused on learning through a process of experiencing and doing. Get away from the lecture, and focus on working through real problems toward real and complete and successful solutions. Stop checking the box for tossing material at a quota of personnel. Instead, focus on imparting understanding and skills on personnel and knowing that you have succeeded by observing the behavior and results.

Take a good look at your training methods. Are they minimizing impact or maximizing opportunity. Change the focus to value the latter and your business and process performance will improve.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at

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