Marc My Words: Rooting Out Waste in Training Programs—Strategic Level Factors

Bad training programs not only waste learners’ time, but also chew up organizational resources with little to show for it. Last month we looked at four project level waste factors: jumping to solutions without identifying problems, poorly and inefficiently designed programs, testing knowledge rather than performance, and failure to support job performance directly. Now we will focus on three more strategic level factors that the larger organization must deal with to truly root out learning waste.

Waste Factor #5: Ignoring the ecosystem

With formal training accounting for about five to 10 percent of an individual’s learning time in a year, learning becomes informal during the other 90 to 95 percent of the time. This means employees are much more likely to be learning in the context of their job rather than as captive audiences of instructional presentations, including eLearning.

An approach that considers any and all learning and performance problems to be solvable only by training is wasteful because no single approach—including training—is adequate alone to foster, let alone sustain, a learning and performance culture. It is an ecosystem of solutions—a combination of a variety of approaches, and the synchronization of the tools and technologies they use—that matters more. The key, of course, is making the right choices about what interventions to use, and when and how to use them to full effectiveness.

Waste Factor #6: Failure to align learning with talent strategy

Ultimately, the success of any learning initiative will also depend on who is the target of that initiative. Training programs risk ineffectiveness when they are not matched to the needs of the people who take the training, i.e., when the wrong content is delivered to the wrong people. Perhaps employees already have the skills, making some of their learning time boring and wasteful. Or maybe the training is too advanced for some of the participants, again making their time in a learning mode wasteful as they are being exposed to content for which they do not have the prerequisites. What employers need are precision training solutions that accurately match specific learning and performance needs.

Any learning strategy must walk hand-in-hand with a corresponding talent strategy, including recruitment, development, staffing, and promotion. Is the firm hiring novice workers who need lots of training before they can be valuable contributors to the business? Is the company bringing in experienced hires who may not need to learn as much in order to perform? Are the best technical specialists being moved into supervisory positions, without considering their people skills? Should everyone in a target group be trained, or should specific individuals—your “seed corn”—be identified for training, and then sent back to teach others?

When training or any learning or performance strategy is in conflict with a firm’s talent strategy, the results are ineffectiveness and waste. Some people get more training than they need, others get less, and still others may get the wrong training that targets capabilities they already have or don’t need. On the other hand, when this is done well, the success of training solutions is more assured because they are precisely matched to performance requirements (which brings this list full circle—back to waste factor #1: performance assessment, discussed last month).

Waste Factor #7: Disregarding an anti-learning culture

No training program can work if there is no organizational leadership to support it. Leaders, from executives to front-line managers and from subject matter experts to program managers, must be role models for learning. They must participate themselves, support others when they need to learn, serve as examples of the expected behaviors that come from learning, and help to remove any barriers that might get in the way. Without leadership, a learning culture is impossible. And without a learning culture, there will assuredly be less value and lots of waste.

No learning strategy can be successful if it is implemented in a vacuum, without sponsorship, focused on the wrong people, devoid of motivation, or deployed into a hostile organizational culture. When great learning comes up against a lousy learning culture, the culture will win every time. Developing training programs or other learning and performance interventions will be fruitless unless the environment is such that people want to support them, are prepared for using them, are rewarded for using them, and feel that using them benefits both themselves and the organization.

As important as a learning culture may be, a performance culture is even more important. As should be clear by now, the true measure of success is how individuals and organizations perform relative to business goals. Evidence that the firm values learning and that people willingly share what they know is great, but it isn’t enough. It must also reward successful learning, not just on its own merits, but also because it contributes to improved, valued performance. In other words, even great training that doesn’t contribute value may be a candidate for elimination.

“The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.”Shigeo Shingo (1909 – 1990) was a Japanese industrial engineer who was considered the world’s leading expert on manufacturing practices and the Toyota Production System.

Creating greater value in your organization’s learning and performance programs will depend on your willingness to recognize and deal with waste. The four project level and three strategic level waste factors, presented in this column and last month’s column, are keys to this effort. The actions that address these waste factors should not be taken as absolute, hard-and-fast rules. There are heuristics and nuances that cannot be so easily codified, that come from experience and experimentation, and are certainly a big part of the equation. These actions are, more properly, a starting place. They are best seen as guidelines and should be followed with the thoughtful consideration of context—adapting to fit your organization and modified as you gain experience.

There will be detractors and resistance. What you see as waste, others may see as a desirable practice. Education, examples, case studies, and above all, solid data will help a lot. In the end, picking the right moment and situation to deal with waste and set a new direction, and finding people who are willing to give it a try, is critical.

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