You know what they say: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Similarly, if you believe that training is the best solution to every performance problem, you may end up spending way more time and money than you need to fix things.
Yes, it seems a little odd that learning and development professionals would ever speak against training. We’re not saying that training is never the answer—it often is. But it’s not always the answer. It’s important to hang a few more tools on the tool belt before examining performance problems.
If training isn’t the answer, then what is?
That depends on the problem you face and why it’s happening, which can be determined through a needs analysis. At AllenComm, we love needs analyses! According to ATD, a needs analysis “can range from an interview with the customer to a time-consuming data collection of past trainings and events, an analysis of the status quo, and an idea of what the desired end result should be.” According to us, “the purpose of the analysis is to make sure we truly understand the root of the performance problem.” Things are not always what they appear to be. Several different factors can impact employee performance, so even if you’re confident that you know what the problem is. . . well, you may not actually know what the problem is.
As an example, let’s say that George works for Awesome Possum Corp, a company dedicated to building fine mechanical possums for all mechanical possum needs. George’s job is to (1) correctly file the possum inspection forms and (2) recycle the paperclips from each stack of forms by putting them in paperclip storage bins. George has been in his position for several years, but he continually makes mistakes. He misfiles inspection forms and leaves a lot of paperclips on the floor surrounding the bins.
George’s department head, Janna, is concerned. She becomes even more concerned when she realizes that George is actually one of the highest-performing employees! Almost every employee filing Awesome Possum Corp inspection forms has the same performance problems.
Janna’s convinced that her people need training on the correct filing procedures, so she calls up an instructional design company representative and begs them to help her. However, like AllenComm, this company (Training Needs, Inc.) believes in doing a needs analysis whenever possible. The TNI representative convinces Janna to green-light a needs analysis before moving forward with any training.
At the end of the needs analysis, TNI announces to Janna that the Awesome Possum Corp inspection unit doesn’t need any training at all. Janna is bewildered. How can this be, when there are so many performance problems?! But as TNI explains the results to her, things start to make sense. . .
A quick reminder
During the needs analysis, TNI discovered that George knows the filing procedures really well. He knows that he needs to read the inspection forms, find the production codes, and then file the forms in the folders corresponding to the codes. However, there are over 200 different productions codes! George knows he can look up them up in The Big Book of Codes, but there’s only one copy in George’s office, and anyway it’s time-consuming to flip through a 1,200-page book to find the section on possum inspections. So George, like most of his co-workers, relies on his own memory, leading to frequent errors.
George knows what he’s supposed to be doing. He just can’t remember everything he needs to do the process correctly, and he doesn’t have an easy way to find that knowledge. Giving George training on the filing procedures would be overkill and wouldn’t fix the root of the problem. Instead, TNI recommends that Awesome Possum Corp develop a two-page code cheat sheet that George and his co-workers can keep on their desks. This job aid can quickly remind them of where each form needs to be filed.
A change to a process or the environment
TNI also analyzed why the employees leave the paperclips on the floor instead of depositing them in the paperclip storage bins. The storage bins are lined up against a wall about six feet from George’s desk. Instead of standing up and walking to the bins, George tosses the discarded paperclips toward them. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t. When asked why he does this, George explained that he feels like it’s more time-efficient to toss the paperclips than to walk to the bins every time he needs to discard one. Most of his co-workers feel the same, resulting in the paperclip pileup on the floor.
Rather than train George to stand up and walk to the bins to discard his paperclips, TNI suggests that Janna put a bin at each employee’s desk. That way, George and his co-workers won’t feel like they’re wasting time by leaving their desks, but they also won’t throw paperclips across the room.
Not every instance will be as cut-and-dried as Awesome Possum Corp’s. It’s not uncommon for a needs analysis to show mixed results: a need for training here, a couple of job aids here, a change there. It’s also possible that the analysis may, for example, show a need for job aids—but that the employees will also require training on how to use the job aids.
The purpose of the needs analysis is to eliminate time and money wasted by creating unnecessary training, not to eliminate time and money invested in good training. But you often don’t know the difference until after the needs analysis has been conducted.
We all see performance problems in our employees from time to time. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves by assuming that training is the answer to our problems. We shouldn’t start using a hammer until the needs analysis has confirmed that what we’re facing is a nail.