February 25, 2015 | By Scott Converse | Back to news

There’s a common trap I see when individuals and teams try to solve business issues, whether the project involves streamlining a form submission process, automating a production area, creating a new interactive website, or reducing customer complaints in a service environment. Business people often say, we know what’s broken, we just need to do a better job training our workers, customers, suppliers, subject matter experts, or other stakeholder groups (fill in the blank).

Scott Converse
Scott Converse, director of project management and process improvement programs at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Lack of training is often cited as the root cause to complex business problems. When I hear teams make this statement, I know we’ve got some more work to do. Poor training is often a symptom associated with complex problems, but it’s not a root cause. Training rarely solves the problem or results in improved performance.

Here’s the paradox—education and professional development are very important endeavors that help individuals grow and improve business performance. I’m all for that, however, solving business problems requires an understanding of complexity, then coming up with solutions that reduce or remove complexity. Training programs that are developed to address a group that’s perceived to be performing poorly rarely get to the real problem. Often, the training program just accommodates complex and broken systems. Training programs implemented in this way are also a polite way of saying, we really don’t think there’s a complex business problem here, this is really a people problem.

When training is proposed as a solution to the root cause, I put on my facilitator hat and ask one of three follow-up questions to help the team drill down and figure out what’s really going on.

Ask these questions first

  1. Why is the system or process the team is using so complicated that you need an elaborate training program? Training is nice, but what are the underlying reasons the process is so complicated to begin with? Are there ways to simplify, streamline, or reduce steps, inspections or hand-offs?
  2. If the system or process requires a certain skill level or competency to be successful, why did the system allow individuals to perform tasks they don’t have the skill level to complete successfully? There are some situations when the system or process needs to be complex to accommodate a wide diversity of different skill sets, and having individuals with pre-determined levels of mastery is one approach for handling this environment.  It’s a very expensive approach and still requires a deep understanding of what’s important for “mastery,” but it begins to dig deeper at the support functions needed to help manage a complex system.
  3. We all know that it doesn’t take long for the concepts covered in a training environment to be forgotten, even if the instruction was great (and often it’s not). We also know the people trained on day one are not always the same people working in the process six months, one year or five years later. Training sessions are nice but what are the job aids, checklists, and support tools available to help? Are there visual cues and tools available to perform the task? Are there ways to mistake-proof the activity through effective user interface design, or engineering so it’s almost impossible for the task to be performed incorrectly?

Don’t get me wrong, training should be part of any transition plan to standardize a new way of working, and it’s an important part of an effective change strategy to help understand a new business approach. Training helps everyone understand how complexity has been removed and how the system has been updated to be more user friendly. In this way, training helps explain how the real solutions attack the root causes that created past frustrations. But positive change can’t happen unless the team looks for root causes before training. Say NO to training as a root cause!