Already have an account?

Different ways of learning material

When training isn't the answer

Mark Murrell

We got a request recently for a course for drivers on how not to get hit when parked at truck stops. This fleet had recently had some problems with drivers (who were properly parked at truck stops) getting hit by other vehicles who pulled out or turned poorly while leaving.

I'm not sure what to do with that. While there are certainly best practices for parking in public places, there's only so much a driver can do to mitigate the actions of others. I'm not really sure what we'd tell people in this course - how do you prevent someone from hitting you when you're not even in the vehicle?

This is an example of a situation that comes up periodically, where people look to training to solve a problem that isn't really a training problem. Not every problem is best handled by training, so it's important to understand its limitations, and what the other options are.

Sometimes a problem occurs because someone doesn't know any better - that's a case where training can help. But what about these other situations?

These are all situations where different kinds of intervention are required in order to solve the problem. Sticking people in a classroom or online training course isn't going to fix things, because lack of knowledge isn't the problem. Let's look more deeply into each of the points above and see what some better solutions might be.

They know what to do, but don't do it

If people know what they should be doing but aren't doing it, there are several possible explanations:

To solve the problem properly, you need to figure out which of those is happening.

If people are feeling pressure from somewhere else, then that's a systemic or process problem that needs to be addressed. If you can figure out what's causing that pressure, and remove it, the situation will often correct itself. Similarly, if people are dissatisfied or disengaged, there are likely contributing factors that need to be addressed before the issue can be resolved.

If people are just forgetting things they already know, there could be a few different solutions. If the gap is large enough, a dedicated training session might be warranted, but in many cases a better option is something smaller and more easily accessed right at the time of need - something like a checklist or infographic that can be referenced to remind people of what to do. These are what's known as "performance support" tools because they're meant to be used on the job, to directly support an activity, as opposed to a training program that's intended to build knowledge outside of the job context. Performance support tools can be hugely effective because they help people build habits.

They're overloaded so they miss things

There are times when people know the basics, and want to apply the knowledge, but just miss things because the body of knowledge was too much to absorb all at once. In those cases, a reference book of some sort is a much better solution than redoing the training.

Hazmat is a great example of this - no one is going to remember every individual UN number, so it makes way more sense to give people a reference book and teach them how to look things up properly. That's an obvious case, but there are plenty of other places where it makes more sense to look things up than trying to memorize everything. Weights and dimensions, cargo securement, food safety specifics, even company policies are often better handled as reference material than a pure training situation.

They're trying but failing

If people know what they're supposed to be doing, and are failing to do it, it may not truly be a failure of training. It could be that they need practice to develop the skills, or that they haven't yet figured out how things fit into the context of their existing job.

It's the latter point that I most often see, because it's subtle and easy to miss. Recognizing that someone needs practice to develop a skill is pretty straightforward and most trainers catch that quickly, but just because somebody can demonstrate something in the "safe" environment of a yard or a familiar workplace doesn't mean they'll be able to do it in other situations.

As a former musician, I'm intimately familiar with the experience of having something perfected in the practice room then seeing it crash on stage in front of an audience, but it happens in other places as well. A driver who can demonstrate a skill perfectly in the yard may still struggle assimilating that skill into a daily routine, so a more focused coaching effort will be needed.

Putting it all together - the seatbelt example

Looking at all of those points, you can see there are plenty of different reasons why someone may not be doing what they should be, and a wide range of interventions required to adequately address the problem. Jumping to a training solution right away won't help in many of those cases, so it's important to understand what's going on before planning a solution.

Here's another example that illustrates that - we've had a couple of requests for a course on seatbelts. Apparently, there are drivers not wearing seatbelts and some people have requested a course to address the situation.

To determine if it's a situation where training is warranted, let's start by looking at whether the failure to wear seatbelts is caused by a lack of knowledge. I highly doubt it is - I have a hard time believing there's anyone in North American who doesn't know that they should wear a seatbelt when in a moving vehicle. The safety benefits are common knowledge, and it's been the law pretty much everywhere for decades. So, it's far more likely that people know they should be wearing a seatbelt, but just aren't doing it.

If people know what to do, but aren't doing it, then either they're disengaged/dissatisfied, cutting corners, or they're forgetting and falling back on old habits. If someone is dissatisfied with their job they're probably not going to lash out by refusing to wear a seatbelt - that would be pretty ineffective. On the other hand, it's certainly conceivable that they're cutting corners because they're under pressure, or not thinking about it actively and falling back on old habits.

In those cases, a better approach is going to be some kind of visual aid that acts as a reminder and reinforces the desired behavior. An infographic could help, or a more direct performance support tool like the audible reminder already in place for most vehicles. That kind of regular reinforcement, especially if it's combined with some other type of performance improvement activity, is going to work far better than putting someone through a course that tries to teach them something they likely already know.

In a future article I'll get into some specifics of selecting and creating some of these different tools. In the meantime, though, think about the underlying causes of performance problems before assigning training - you may be surprised at how often training isn't really the answer.