When it comes to problems of the body, we all recognize that there are symptoms and there are underlying causes. If you have an aching back, you take an aspirin for relief but you know that the real cause of your problem is a strained muscle and that the little tablet you just popped has done nothing to heal it. The sensible among us don’t use the aspirin as an excuse to do some more heavy lifting, but instead take it easy with our feet up on the couch until the underlying cause is healed.
Could training programs sometimes be like the aspirin –- a short-term intervention that hides the need for a more fundamental or difficult action to solve the underlying issue? Or to put it another way, are you blaming your team’s lack of skill when the real issue is the process or procedure you’ve set up?
A story from the blog of consulting firm The Tatham Group illustrates perfectly the possibility that sensible sounding training is really just a Band-Aid for a larger problem:
Every year a particular major oil company was losing millions of dollars due to the clean up of home furnace oil overflows occurring during the tank truck loading process. Tank truck loading required the driver to climb up on top of the tank, open the compartment covers, insert a nozzle with a hand operated valve… and fill the compartment with fuel oil. I was hired by the training department to assist them in producing a training program for drivers on “Tank Truck Loading Procedures.”
After several months and many delivery and loading trips, I was perplexed that there was absolutely no spillage during the tank loading process. Nonetheless, I continued to ride on delivery trips until winter. One very cold winter morning, as usual, the driver positioned his tank truck under a loading tower, climbed up on top of the tank, opened all the compartments and began filling the first compartment. That’s when I noticed that he reached into his pocket, took out a small wooden block and inserted it into the handle to hold the valve open. Subsequently, he climbed down from the tank and walked over to the loading booth to keep warm, as did I. The driver was engaged in conversation with people in the booth when the oil began to overflow. By the time he remembered that the tank was still being filled, several hundred gallons of fuel oil had spilled out and was seeping into the ground…
After several experiments involving front-line workers, we learned that the root cause of the problem was the process itself. Namely, it took too long to fill the fuel oil compartments and drivers were freezing their buns off standing on top of their trucks. Simply doubling the rate of flow of the fuel pump, making it impossible for the drivers to leave, completely eliminated all spillage. No further training required.
So what’s the takeaway? Before you embark on fixing your people, make sure your procedures (and lousy, communication-suppressing company culture) aren’t the real problem you should be addressing.
London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for BNET.com.