Why Most Training Programs Don't Make Any Measurable Difference

I regularly get calls from clients asking me to visit them and put on a specific training program. It may be a request for “Soft Skills Training”, (I hate this term, who is the idiot that started calling it soft skills?), sales training, time management, conflict resolution, customer relations and so on.

My typical next question is . . . “What type of problems or challenges are you having that need to be resolved?” I usually get the following type of responses:

  • We need to increase our revenue, and nothing has worked so far

  • Our customers are complaining more than usual

  • Some of my people do not get along with each other

  • I just want them to be more professional

  • I need to have my people sell more

  • They are not using our new software program correctly

  • Employees need to take more responsibility for what they do

  • I just really want them to just do their job and follow our processes

  • I’m tired of all the whining and complaining

  • The quality of work isn't what it should be

  • Etc. Etc. Etc.

I’m sure you can send me a few more challenges that you have had to deal with and make the list even longer.

The management team decides the only way to improve the issue is to have some "Guru" come to their location and “teach, educate, motivate or train” a group of employees in the room to do something better, different, more often, less often, or whatever within several hours. The overall objective is to fix the problem they are dealing with and have not been able to resolve with current methods.

After listening to a list of deficiencies, problems or challenges, I usually ask the manager or business owner as to how did they determine that training will fix the problems? I usually hear something like; “We tried to implement several new things to make things better, but they didn’t work. I hear you are a great speaker and watched some of your videos. So, I figured we will bring you in to put on a training program that would make a difference. I thought you could stop by for a couple of hours one morning while you are in the area and do this for us. How much would you need to do that for us? Don't make a special trip, just only when you happen to be in our area for something else.”

This basically translates to: They want to invest as little as possible and are hoping to get a discount of some kind because I will be in the area anyway. I immediately think and wonder if this contractor gives his customers discounts because the serviceman was on the next street over. I know there are some speakers and trainers out there that say they are going to be in your area so maybe they can come by and put on a training session for your team at a discounted rate., Okay, Let me be sarcastic for a moment . . . Sure, I’m positive that this "off the shelf" training program will fix everything and your team will instantly start performing better simply because they sat in the same room while someone was telling them stories and explaining things in a different way with no particular objective. So, I think to myself, I am supposed to spend a few hours with a group of employees who they have been trying to motivate to change for a couple of years and now, somehow, I will be able to magically make all of their dreams come true. Also, I will do this in three or four hours, only when I happen to be in the area, for virtually zero investment of time and money? Sorry, I live in real-ville, not a fantasy land. I can't just throw something together and make positive change happen by throwing words at people hoping to modify their behavior. Plus, most of the time, I find that the issues this company has, cannot be resolved with someone talking at them.

Typically, I try and spend time trying to come up with a solution specific to whatever deficiency is occurring. Most of the time it has nothing to do with the idea that the employees do not know how to do something. By the way, here is my definition of what training really is. Training is the act of increasing the knowledge and skill of an employee through information, practice or demonstration, so they can do a particular job. A training program should be designed to teach people how to do something better than before or get them to know and understand how to do a task or tasks that they have never done before.

The big mistake that business owners make is assuming that if you put an employee in a room with a person who is good at training or speaking on certain subjects that somehow the employee will decide to change the way they do things forever. Keep in mind, every deficiency in a work setting is not the result of a lack of training. The only time training works is when someone does not know how to do something or needs help understanding how to do something and if someone showed them, they will be able to do it. It is pretty much, just that simple! Also, there is one major key element about whether training will work to make something better is that the employee wants to do the task or tasks and wants to learn how to do them. Quite a few years ago I taught a course on how to design an objective based training program. The most important decision that had to be made before designing a training program for something is to first determine whether or not the deficiency is the result of the employee not knowing how to do something or is it a motivational issue. Which means they can do the job, it’s just that they don’t want to, or don’t like to. I used the crude example of saying that if I put a gun to the person’s head, and now they were able to do what I wanted them to do, then it was not a lack of training that caused the problem, it was a motivational issue. So, one of the most important decisions that a leader must make before devoting time and money is determining if information or training will fix the deficiency, or is it some other reason.

In one of my business leadership classes I discuss the five reasons why employees don’t perform well. They are:

  1. Personal problems or illness

  2. Don’t know how to do it and need training

  3. Do not understand the rules or processes

  4. They are incapable of doing it, and never will be able to

  5. They just don’t care or are in a rut

Let me run through each. Number one is obvious, if someone is going through divorce or other personal trauma, it will cause a problem in every aspect of their life, including their job. Number two, don’t know how and need training, that is where a training program works. Number three usually occurs either with a new employee who does not understand the methods and routines in your business or there has been a recent change in software or systems that confuses people. Number four is unique, and really may not have a solution. Being incapable of doing something could be explained with this example. Let’s say you have someone who was hired as a helper and has basically done nothing but clean the office and run errands. Let’s say this person has terrible interpersonal skills and is not interested at all in having to talk to people or interact with customers. This would create a problem and you may not be able to resolve it. The only solution would be is to not put this person in a position where they are required to do something that they just cannot do or will never want to do. Number five is self-explanatory. To this person, they have a job, do the minimum required, payday is Friday and they are only here because they need money to eat and drink beer, or whatever. This may occur with a long-term employee who eventually gets bored, has no incentive and just puts in their time

As you can now see, the only performance deficiencies that are trainable are number two and number three. Training will not fix everything. If an employee is unwilling to do something or is not comfortable doing it, training is not a fix. You may be better off finding a different solution or designing a process that eliminates the need for this employee to have to modify their behavior.

If you call me and start telling me that you want me to come to your place and present training on something. Be ready for a series of questions and perhaps some other recommendations that do not include training. My goal isn’t to travel around and make money talking to people and having no significant positive result. My goal is to come up with solutions that make your employees perform at the highest level possible. If it is training that they need, sure, I’ll do it. However, if I think it is a leadership, process or motivational issue, I will tell you, and probably recommend a solution, and it won’t be at a discount done while I happen to be going through your town.

My dad always taught me. If you are going to do something, do it right, or find someone who knows what they are doing, to do it for you.

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