Training Won’t Correct Human Error Issues

 Training is Not the “Silver Bullet” to Improve Performance

Over the years I have crossed paths with some really good training professionals.  One is Ronn Lehmann.  Ronn worked with me several years ago to create the Blueprints for Safety® training and compliance series. Recently, I met up with him again and discussed the blog I started and an article for ASSE that I was writing.  Of course, the topic was training as it affects performance. 

First off, you need to understand that Ronn and I are big fans of training.  I guess you could say we are obsessed.   Each of us has been training or designing training for well over 30 years, so obviously we think it has value!  But here’s a dirty secret:  a lot of training simply doesn’t work.

Why?  Well, for one thing, training isn’t always the right answer to performance problems.  That may seem like heresy, but consider this; when faced with safety performance problems, an organization’s first response is often to provide training or retraining.  As Ronn and I discussed this tendency we agreed that there are six primary reasons that people aren’t performing:

  1. They don’t know what to do
  2. They don’t know how to do it
  3. They don’t have the tools to do it
  4. They don’t want to do it
  5. They think they are doing it
  6. They don’t feel they have to do it

Training Must Address “How to do it”

When you think about human performance, training only really addresses Reason #2 “How to do it”.  So, the first step in making sure training is effective is to be certain that you are addressing a “how” performance problem.  This is addressed in ANSI/ASSE Z490.1, Criteria for Accepted Practices in Safety, Health, and Environmental Training, and makes it clear that if it isn’t a “how” problem you have to try something else.

Even when dealing with a “how” problem, training still may not work; at least as well as it could.  That’s because:

  1. The training doesn’t have immediate application
  2. The culture doesn’t support the application of the new mindsets, skill sets and tools sets
  3. Leadership doesn’t coach to and reinforce the new training
  4. Learning is considered less important than performance:  e.g., “We don’t have the tie for training….we have to do our ‘day jobs’”

 How to Improve Your Chances of Success

In reading ANSI Z490.1 it becomes quite clear that training success requires a significant amount of thought and planning.  In many cases, the culture of an organization works against the training process.  In others there is no solid method of reinforcing the content of the training.  

From my own lessons learned I’ve found that you can improve your chances of getting the most out of training by following a few simple guidelines:

Know the true nature of the problem.  Once you identify the real reason (or reasons) that someone is not performing, you can better select a response.  And that may or may not be training.  Can you identify barriers to learning?  Do issues related to language or other situations stand in the way?  Are there behavioral or motivational patterns that can be identified?  Dig in to make sure the problem is truly a training problem.

Provide training that can be immediately applied to their work.  “Just in time” training is more effective; providing training weeks or months before or after a learner can use it is wasteful.  It’s like being trained to drive a car in January, but never getting behind the week to practice until November.  If individuals are not able to apply the content of the training soon after the learning occurs, they will forget quickly and need to be re-trained.

Make sure your culture supports learning.  It’s true that your workplace culture provides a lot of learning, some good and some bad.  People learn by doing, watching and coaching, as much as through more formal training.  For training to be effective, your culture has to support the application of new learning beyond that of existing “tribal” knowledge.  To stick, training on methods and procedures must mirror the “way it’s really done” when no one is watching.

Have Leaders Coach.  People will rarely apply new learning successfully if it is not supported by their immediate supervisor and other leaders.  Leaders must reinforce training by actively coaching their people when they return to the job.  This is very important, sets the stage for improved performance, and drives your safety culture.

Make learning everyone’s “day job”.  No one must ever be too busy for learning, especially about safety.  There is never a “best” time for learning; but there is always a “good” time.  If learning is a priority for the organization, it must be demonstrated by providing employees with time, resources and support.  Learning must be seen not as an interruption in work, but a vital step in individual and organizational growth.

Training Can Pay Big Dividends

When there is an incident or performance issue, Human Error is most likely the proximal cause, not lack of training.  As we learned at the recent ASSE Human Error Symposium, the genesis of over 90% of all human error is directly related to organizational systems issues.  We set ourselves up for error through poor design, incomplete procedural development, inappropriate equipment or tooling, and many other sources. 

Training should be integral with any performance improvement process.  However, as we have discussed if it is misapplied or misunderstood the improvements desired will be elusive.   Focusing on whether you have a “how to do it” problem is the first step.  If the person knows how to perform the task, or can answer more detailed questions about the task, then it’s not a training issue.  Focusing of the systems and context of work will not only help assure the success of your training efforts, but should improve your safety performance.  Thus, paying big dividends on the investment you and your organization have made.

(Reviesed and Repeated from an earlier post.)