How to ensure workforce training delivers for your enterprise

22 June 2015 -

“Neil

Setting staff up with a personal development plan is all well and good – but you have to create a system that makes it work, argues a leading management coach

Neil Bentley

“Most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management) and 6% special.”

This is how professor WE Deming summed up the challenges facing organisations that roll out costly staff training programmes. Deming’s logic – quoted from his book Out of the Crisis – helps us to understand why organisations often don’t get the return on investment from personal development plans that they would expect. It is surely a good thing to help employees become more capable or more flexible, but if “the system” (as Deming puts it) is not able to exploit the benefits, well… no one wins.

To put it another way, we tend to think of individual performance as being a function of willingness, ability and opportunity. Training may help to increase ability; it may even improve motivation (ie, willingness). But what if the limiting factor is really the opportunity to perform well?

Here we must borrow from another thinker, the Israeli scientist-turned-management guru Eliyahu M Goldratt. His concept The Theory of Constraints suggests that any manufacturing process will be limited by a small number of restrictions – so the business needs to find the one that’s limiting performance and fix it.

If we apply that idea to the goal of improving performance through training, we have to ask ourselves: what is the performance-limiting constraint? If it’s the opportunity to perform, as suggested, then we have to follow Deming’s advice and look to the system.

For that reason, it makes sense to address two, potential systemic issues: Firstly, structure and culture; and secondly, the management process of operations planning and control.

1. Organisation structure and culture

Structure and culture are intimately linked, because people often identify closely with their team or function. As a result, many organisations still suffer from a silo mentality – even though that has been recognised for decades as an organisational blight. Training employees to be more flexible can deliver real performance improvements, as different parts of an operation can share capacity and, therefore, achieve economies of scale.

But that will only work if units are prepared to share.

There can be good reasons why employees shouldn’t move between functions (such as “separation of duties” in some financial functions to prevent fraud). But those reasons are often over-extended to create a kind of organisational protectionism. It makes sense, then, that if you are going to train your front-line staff to be flexible, you need to ensure that your organisation’s structure and management styles have the flexibility to match.

2. Operations planning and control

That leads on to our second potential constraint. Having flexible employees and organisational structures that can exploit their flexibility are a good start, but we need to know when to move employees between teams – or even move work between employees.

Many organisations find that resources are only moved between teams in extreme cases. If one team has some spare time, it will help out another team if that team is in crisis. However, that is hardly a formula for optimising performance. Good operations planning will create a much more sensitive process for identifying surplus or shortfall of time within teams and create greater opportunity for “load balancing” between them.

The bottom line is that, when investing in workforce training, it is important to pay attention to the system that will enable that training to be put into practice – and for the benefits to be realised.

A convincing case

These handy tips offer a few ways to achieve this:

1. Culture shift

Set up an active management culture where front-line leaders constantly look to optimise performance by balancing work and resources across organisational boundaries.

2. Structural integrity

Provide managers with a structured method for planning and managing resources. Don’t just leave this to chance (or to central planning). You must engage and empower the front line.

3. Target funds

Spend a chunk of your training budget on operations management training for your managers. This is every bit as much a professional discipline as accountancy or project management: that training spend will actually multiply the benefits you receive from workforce training.

4. Resources, resources, resources

Make sure your managers have the tools for the job. Good management information and performance reporting is necessary, but not sufficient by itself. Managers must have tools to help them to forward plan if they are going to actively exploit the benefits of a better-trained and more flexible workforce.

In my experience, paying attention to those four tips can contribute to delivering 20% to 30% higher performance – a pretty good return for the training investment, and a convincing case for culture change.

After all, as Dr Deming is reported to have said: “A bad system will beat a good person every time”.

Neil Bentley is chief knowledge officer at AOM International.

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