It’s fishy, but it works

Written by Paul Matthews on 18 September 2013

The delegates shuffle into your training room still clutching their cup of coffee and half eaten biscuit. Some are talking, and some just come in and sit quietly as far away from the front of the room as they can get. Another training has started.

With the icebreaker over, you get into outcomes and soon discover that they have all been sent on this course because a manager somewhere in their organisation has a performance problem. The solution to that problem is to send the people who are 'not performing' on your training course. You have a room full of conscripts.

Then it gets worse. You talk to them about what they are doing at work, and the problems they are experiencing, and discover that although your course is relevant, it is most unlikely to solve the problems they are having at their desk. You realise that your course will not fix the performance problem, and guess what? You will get blamed for the lack of performance improvement.

Every trainer I have ever spoken with has a story like this. Depressingly, some internal trainers say it is true of almost every course they run.

How much training budget is squandered every year on courses that will never fix the problem?

How do we stop this massive waste of money, time and resources?

The answer is quite simple. We need to get really clear about the root cause of the performance problem so that we can address the cause directly and efficiently. Sometimes the solution will indeed be training, but often there will be better ways to solve the problem, and often these will be less costly than training.

That means that L&D needs to work with the business whenever there is a training request to get better clarity on the reason for the request. The high level reason will be a performance issue, but what is causing it?

Inadequate performance happens when workers cannot do the task in front of them at the point of work. What renders them incapable in the moment of doing the task?

An excellent tool to use here is the Ishikawa diagram which is commonly called the fishbone diagram. Kaoru Ishikawa was a quality manager in the Kawasaki shipyards. Although his use of the tool was focused on quality issues, it also works well for investigating many other issues, including performance and capability issues. The fishbone diagram is a cause-effect tool that is used as a way of breaking down in successive layers of detail the root causes that contribute to a particular effect.

The effect that we are interested in is a worker's lack of capability to do a specific task at the point of work. After all, that is what most interests the business manager. In reality, he does not really care what people know. He does care what they are able to do, and that they can do what needs to be done when and where it needs to be done.

So when you get asked to deliver some training by a manager, suggest to them... "Let's sit down together and use the fishbone cause-effect tool to determine exactly what sort of training will ensure that your people are capable of doing what you need done." They can hardly refuse a request like this. And one big advantage of using this tool in collaboration with a business manager is that they are likely to recognise the tool, and therefore feel comfortable about using it.

You can find lots of information online about how to use the fishbone tool. The first step is to determine the major ribs to add to the skeleton. For a performance issue these are Knowledge, Skills, Mind-set, Physiology and Environment. The first four relate to the worker. They are 'internal' to the worker. Environment is whatever surrounds the employee at the point of work and will include things like availability of tools, spare parts, job aides, just-in-time information, access to experienced colleagues, and many more. You can also expand this idea to include the culture within which the worker is operating, the effectiveness of the management they are getting, the appropriateness of any incentive schemes, and the systems and procedures they are required to follow.

As you use the fishbone tool with the manager, it will become self-evident as to whether training is truly a solution to their problem, or whether something else is required to enable capability at the point of work.

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