Training attracts no controversy. On the contrary, people see it as a necessary activity, believing that it improves productivity and empowers employees. Almost ritualistically, many organisations invest in training, while the media routinely portrays it as an important factor in securing Australia’s economic future.

Yet, no one could argue that all training delivers the same value. Furthermore, have you ever considered that in some circumstances training could actually harm your business?

When reflecting on the value of a training activity, an easy distinction can be made between skills and abilities enhancement, versus task or procedure related training. The first form almost universally adds real value, but the latter needs to be questioned.

Total Quality Management (TQM) methodology stresses that inadequacies or faults in business processes cause 85 to 95 per cent of poor performance; only the balance can be attributed to people. Businesses which fail to recognise this waste their resources trying to fix issues by working on people rather than on processes.

By focusing on staff, they work on about 5-15% of the cause, ignoring the other 85-95%. So by training people they effectively try to cover up the inadequacies in their business systems.

Over 30 years ago, Myer department stores installed new imprinters for processing credit cards (yes, back then we had no EFT). They soon discovered that the machines misprinted customer dockets making them illegible, costing the stores serious amounts of money. As the new machines had a different printing mechanism, a snap decision was made to train all store staff on how to use the imprinters; very much in line with traditional management thinking.

However, one person took a step back and looked at the issue from the process perspective. As a result, instead of training staff how to use the new machines, management agreed to remove machine cases so that staff could see how the machines worked when imprinting a docket. Miraculously, once people could see what they needed to do to get a clean imprint the problem vanished overnight. Simply tweaking the tool eliminated the need for wide spread and costly training.

This example illustrates that, contrary to popular opinion, training may not be the best remedy for poor performance.  If fact, any request for training, other than skills and ability enhancement, should be seen as an indication of a potential process flaw.

Rather than provide how-to training, businesses should use their resources to identify dysfunctions in their business systems and address them. Flawed processes should be redesigned and made simpler, more intuitive and foolproof.  Much can be gained by building systems and processes that make it difficult for people to do the wrong thing. As a general rule, if people need to think to make a mistake, fewer mistakes will be made.

For example, using leaded petrol in an unleaded engine can damage the expensive catalytic converter. However, when countries started to switch to unleaded fuel 50 years ago, drivers practically never made this expensive mistake.

This had little to do with warnings labels and everything to do with the design of the petrol tank inlet – in the new unleaded cars it was made smaller so the nozzle for leaded fuel wouldn’t fit. The design of the system forced people to do the right thing.

Designers of automatic teller machines (ATMs) followed the same philosophy, creating one of the few computer systems which, even back in 1980s, could be operated without training.

Similarly, manufacturers of consumer electronics have long stopped relying on user guides. They know that customers use the Standard Crabb Method – “don’t worry about the instructions, plug the sucker in and get it going”.

How can you take advantage of this type of thinking in your business?

To begin with, stop regarding task and procedure related training as something normal or acceptable. Quite the opposite, all business processes ought to be designed in such a way that they don’t need such training.

But, can this actually be done? With a bit of lateral thinking you will be surprised how easy it can be.

Some years ago, when helping a retailer who operated over 500 stores with stock management, I noticed that they purchased handheld computers for stocktakes. However, they didn’t intend to implement them until the next year, because their staff required training. I made a bold statement that this was not the right solution, asking “how could we change the process to make training unnecessary?”

The result: the units were deployed the next week rather than a year later. We replaced the need for training with a two-sided A4 comic story, with the device drawn at the centre, explaining every feature and how to use it. It was that simple.

Once your organisation embraces the idea of designing foolproof and intuitive business systems, you can expect the following business benefits:

  • Customer service will improve as staff will know what to do, without asking around.
  • Customer service will improve because staff will make fewer errors.
  • The cost of training in terms of money and time will be reduced.
  • The cost associated with staff turnover will also be reduced.
  • Management dependency on staff members remaining in their jobs will be reduced.
  • The cost of fixing errors and redoing failed tasks will be reduced.
  • Retraining will be reduced for employees moved to other tasks and later returned to their original jobs.
  • There will be less need to prepare and maintain training manuals.
  • The proliferation of intuitive systems will transform training departments within organisations. Their role will either diminish or they will shift their focus to skills and abilities training.

For all the above reasons, as counterintuitive as it may first appear, if you want to make your business more efficient, make an effort not to train your staff. Create systems that make it unnecessary.

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Andrew Gorecki, MD of Retail Directions, has worked with the retail industry since 1985. Industry insiders appreciate his strategic advice and insights, as he lives and breathes for the industry. Andrew received a nomination for the Australian Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2010.
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