The AURA of Effective Training
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


The AURA of Effective Training by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine March 2006

My personal experiences as a trainer have been a bit varied over the past five years.  For the past three years, I have been solely doing classroom style training – you know, the kind where someone stands at the front of the room with a projector and talks, while also challenging their students with the low probability of actual skill retention.  For the three years prior to that time, I hardly did any classroom style training at all, even though as plant manager in a rapidly growing company, I had a significant need to teach people on an almost daily basis.

In both cases, I spent a lot of time with a lot of students.  In both cases, I think they actually learned something.  After comparing both stretches of time against each other from a training effectiveness perspective, I am still left wondering – am I really delivering classroom style training that is value added?  If you have read this column before over the years, you probably know what my opinions about classroom training are.  In short, I think most lecture-based training is a waste of time, primarily because the statistics show that people retain, let alone apply, very little of what they hear in a lecture over the weeks that follow course completion.

I also have a strong suspicion that classroom training is still the dominant training delivery method, even though computer-based training (CBT) is rapidly gaining ground.  Given the fact that I am still a cost conscious industrial engineer at heart and knowing that organizations collectively invest millions of dollars in training each day, this really bothers me.  I could easily go off on a rant about this, but I have already used this precious column space to do so in the past on this topic, so I think we would be better served to talk about what we might want to start trying to do to improve the situation instead, since I really doubt that the number of hours we spend on training each year is going to decline in the coming years.

Training design and delivery is definitely a process that is crying out for improvement.  There is also a pressing need for this improvement to occur.  Our workforce continues to age and retire, which means we are going to have to somehow capture and transfer the tribal knowledge our older employees possess to our younger folks before the ‘gray beards’ hit the golf course for good.  Business and education groups are still debating, and struggling, to find a way to better prepare graduates for the workplace as well.  This was a problem fifteen years ago by the way – I don’t think we have made that much progress, but I do know that the workplace has sure changed a lot.

The bottom line is simple.  We spend a lot of money on training, we don’t have very good metrics for gauging the effectiveness of this investment, and if my suspicions are correct, we are wasting a lot of money each day, and in a lot of cases, not really worrying about this waste that much.  Fortunately, the solution is also simple IF we are willing to alter our mental models as to what really constitutes effective training.  At the start of this article I stated that I did not do much classroom training as a plant manager.  I did not state however that we did not train our people – we did a lot of training, but not in the traditional lecture-based way.

In essence, we trained on the job as the need arose.  When I say ‘we’, I mean each of the leaders on our plant floor and in our support groups.  When I say ‘on the job’, I mean out there on the floor while people worked, as opposed to in a classroom.  When I say ‘as the need arose’, I mean that we looked for learning moments during the course of each day that could be used to help meet the training needs that we knew existed from the performance trends and customer requirements that we had.  This approach worked, but as plant leaders, we had to perform our jobs as managers, supervisors, and support people in a manner that was quite different than the norm.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in our offices or in meeting rooms.  We did spend a lot of time watching people work, asking people questions, and reviewing performance trends to help us be in a better position to consistently meet the needs of our customers.  This training tactic worked much better than bringing people into a classroom to cover the ‘how to's’ of performing different skills.  Because we were able to provide immediate, and usually positive, performance feedback while our students were ‘practicing’, we helped them better retain and apply the skills as we needed to have them performed.

That’s what the AURA of effective training is all about.  AURA is an acronym for Awareness-Understanding-Retention-Application.  In my previous life as a Training Manager, I began using this four word chain to help me develop more effective training.  At that time, I called it the learning continuum.  In some recent classroom training however, I was talking about the need to improve our training approaches to help us better bridge the gap between creating awareness and having the skills actually applied when one of my students pointed out that the four letters of this chain spelled out the word AURA. I was delighted with this observation, and it sure made me glad that I try to let my students talk a little bit when I am teaching in a classroom setting.

If we want to improve our training process, we need to find ways to be successful in helping our students actually retain and apply the skills we are hopefully making them more aware of and helping them to better understand.  The easiest way to do this is to make our courses more practice focused when we have to present them in a classroom setting, but more importantly, finding ways to spend a greater portion of our training time out on the practice field itself, instead of in the locker room.

Most of the skills we need our people to learn cannot be effectively retained and applied without repetition and practice.  We can’t ensure that the right skills are being retained and applied correctly unless we as leaders are providing performance feedback on a regular basis.  If we want to significantly decrease the amount of waste that is occurring in the world of training, we have to find ways to get out of our offices and meeting rooms and spend a lot more time actually helping people learn, instead of listening to ourselves talk.  How do you teach people to lift safely?  Do you have them demonstrate safe lifting practices on a repeated basis, do you merely show and tell them how to lift correctly, or do you simply show them a film or CBT PowerPoint on the topic?

If you doubt me, think about the last course you attended – how much of what you heard do you still remember, and of those things you remember, how much do you actually use?  For example, did you attend several days of statistics-laden six sigma training, only to remember and use little of what you were taught? Did you feel fully qualified to lead and facilitate a team after only two days of lecture-based training on those topics, or did you have to practice those skills for a while to begin getting at using them?

Don’t you think we need to improve our training processes a little bit here?  Is there an aura of effectiveness that emanates from the training you participate in and provide?  I know that I am going to keep looking for ways to make my classrooms more practice focused and my training more effective, and I hope you will as well.

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