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Training as a Crutch

by Eric Ethington
February 25, 2015

Training as a Crutch

by Eric Ethington
February 25, 2015 | Comments (11)

In the early 2000s an email was sent through our organization from the finance. The gist of the email: a random audit of employee expense reports revealed that 100% of expense reports contained some sort of error (yes, ALL of them). We were all being required to go through Expense Report training. I recalled the audit as I had to answer questions about three of my own expense reports. Interestingly, two of the three did NOT have errors as the auditors had made a mistake (still trusting that 100% figure?), but the third expense report did have a problem. I didn’t properly summarize the Value Added Taxes that I had incurred on an international trip.

Now, think of your own organization. Your organization has a problem. Something has gone wrong. A process that was previously working fine is no longer performing well. You know this because of your full email inbox, or texts, pages, and phone calls. You get some of your best people to look at the situation and recommend some actions. And they come back with the answer “training”: We need to re-train the workers. They forgot something and had they only followed the instructions the problem wouldn't have occurred.

I see this line of thought regularly. Training is the answer. But is it? Didn't we train the workers in the first place? What did Einstein say about doing the same thing over again and expecting different results?

Let’s go back to the company having issues with expense reports. Here’s the rest of the story. The expense report manual at this company was available as a Word document of some 36,000 words. On page 43 of the manual was a single sentence stating, "value added taxes should be summed up and the total written on the front of the expense report document with a box drawn around it. Please label the figure in the box as VAT." 

So, my error could have been avoided if I had only noticed those 34 words out of 36,000. How many other errors were due to a handful of words hidden somewhere in this onerous document? How effective would training for this bad process really be?

In our daily work and in our work around lean thinking and practice, I'm not suggesting we completely forego training. I’m suggesting the root of most problems is actually in the process design. When a problem is discovered, dig into your current process. Go to the gemba and map it. Understand how it is performing and ask, “why” it isn’t performing as expected. A well-designed process requires less training than a poorly designed process. Often training or in example cited above, retraining, is just a crutch. It doesn’t solve your problem at all.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  culture,  problem solving
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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban February 25, 2015
4 People AGREE with this comment

This is a huge problem in healthcare, where leaders will jump to the conclusion that more training or re-training is supposed to be an effective countermeasure or reaction to a problem. This is often the end result of so-called "root cause analysis."

You ask the right question -- if the original training was ineffective, why was that? That's a system problem that needs to be addressed by leadership...

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Alice Lee February 25, 2015
3 People AGREE with this comment

I was essentially going to post what Mark Graban wrote. Training is often (I want to say always but that would be 100%!) the countermeasure at the end of root cause activity in healthcare. Not only should the process be studied for potential redesign when gaps are discovered (and there will be gaps), understanding the interrelationships of the other processes and activities in the system is important as that can uncover scenarios not known about when the original training was overlaid onto an already complex system. This means the root cause should not be done in a conference room!

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Mark Sand February 25, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Saying that training or re-training is the answer is tempting because it is easy - simple and straight-forward. You conduct the training and now everyone can go back to working on what they were working on before the crisis. I've experienced this line of thinking everywhere I've ever worked. But as the article says, it doesn't address the root cause, and sooner or later you are going to have to deal with the same problem again. 

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Kyle Kumpf February 25, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Classic "mistakes come from broken processes, not people" 

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Todd Hudson February 25, 2015

Training is waste. It’s a symptom of complexity and poor process design. And the more training you have to do, the more complex and poorly designed your processes. Eric’s 36,000-word expense report manual is a perfect example.

Customers won’t pay more for training. They expect employees to have the knowledge they need to produce the value they deliver. And they don’t care if it takes 8 days, 8 hours or 8 minutes to learn it. It’s invisible to the customer.

We have to train people because what we want them to do isn’t visual, intuitive and obvious. Like Alice said, training is a countermeasure and it's a poor one at that. Better to embrace methods like poka yoke, SMED and visual management. They dramatically reduce the need for unnecessary training AND deliver nearly mistake-free performance.

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Eric Ethington March 03, 2015

But that is hard work designing the process to be intuitive.  It's so much easier to place the burden on the user to go through the training, and keep referencing the documentation.

I'm sort of being sarcastic here - I absolutely agree with what you are saying.

Being an Industrial Engineer by trade, I created a lot of poor process designs over the years then cursed the operators for "not doing their jobs."  Once I learned through good, intuitive process design I could eliminate many of the issues I was fighting, my little world changed.

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John DiNicolantonio February 25, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Eric,well said we have both experienced many times.  When we do its a great indicator that the visuals are inadequate.  I use the example of the subway- its amazing I can take the subway in Tokoyo, Budapest, Paris, or Shanghai, but I cannot read those languages.  Where as the bus good luck three or four numbers is not enough for me to figure route.  Good visuals simplify life and make many things easy no matter what language.  red, yellow green lights, symbol for exit, restrooms or WC, etc  keep pushing to improve the visuals and make everyone life better!


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Ken Hunt February 26, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Many times it's not the training, but the process itself. Why is the standard not being followed? It could be that the person performong the work has identified a better way, but is not encouraged to bring those ideas forward to test them. This falls on leadership. They MUST create a culture of creativity, where all ideas are discussed, and the real solutions are implemented.

Until the above happens, training is not only a crutch, it's also an excuse.

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Keith Lodahl February 26, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

An early position with a non-profit Lean consulting agency that aligned with the state tech college system was very frustraing work.  The college thught all we were supposed to do was go into companies with problems and sell training.  While we often did suggest training when needed, generally training was an outcome after processes were made more robust.

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Whitney Mantonya March 02, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Excellent post Eric.  I see this jump to training as a solution all the time as I am coaching leaders and practitioners, regardless of industry.  Getting people to view training as an enabler of process change and solution implementation  vs  the solution to the problem  is often challenging, but life changing when the light bulb goes off!


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Skip Matty March 03, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply


You are spot on. We see this a lot with new Black Belts and new Kaizen Leaders. They too quickly jump to say training is the issue and we need to retrain. We must enforce the discipline to drive to root cause, develop counter measures, and then train on the NEW process.

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