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Book Value: What Every Manager Should Know About Training

by Jeff Morrow
March 12, 2015

Book Value: What Every Manager Should Know About Training

by Jeff Morrow
March 12, 2015 | Comments (5)

I recently wrote about the difference between Toyota Way lean thinking versus short-term, quick win style lean thinking which for good or ill seems to be the default approach. Along these lines, I want to recommend Dr. Robert Mager's classic What Every Manager Should Know About Training. It's effective in challenging default thinking about training and shares deep roots with The Toyota Way. It's also a good starting point for what is a large body of powerful methods.

It wouldn't be too far off the mark to think of Dr. Mager as the Taiichi Ohno of being PDCA-scientific about human performance, except that Ohno was the Ohno of being PDCA-scientific about human performance, too. The difference is that Ohno's focus was on improving the Toyota Production System and Mager's has been to help improve pretty much any kind of human performance. Starting from similar perspectives but focusing on different problems, they wound up with different yet overlapping sets of countermeasures. The thinking they share goes back through Training Within Industry to Walter Shewhart to John Dewey, the American Pragmatist philosopher. Those are some serious roots.

So, what does "human performance" have to do with training and how does that map to the Gemba, problem solving, and PDCA? The default thinking at play here is what too often leads managers to deal with performance shortfalls by punting responsibility to a training function. Consider, for example, all the Death by PowerPoint training we've suffered and caused others to suffer because someone with enough authority thought (hoped? wished?) that general lean awareness training would transform things.

Now, compare Mager's performance-based approach with a conventional content-based, awareness training approach:


Performance-Based Training Content-Based Training
  1. Objectives are derived from analysis of real-world, Gemba-based problems and describe intended observable performance results.
  2. Content of the instruction is derived from the objectives to be accomplished and delivery means are tailored to the target population of trainees.
  3. Each trainee studies only what she does not yet know and has as much time as necessary to study. Instruction is self-paced.
  4. Each trainee is given sufficient realistic and low-risk opportunity to practice each sub-objective and the overall instructional objective. Performance feedback is clear.
  5. The primary instructor role is that of coaching.
  6. Tests (skill checks) are used for diagnosing difficulties, confirming mastery, and as opportunities to make trainees feel good about their progress.
  7. Trainees study and practice until they have reached mastery of the objectives.
  8. On reaching mastery, trainees receive a Certificate of Achievement.
  1. Objectives typically are absent or used to describe the content to be covered.
  2. Content of the instruction is usually determined by a subject matter specialist and delivery means are selected for delivery convenience.
  3. All trainees study the same content and have the same amount of time to study. Instruction is group-paced.
  4. Trainees are given few opportunities to practice, if at all, usually just for the overall instructional objective. Performance feedback is often fuzzy or non-existent.
  5. The primary instructor role is that of presenting.
  6. When used at all, tests are used mainly as a basis for grading (i.e., as a means for comparing how well trainees did relative to each other).
  7. Trainees study until the fixed course time has ended.
  8. At course completion, trainees receive a Certificate of Attendance.


A careful look at this table reveals contrasts between Toyota Way "Management by Means" thinking on the left side with classical "Management by Objective" thinking on the right:

  • coaching vs. telling
  • learning that is driven by problems (performance gaps) in the Gemba vs. decisions by distanced experts
  • a focus on what individuals need to learn and when and how (plenty of practice with high quality feedback!) vs. driving the herd through sheep-dip training
  • attention to how attaining mastery is motivating vs. overlooking how demotivating being incompetent feels
  • clear emphasis on real, observable improvement vs. questionable "numbers trained" kinds of metrics that actually measure attendance, not achievement. Using "numbers trained" KPIs to assess lean implementation brings serious risk of wasting money, wasting trainees' time, and worse yet… wasting the heart of the firm's openness to change, lost to cynicism about leaders' will to lead in their hand-off to the Training Department or a Lean Promotion Office.

Wait - it gets worse: why we're setting up managers to fail

Default-thinking transformation training can be actively pernicious - making things worse than doing nothing at all. Here's why: David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two Cornell psychologists, have shown that the less you know about something, the greater your tendency to feel you know it well enough. A little thought suggests why - if you don't know much about a topic it's hard to judge just how little you know, and confident folks, as managers can be, will tend to estimate on the "more" side. But isn't confidence always a good thing for lean transformers? Well, no.

Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect on managers after attending (they have Certificates!) content-based lean transformation training – training that didn't laser-focus on the particular new skills each person needed to develop and didn't provide individualized practice, with clear feedback, to build those skills. Feeling D-K confident and excited, our newly minted experts sally forth to launch their transformation efforts. But, short on key skills - gotta Kata to get skilled - and lacking the environment necessary for such novel and complex performances, their efforts falter. Even worse, because they felt competent, they may see failure as caused by weaknesses in lean or blocked by "cultural" inertia in their firm or by others' flawed performances. For those of them old enough to remember TQM, CQI, six sigma, BPR. etc. it's déjà vu all over again, Charlie Brown - no more kickoffs, Lucy, thank you very much!


Now for some good news: high performance, no training required

Those check sheets widely used in Toyota Way firms? Mager would call them job aids and they're wonderful ways to get reliable standard performance without any training at all. They support the performer while he does the work. Performer support systems range from simple handwashing check lists for hospital infection control all the way to adaptive electronic performance support systems (EPSS) for complex real-time tasks, such things as Integrated Development Environments like PyCharm for software development.

Other Toyota job aid examples are A3 and QC Story standard layouts serving as performer support, scaffolding the performances of learners (they also neatly tend to focus on performance gaps, just as Mager advocates). Repair bays in Toyota dealerships have dual screen EPSS that not only guide techs, they also feed techs' insights from the repair Gemba directly back to support design engineers' and supply chain performances.

Toyota engine designers use a sophisticated proprietary wizard app to step them through preparing CAD models for intricate thermal and structural computer simulations, a task only highly trained specialists could do before. Obeya visual project delivery practices and layouts scaffold project teams' performances. Chief engineers' wisdom builds in precious binders handed along from project to project. General engineering design, organized around problem solving, involves cadenced, standard practice collaboration using a large number of standard format performer support items. Direct performer support is embedded thinking at Toyota, and with a little practice, it's something we can embed into our organizations, too.

Of course, performer support has to be worth the cost, so investment comes way after we grasp the performance problems in the Gemba AND see that investment matches benefit better than simpler alternatives. Naturally, before we deploy any kind of instruction or support tool or work environment intervention, Mager requires us to prototype it, see how it delivers for our target population of learners, and adjust accordingly before rollout. PDCA!

Sometimes evolution generates similar countermeasures to the challenges of fitness through different pathways - biologists call this "convergent evolution." Functional eyes, for example, are believed to have evolved along more than a half-dozen separate paths. Perhaps under selective pressures of market capitalism convergent evolution also occurs in industrial organization, and an example of that is how Ohno and Mager wound up showing us similar ways to use performance gaps to see and learn. What do you think?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Alexis Winter, LSSBB March 14, 2015

Absolutely agree.

Performance based training engages Team members minds. "What gets measured gets done". Participant feedback through observation and skill checks are vital to Lean understanding and success.

An excellent Lean leader confirms implementation of Trainee progress status and practice.

Thank you for sharing.  

Reply »

Jeff Morrow March 15, 2015


Reply »

Mert Cevik March 15, 2015

As a victim of many many performance-based trainings I cannot agree more with this article. Beyond that we could ask ourselves how much the value of training is understood in organizations. However I think this is completely another discussion. 

I feel that there is an ambiguity while passing from the it gets worse part to the good news part. We have a D-K confident manager phenomenon at one side which is truly real I believe. 

And at the other side I see a detail under the next title saying "investment comes way after we grasp the performance problems in the Gemba". Wel this is truly right and this is indeed one of the basics of lean thinking.

However, it occurs to me that the truly real and the right one cannot exist at the same conditions. If we have a D-K confident guy around, we cannot grasp a problem. So how we pass from the one to the other?



Reply »

Jaime Pascual March 16, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thanks for sharing, Jeff. As I read the article this morning, I had to smile.

Here I am getting ready to attend, as a participant, a 2-day training session using which style? You guessed it: more content-based training. The irony is that as a LSS practitioner I've been preparing and socializing (practicing "nemawashi") an unrelated performance-based training plan at my Oil & Gas company in order to roll-out a geoscience software application, along wih data standards and improved work flows.

So why do so many resort to content-based training as the default? My theory is that it "seems easier" and most would(erroneously) assume that we're done: problem solved, check the box. With some PDCA and A3-thinking exposure, it's easy to see the gap in the logic.

Thank you for a very timely topic and bringing a smile to my day!

Reply »

Jeff Morrow March 16, 2015

We aim to please, Jaime. Any time I can bring a customer some delight brings a smile to my face, too.

Creating a performance-based intervention (instruction, performer support, etc.) does take more upfront effort, no question. But so much of what passes for training has delivered so little for so long that folks' performance outcomes expectations are very low - if we're honest they're more like "will I be entertained, will I like the donuts, will they let us out early, can I network, will they hold it in a cool location?"

Those who have never experienced a performance-based learning system may well assume that it, too, warrants havng low outcome expectations.  So, why would they think it would warrant greater upfront effort?

Houston, I think we have a Chicken/Egg problem. What Every Manager Should Know About Training has good answers for some of what I expect your nemawashi has surfaced and it's a great place to start grasping a richer approach in general. Read it!

Reply »

Search Posts:
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Derek Browning & Robert Martichenko
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By Jeffrey Liker and Michael Hoseus
Toyota Kata
By Mike Rother
"But TPS Doesn't Apply to Us...."
Thoughts on the Birth of Lean
Working on the Management
Sharks & Tortoises
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