If training is the answer, what is the more important question?

Imagine that your company just launched an initiative to train myriad personnel in problem-solving skills, the result of a thoughtful decision to continuously improve productivity.  No doubt this was a sizeable investment, not just financially, but also in the time and energy siphoned from people’s regular job commitments during training.  Folks got the memo that they had to attend training led by experts. There was an expectation that they’d be equipped with new skills to use back on-the-job; skills that could generate some immediate wins. If people attend training, listen attentively, take good notes in class and follow-up afterward, surely business results will follow. Right? Not necessarily.

When was the last time your organization launched a program to train people around problem-solving?  What was its goal?  Were all the objectives accomplished?  How was success measured?  Did the training “stick” and reflect in a long-term change in peoples’ behaviors?

Ultimately, people need to be speaking the same “language” if any new problem-solving process, tool or method is ever going to transform the way stuff gets done.  However, training alone is not enough  to change the way people think.  If company leadership does not approach training as one small part of a larger program, there is the risk that any new skills will quickly lose momentum and become forgotten.

To maximize the probability that problem-solving training will be successful and worth the company’s investment, there are four key questions that, collectively, management must answer.

  • Do we (leadership) agree that there is a need for a more structured problem-solving approach?
  • Do we (the organization) understand how to apply and integrate the new problem-solving skills?
  • How will we measure the benefits of problem-solving activities?
  • How will we know that the new skills are “sticking” and driving behavioral change?

Answering these four questions requires that management embrace a robust pre- and post-training plan that, ideally, should be made prior to rolling out a series of workshops.

Leadership Alignment

Problem-solving training may fail to generate ROI if it’s not supported by leadership. To optimize the value of a program, management needs to align on three key issues.

  1. Leadership, across the organization, needs to agree on what issues require a formal problem-solving process and why existing problem-solving may not be effective.  If part of the organization believes existing problem-solving is good as is, the disconnect may deter any new skills from truly being adopted.
  2. To optimize the way problem-solving gets handled, management must clearly define who will own the problem-resolution process, who will be involved in it and who will be responsible for championing problem solving at varying levels of the organization.
  3. Leadership must understand the value that following a structured problem-solving approach will bring.  Otherwise, the time and effort needed to integrate new skills in the workplace will not be reinforced from top-level down.

Business Process Alignment

Organizations struggle to integrate new problem-solving skills if they are not aligned with the business processes people follow every day.  Consider this scenario: training participants learn a new, structured approach for asking questions to clarify issues, gather problem facts and use those facts to narrow down root cause.  They strongly see how this approach will make life easier.  However, when they return to their day job, the fields they need to fill out in the knowledge management system don’t mirror the structured problem-solving approach they learned in class.  Their colleagues and even their manager take a different approach to handling issues and don’t use the step-by-step questions of the new approach.  Moreover, everyone is being held to a standard of getting things fixed as quickly as possible and the message is clearly, “don’t just stand there – do something!”

In this scenario, the business process is not configured to support the new structured problem-solving approach even though management had agreed that there was a  need for a better approach and initiated training.   The tools and templates people use must be aligned with the methods learned in training.   Individuals need to be provided with adequate time and resources to apply good problem-solving processes as the standard approach.

In the scenario, the organization needs to assess where and how the new problem-solving approach will “bolt on” to the problem-resolution process.  Is the existing process set up for success, or do tools and templates need to be adjusted to support the use of improved problem-solving skills?

Goals and Metrics

What does the company want to improve by training people in problem-solving?  What needles need to be moved and how will the company know that training has done its job?

A series of financial, as well as non-financial metrics can be identified and analyzed to determine the effectiveness of problem-solving activities.  For example,  a reduction in unnecessary fixes due to better problem solving may be able to be measured financially in reductions in parts costs, while the mean-time-to-repair metric may be useful in tracking problem solving success non-financially by using the number of maintenance actions per period-of-time.

These and other metrics are typically lagging, meaning they are “postgame” measurements of how the game was played.  While important, companies should also consider looking at in-process metrics, those which can be measured “during the game.” These metrics give folks an idea of the effectiveness of the problem-solving as it’s happening, and help organizations become conscious of the quality of the approach to handling issues.


To precipitate positive changes in peoples’ behaviors, planned actions and changes will incentivize people to use the skills they’ve learned back on the job. Management needs to establish and communicate:

  • Clear expectations pertaining to problem-solving and what folks are to do differently following training;
  • How feedback pertaining to peoples’ problem-solving will be administered and tracked;
  • How folks will receive on-going training, follow-on coaching and mentoring in the areas of problem-solving;
  • The “WIIFM” factor (what’s in it for me?).

If the expectations for how to use the training are not abundantly clear; the work environment can make using the new skills impossible. Folks need to receive prompt, timely or specific feedback on how they are using the skills from training. If taking the time and effort to apply new skills isn’t expected, accommodated or acknowledged, using new skills may engender a negative rather than a positive consequences. Without performance support, ROI just won’t happen.

If training people in problem-solving is the answer, what’s the bigger question?  It is essential to know what are we aiming to change or improve and how we can ensure that training will deliver those changes and improvements. The best-practice approach to maximizing ROI on problem-solving training is a program that not only teaches new skills but also includes a plan for structuring, implementing and tracking the training as it rolls out in the organization.

Read other articles from Kepner-Tregoe

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Structuring your root cause analysis meetings for success

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