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Training (+ 7-Page Lean PDF)

Success in continuous improvement relies on many factors—leadership, communication, and employee engagement, to name a few. None of the intangibles matter, though, if employees and leaders are not properly trained. In a nutshell, training is the act of passing useable skills from one person to another.

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Instructors need two basic things in order to be effective trainers. First, they must have a little more knowledge than the people they are teaching. There is a misconception that a trainer must be an expert in a subject to be an effective trainer. Not true. If you wanted to train someone to make an omelet, you wouldn’t need to be a master chef. You would just need to know how to crack eggs, and have a solid understanding of the recipe. Being an expert is necessary in some instances. But, when the training is targeted at learning a specific task, knowing just a little more than the trainee is usually sufficient.

This simple fact means that there is great promise for Lean organizations. Instead of always relying on highly experienced experts to pass on knowledge, companies can use their own leadership team to slowly, but surely, improve the abilities of their employees. There is, of course a need for those experts to train complicated or difficult tasks, but many activities don’t require that level of expertise—creating kanban systems needs expert trainers; creating kanban cards needs a trainer who is well-versed in making kanban cards. Leaders and professionals in most companies have a lot of knowledge about the fundamentals of Lean that could be taught to employees. Passing it on is the hard part, though.

That’s the second basic thing that a good trainer must have: an ability to communicate instructions in an effective way. Having the knowledge is not enough. Trainers have to be able to package it in a way so it can be understood, remembered, and most importantly, put to good use. Helping workers learn is much more difficult than most people think. Lack of that skill is often the bottleneck that holds back Lean success—it is surprising how few untrained employees it takes to slow a company down on its Lean journey.

Training generally happens in one of four ways.

  • Large group lectures. This is the ‘one person talks, many people listen’ model of training and is frequently used for orientations. It is most effective when many people need knowledge quickly. The drawback of this method is that it is hard for an instructor to see how the students are doing, and there is often limited time to do practical exercises or ask questions.
  • Small group or one-on-one mentoring. This is most common when a frontline leader trains new employees on a process, or a consultant trains a manager on how to do a job skill. It is generally an effective model, since a trainer can frequently see how the student is doing, plus the skill can often be used immediately in a real situation. The quality of the training, though, can vary. Not all leaders are good mentors.
  • Formal training. This is the classroom approach. Groups tend to be smaller than in a lecture format, and instruction usually contains generous helpings of hands-on exercises and group participation. Instructors are often well-polished, and can be very skilled at training the course. The downside is that the training is given at the time that the class is scheduled, not when it is needed.
  • Just-in-time training. This is the training that is given right before a skill is needed. For example, few people ever get bungee-jumping training ‘just-in-case.’ They receive instruction on the bridge right before they put their harness on and take the leap. In Lean, the most common training of this format is in a kaizen. The facilitator will generally spend the first day going over Lean principles and the specific methods that will be used during the upcoming week. The biggest downside is that skilled trainers are often not available exactly when needed.

Regardless of how it is taught, for training to be retained, it must be used. Do you remember your drivers’ education class? Probably only vaguely. You remember the lessons, though. You use them every day. The skills you were taught were reinforced by repetition and practice. On the other hand, do you remember how to determine the length of the unequal side of an isosceles triangle? Unless you use it every day for your job, you would probably have to look it up.

The point is to use the training early and often. After all, training is an investment. Both employees and companies should get something out of it.

Training, even with the best of intentions can be ineffective if it is not well-planned and well-executed. Pay attention to these common pitfalls.

  • Avoid ‘going through the motions’ of training. Above all else, training should be done with a purpose—leaders and employees alike should have an understanding of what the expectations will be after the training is completed. If training is done haphazardly, employees will feel like their time is wasted, and leaders will get frustrated that they are spending time and money and not getting good results. Before starting training, both boss and employee should be clear about how the effectiveness of training will be evaluated. This might be a test or it might be actually putting the training to use in a real situation.
  • Use process improvement to eliminate waste in Lean training. Make sure that trainers are increasingly effective. Use instructor reviews, or link their evaluations to the success of the students. Also, make sure that courses continually get refined so the instructors and materials improve over time. That means better results with less time invested in training. It is surprising (and ironic) how often a company creates a training package about continuous improvement, and then uses it for years without any adjustments.
  • Don’t skimp on training. Pinching pennies by getting bargain basement instructors or cutting classes short makes training less effective. This reduces employees’ desire to participate in future training and all but guarantees the status quo.

Training is the key to your advancement in a Lean company. You will constantly have more asked of you. The more prepared you are to handle those challenges, the better off you will be and the more that you can increase your job security.

What if you don’t want to advance? If you are happy where you are, every company with a continuous improvement culture has a goal, by definition, to do things better every day. You won’t be able to be a part of that without understanding how. Even if you don’t care about getting better, and if you are not worried about your boss getting mad, you might care about one thing: your coworkers.

Some of them will care about getting better. If you aren’t trained, you won’t be able to pull your weight. How do you think your friends at work will feel about you if they have to pick up the slack that is left over because you are not trained to do your job? Poor relationships are a surefire way to lower your job satisfaction.

Put a training plan in place. Think about the gap in skills that your team has, and what you think they need. Fill that gap. Why? Apart from the benefit to your company, you will help your own career. As your team gets better at doing things, they will get better results and help you hit your targets quicker.

On top of that, better skills often translate into more free time for you. Time to do the really big important projects that weren’t getting done due to the other tasks you had to do—the ones that you can now delegate to a trained team.

Finally, focus your training effort on volunteers. Not just the ones who volunteer for classes, but the ones who show a tendency to volunteer for projects and harder assignments. They are the ones who will be most likely to put training to use.

  • Training is the transfer of useable skills. Just passing on knowledge doesn’t count.
  • A good trainer doesn’t need to be an expert in a field. She just has to have a solid understanding of the process she is training. She does, however, need to be skilled at the techniques of training.
  • Many training formats are available. Choose the one that best meets the needs of the student.


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