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Paul Leavoy

Quality Insider

Compromised Training Programs Can Sabotage Quality

Don't cut your training budgets; develop a leaner, more efficient training machine

Published: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 - 06:00

If analysts are correct, the recent economic downturn may be slowing and even changing direction. The recession's effect on operations, however, has barely begun to manifest. Training budgets are typically the hardest hit when economic times are tough or corporate purse strings are pulled more tightly. The effects of a reduced training budget might not be evident immediately but over time will show up as cracks in product and service quality.

“The result of poor training management is an interesting cause and effect relationship,” says Mark Jaine, president and CEO of Intelex Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based company that provides training and environment, health, safety and quality (EHSQ) management software solutions. “The ‘cause’ is the decision to slash training budgets and neglect training programs. The ‘effect’ is poorer employee performance, compromised product and service quality, and diminished employee retention. However, sometimes these effects aren’t realized until one, three, or even five years later, depending on the company's size and the extent of the neglect.”

Systems make mistakes

Although the connection can seem tenuous or indirect, proper training has a direct effect on quality, just as it has on every aspect of business.

As business process design expert Chris Anderson notes in a recent blog post about the top 10 root causes of business problems, poor training heads the list. Two decades of business management prompts Anderson to place poor training ahead of poor methods, poor employee placement, and poor engineering and design.

“People don’t make mistakes,” he insists. “Systems make mistakes.”

Just as product and service quality issues arise from systemic deficiencies, employee performance and its effect on quality directly relate to the integrity of training management systems.

According to Manny Avramidis, senior vice president of global human resources at the New York-based American Management Association (AMA), training and quality are peas in a pod.

“I think training and quality are inseparable,” he says. “They should always be mentioned in the same sentence. Even if an organization feels it is 100 percent where it needs to be from a quality perspective, training is what got it there.”

For nearly a century, the AMA has provided consulting services to some of the world’s largest companies, offering solutions to enhance training programs and underscore the importance of continuous training. After years of working with Fortune 1,000 companies around the globe, Avramidis is convinced the businesses that have made a fulsome training management system a priority are the ones that succeed.

“I believe that the best-in-class companies have thorough training programs that deliver measurable results,” he says. “For those that overlook it, it’s probably due of lack of time and other resources. However, such an oversight often leads to harsh ramifications.”

Sustained training in tough times

After the onset of the economic downturn, a widely cited survey published by learning management consulting firm Expertus (“Measuring Learning as Budgets Tighten,” 2008) confirmed what many suspected might occur: Training budgets plummeted as businesses launched preemptive measures to mitigate the anticipated effects of the economic downturn. According to the survey, which included 84 training professionals across 19 industries, nearly half (48 percent) of respondents indicated that they expected to see training budgets fall in 2009, about 41 percent when compared to 2008 budgets.

As a 2009 article in Electrical Construction and Maintenance (“Training and Continuing Education Trends in the Electrical Industry,” Feb. 2009) highlighted, Commonwealth Associated, a Michigan-based engineering firm, counterintuitively boosted its training programs and budgets when the 2008 economic downturn hit. Despite the significant slowdown in construction projects across the state, rather than initiating a round of layoffs, Commonwealth placed idle employees—those not engaged in immediate projects—in expanded training programs to acquire new technical skills and enhance competence and efficiency with existing skills.

According to Jaine, whose company posted strong growth throughout the recent recession, an enhanced focus on training to achieve consistent product and service quality in the face of economic instability just makes sense. “Tough economic times mean tighter margins and fiercer competition,” he says. “It is a survival-of-the-fittest environment. But guess what? The fittest are also the best trained.”

The trend to shrink training budgets in the face of economic uncertainty is by no means restricted to United States businesses. In the United Kindom—where the effects of the economic downturn were among the most pronounced of any region around the globe—training budgets were slashed across almost all industries. A survey of more than 700 professionals by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD’s annual “Learning and Development Survey,” April 2010) indicated that 52 percent of the companies surveyed had learning and development budget cuts as they entered 2010.

Interestingly, the volume of staff across training departments didn't change in the face of plummeting budgets.

“UK organizations have stepped up to manage costs more efficiently,” a CIPD statement notes. “The main changes during the last year include a move to be more business-focused, a reduction in external suppliers and a move to in-house provision.”

Managing training costs more effectively might well be the best response in a turbulent economic environment, according to Jaine.

“The trick is not to cut training budgets and neglect training programs,” he says. “The trick is to develop a leaner, meaner, more efficient training machine.”

Jaine believes effective training in the 21st century should be continual, integrated and electronic.

Training: To be continual

Many businesses make the mistake of approaching training as a one-time or ad hoc task: Employees are trained when they are hired and rarely, if ever, retrained or trained for new competencies.

Avramidis says that businesses cannot adequately embrace the much sought-after ideal of continual improvement until they incorporate continuous training into their business models.

“It is very important that a company establishes a training program that helps every employee realize his or her potential, and in turn helps the business realize its potential,” he says. “Such programs are constantly revisited and always altered due to employee, manager, and customer feedback. It is a continuous process.”

One aspect of continuous training is a program that regularly schedules learning sessions with employees to build, develop, and diversify their skills and know-how as they grow with the company.

Deming’s domain

No discussion of continual improvement would be complete without reference to W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., the man responsible for quality control and its most critical mechanism, the plan-do-check-act, or Deming cycle.

Not only can the Deming cycle be applied to training and training management programs to mitigate negative effect on quality; the famous statistician’s focus on curtailing checklists and giving all employees a sense of meaning behind their responsibilities can also be applied to achieve integrated training.

It’s the cultivation of what Avramidis calls the “curious” side of an employee, and it's achieved by using Deming’s model to get employees to think beyond their immediate jobs. “If you’re operating a press," says Avramidis, "I’m going to guess you have a lot of say and know-how beyond just press operation—on how to better the quality of a product or the experience of a customer.” 

Electronic efficiency

An efficient program of continuous training is software-driven and incorporates e-learning, according to Dennis AuBuchon, a training consultant and the author of Integrity: Do you have it? (Infinity Publishing, 2005).

“Executing a program of continuous training can be accomplished through online courses that their employees can accomplish at their desks or locations rather than sitting in a classroom,” he says.

But beyond e-learning components, a training management system that takes many of the routine, repeated tasks out of training management—such as reminding employees to complete their training sessions, and notifying their superiors when the training sessions are incomplete—can be invaluable. An electronic system, for example, can issue escalating e-mail notifications to trainee, supervisor, manager, and further up the hierarchy for as long as the trainee’s training session remains incomplete. It can also provides metrics to develop a specific list of objectives and a pre- and post-analysis that can lead to noticeable or measurable differences in employee (and company) performance.

“Of course, the right people are an essential ingredient in a fulsome training program,” he says. “However, it is important to look at what these ‘right people’ are doing. Are they wasting time booking training sessions? Are they using static spreadsheets to track their data? Are they preoccupied with the minutiae of day-to-day paperwork? Or are they able to step back, automate the nuts-and-bolts aspects of their training management systems, and improve their human resources from a higher vantage point?”

DIY or outsource?

Neither Jaine nor Avramidis suggest businesses try to build a solution from the ground up.

“I would no sooner recommend to a company to build training on its own from scratch than I would recommend to someone build a plane if he wants to fly across the Atlantic,” says Avramidis. “I would much rather recommend an established airline that will get him from point A to point B in a more efficient and effective manner.”

Jaine agrees.

“Businesses achieve success because they demonstrate excellence in their specific niche or industry,” he says. “However, the essential elements of effective, integrated, continuous training are true across all businesses, and the tools to help companies give their training programs the attention they deserve are already out there. There is no need to reinvent the wheel to get the best training possible and, in turn, the best quality possible.”

Organizations interested in building a new training program or improving an existing one should consider implementing web-based training management software with fundamental components that ensure training is continual, cost-effective, and easy to manage, according to Jaine. Such a solution should be:

Completely configurable: The system should address unique business requirements. For example, it should allow for the creation of customized quizzes.

Proactive: The system should reach out to training managers and supervisors to continually apprise them of the status of staff training. For example, automatic escalating e-mail notifications should be issued up through the organizational hierarchy as training requirement deadlines approach, occur and pass.

Compliance- and audit-oriented: The system should easily integrate training management requirements for ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 19011, and OHSAS 18001 standards. It should also automatically archive training histories and documents for year-round internal and external audit preparedness.


About The Author

Paul Leavoy’s picture

Paul Leavoy

Paul Leavoy, a research analyst at LNS Research, is responsible for creating thought leadership and benchmark research to help industrial executives address operational, environmental, and quality management related challenges. Leavoy has more than 10 years experience in writing, reporting, editing, and research with expertise in environmental health and safety (EHS), sustainability, and technology. Before joining LNS Research, Paul had an extensive career in journalism, having edited, published, and written for newspapers throughout Ontario, Canada. He has fostered a love for the role technology plays in ensuring continuous improvement across sustainability performance, EHS management, and operational excellence.