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Effective management training for supervisors.

America's business and industrial leaders must consider staff training a blue-chip investment. By one estimate, they spent over $4 billion on that item in 1983 alone. A sizable share flowed specifically into management training.

But management training is a relatively new concept in the health care industry, and potential investors should proceed with care. Many programs are too costly, time-consuming, or theoretical for the clinical laboratory, while some are simply irrelevant to its needs.

A manager looking for quick, simple remedies to the laboratory's problems may fall into what has been called "the panacean trap." Instead of analyzing what the laboratory really needs--or indeed whether training is needed at all--they simply direct the personnel department to come up with some kind of cure-all instructional program.

To judge by the long parade of shotgun management remedies, these panaceas have about the same success rate as miracle cures for obesity. The current menu includes management by objectives, transactional analysis, job enrichment, situational motivation, and one-minute managing, along with such Japanese specialties as quality circles. Some of these systems are old standbys trotted out with a clever new name. A variant of quality circles, for instance, was called "autonomous work groups" a decade ago.

Actually, these programs do work--but only when used intelligently, by the right participants and for the right purpose. Even then, programs may fail because skills learned in the classroom are not transferred to the workplace. Measure real success not by how much is learned in class but by the extent to which supervisors continue to use their new skills back on the job.

We must also distinguish management training from career development, although their goals and course content overlap. Training programs are designed to rectify deficiencies in job performance, whereas career development is a future-oriented effort to prepare candidates for promotion. Training programs focus on specific problems, favoring pragmatism over theory.

Before the laboratoy can decide how to spend training dollars effectively, it must diagnose the underlying problems. Performance deficiencies, for example, may stem from poor upper-level management. No crash course for supervisors is likely to correct a badly organized work environment, unrealistic expectations, unclear policies, inadequate compensation, or inappropriate leadership styles.

In fact, a training program may have undersirable side effects. It is unproductive, for example, to drag recalcitrant supervisors into seminars while their work piles up back at the office. And there is another risk: Once supervisors learn to recognize good management practices, they may realize that their own superiors are anything but paragons of managerial expertise.

The responsibility for training programs must be shared among upper management, trainees' supervisors, and trainees themselves, or else problems ensue. Let's examine the role each party plays in developing a worthwhile program.

When most of an organization's managerial openings must be filled by outsiders, it's a tipoff that the top brass are giving little more than lip service to employee training and development. The occasional infusion of new blood is healthy, but it is no replacement for an institutional commitment to career planning. Financial and psychological support, while essential, are not enough. High-level administrators must participate actively in assessing needs and selecting programs.

Chief executive officers must also determine whether the hospital or laboratory is getting its money's worth from a training program. The program is likely to be a good investment if it focuses on specific needs and objectives; if results are measured by documentable achievements, such as improved quality, better productivity, decreased turnover, or fewer complaints; and if the program is funded through departmental budgets rather than through hospital educational services. Department heads are apt to be more selective when the money comes out of their budgets.

In the current cost crunch, which has already hit many hospital education programs, department heads must devote more time and thought than ever to managerial training if they sincerely want it to survive. The manager or department head who supervises supervisors must share their commitment to continuing education. These managers know what skills their supervisors need. With some expert assistance, they can conduct a needs assessment, help pick candidates, and select a good program.

Equally important, managers should provide fertile ground for transplanting and nurturing supervisors' newly acquired skills. Many trainees report that their bosses are major obstacles to effective training. Supervisors who take management workshops say that middle managers often are poor models and coaches who discourage the use of new managerial techniques. They don't keep trainees informed, don't show interest in their problems, and fail to support them in disciplinary actions. Many don't solicit, or even listen to, trainees' ideas.

Ultimately, of course, supervisors themselves are responsible for narrowing the gap between their actual performance and the demands of their job. They alone must decide on career goals, pinpoint their continuing education needs, and turn motivation into action.

We can identify 10 essential steps in a basic strategy for the management training of supervisors (Figure I). This strategy helps plan and implement an educational program that is both results-oriented and cost-effective. The most important--and neglected--step is the very first: assessing the needs of the laboratory and its personnel. We will devote the rest of this article to needs assessment and cover the other steps in Part II of this report next month.

Good training is important, but training for good reasons is even more important! Hospital administrators and other top managers want their supervisors to discharge their various responsibilities more effectively, and they also want to develop a corps of potential managers waiting in the wings (what college athletic coaches call "red-shirting"). At the other end of the hierarchy, supervisors and other first-line managers want to grow more expert in their present positions while improving their promotability.

In assessing the laboratory's training needs, take all these assumptions as broad goals. Then focus on four key questions:

* Is training the answer to our problem or need?

* Can our present training program satisfy our needs?

* If not, what changes are then indicated?

* If new skills are learned, will they be applicable on the job, and will they be sustained there?

Needs assessment is an information-gathering process to determine what kind of training and development will benefit the laboratory most and how well new skills will be received in the workplace. In the past, we could assess needs informally with a simple survey asking managers to guess how many of their staff members could use a training course. Now, at least in large organizations, the stakes are too high for such a simplistic approach to training.

Here are some common errors in assessing training needs:

* Failure to distinguish between staff desires and genuine needs.

* Uncritical acceptance of management's stated needs.

* Failure to correlate needs with organizational plans and objectives.

* Assuming that all needs can be met through training.

* Underestimating the importance of assessing needs in program selection and development.

* Depending exclusively on intuition or published research in determining needs.

* A tendency to react rather than plan.

Needs assessment consists of three major stages. First, delineate a method for conducting the study; second, gather and evaluate data; and third, rank needs in order of priority before targeting your audience and planning the training itself.

The fact-finding study should point out the nature of the laboratory's deficiencies or developmental needs and how pervasive and serious they are. Don't train people who don't need or want training. Avoid like the plague a generic training menu that includes all aspects of management practice for all supervisors. Answer these questions before undertaking detailed studies.

* Who or what brought up the subject of training in the first place, and why?

* What are the causes of the problems in question?

* What are the flaws of the present program?

* Is there an easier, faster, or less expensive alternative to training?

* How were these needs or problems handled in the past? How successfully were they handled?

If there is still a consensus that a training program should be introduced or changed, continue to investigate needs. Here is one flow-chart approach to handling the process:

1. Management or the training staff appoints a committee or task force to study the problem. Ideally, this initiative should come from the institution's administration, but the laboratory itself may tackle the problem on its own.

On a hospitalwide basis, appointees would include some heads of major departments, the directors of personnel and education, and a member of the executive team. Within the lab, a task force might include one of the pathologists, the manager of chief technologist, and the MT school's education coordinator or director.

2. The task force selects a method for conducting the study and determining a target audience.

3. With the help of the training staff, the task force may prepare a special questionnaire, audit, or examination.

4. They prepare a list of questions to use in highly structured interviews with the direct supervisors of potential trainees, and assign members to conduct the interviews.

5. The training staff collates and summarizes the data gathered in the survey.

6. Task force members conduct interviews and summarize their findings.

7. They and the training staff review the data and make recommendations.

8. After top-level approval, the training staff develops an appropriate program.

Don't ignore any clues to the laboratory's needs. Figure II lists various sources of data relating to training needs and career development. And don't overlook what we might call environmental needs. Often, trainers or programs are blamed for poor results when the real culprit is a workplace hostile to innovation. That's why the following additional questions must be answered in assessing needs:

* What self-imposed attitudes among trainees will enhance or inhibit the application of new skills?

* What attitudes of peers or superiors will do so?

* How will policies, rules, practices, or politics affect results?

* How can the lab improve this environment?

Trainees should be eager to try out new techniques. They are most likely to go forward with enthusiasm if a program favors practical experience over theory, provides exercises like role playing that simulate real work situations, and offers ample opportunity to practice on classmates.

It helps to break the training into segments, starting with skills that permit some initial easy breakthroughs. Don't expect trainees to implement a host of major changes simultaneously with any success. Whenever possible, involve their superiors in program planning, selection, and evaluation.

A number of organizational factors may affect the outcome of these efforts. As an example, take an introverted laboratory supervisor just trained in assertiveness techniques. He or she will achieve faster breakthroughs as a member of a student selection committe than as a laboratory representative on a hospital infection committee packed with aggressive physicians. Save more challenging assignments for later.

Performance appraisal skills can be enhanced most easily in laboratories where the process is a flexible one. When appraisals are based on personalities or a rigid numerical scoring system, the recent trainee will be severely handicapped.

Selecting the target audience completes the needs assessment process. To choose the right participants, those who provide the training must have an idea of the group's size and mix. As a rule, it is not a good policy to meld employees from different levels of the same organization in management workshops, except for those dealing with neutral topics like planning skills or time management. Picture role playing a performance appraisal with your own supervisor, and you will see the wisdom in this point.

Once you have determined exactly what kind of training is needed, and by whom, it is time to choose and implement a program. Part II of this report, in the next issue of MLO, will look at how to put a needs assessment report into action.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Umiker, William O.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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