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Specifying training: by performance or by the pound?

Specifying training: By performance or by the pound?

Automated systems generally are specified in terms of expected results, with the method of achieving those results left to the supplier. This simplifies justification, provides a measure for supplier performance, and increases the competitiveness of the bidding process.

Yet, seldom is our approach to training so results oriented. If specified at all, the training for these same systems is defined usually in terms of delivery mode or time period per person. This makes as much sense as specifying system hardware by the pound.

A far better way is to apply the same results standards for training that we expect from the system itself. Here are some suggestions on how that can be done.

What training?

Some early users of automated systems discovered the need for training ex post facto--after the equipment was installed. Today, with the importance of training well accepted, training needs are often addressed in the initial system specification.

These needs can be complex and on-going. Employee turnover and changing manufacturing requirements can demand additional training long after the system is first brought on-line. If, in these cases, off-the-shelf training falls short, custom training is often required.

The first question to ask is "Do you really want training, or is this merely the means to some better defined end?" Think about it. If what you really want is training results, then that's what you should specify. Thinking in these terms helps you define what you expect from training and improve your training specifications.

Let's consider a hypothetical situation: Acme Manufacturing has written a specification for a system to automate its packaging line. While previously automating another section of its plant, Acme learned the importance of including training in the system specification, so their new specification calls for two weeks of training for five operating people and four weeks of training for two maintenance people.

Two vendors respond. Vendor A's proposal meets all aspects of the specification, including training, and quotes a price of $268,000. Vendor B proposes a system that meets the equipment specification, but takes exception to the training specification. It states that no formal training will be required, citing built-in job guides at each operator station, easy to understand menus and controls, and internal diagnostics. A job guide would also be provided to assist maintenance people in replacing faulty components. Their proposal references users of similar systems who found their employees were able to perform 90 percent of required operating and maintenance procedures without formal training. Vendor B's price is $275,000.

Analyzing the bids

Although the $7000 difference is relatively small, Vendor A has quoted the better price and meets all specification requirements. It appears they should be given the job.

But consider another viewpoint. Isn't the key question "What results does Acme expect to achieve through training?" Although training is sometimes used to inspire, reward, or motivate, this rarely is the case for operation and maintenance training for an automated manufacturing system.

It would seem that Acme expects the training to help its operators and maintenance people perform certain tasks relative to the new system. If this is true, Vendor A's proposal is weak, since it provides little assurance that the people attending training will be able to perform to any minimal standard. It simply provides X weeks of training, after which, Acme would know only that their employees have rubbed shoulders with an instructor for the specified period of time.

In contrast, Vendor B's references indicate that Acme can expect the majority of its people to perform 90 percent of the required procedures without formal training. Whether or not you feel this is an acceptable level of performance, Vendor B's proposal certainly defines what Acme can expect more clearly than does Vendor A's.

And don't overlook hidden costs. Vendor A's training may involve travel expenses and time away from the job. Even if training is done locally, lost time alone easily negates the price difference in the two proposals.

Employee-weeks is a poor measure of training effectiveness. Certainly, Acme will not be satisfied with the training if it provides no significant improvement in the performance of the people attending.

Does Acme really want training? I think not. What they want is some level of performance. If Vendor B's 90 percent performance level is acceptable, Acme should award them the project and forego formal training. Although Vendor A agrees to provide training, nothing was said about results.

Pitfalls to avoid

Many problems can be avoided by specifying training in terms of expected results, usually some level of employee performance. This way, your specifications more clearly communicate your training needs, and you can evaluate alternative proposals more objectively. This need not be difficult. Here are some pitfalls to avoid: Don't specify length. Every experienced trainer can relate a horror story about being asked to teach in one week a topic that requires a college semester or more to cover. Or the reverse case, where a one-hour subject must be stretched to a full week by using war stories and song-and-dance routines.

You wouldn't write a specification for 14 lbs of programmable controllers. Training takes time, but its length says nothing of its effectiveness in improving employee performance.

(I am not suggesting that length is irrelevant. The length of time required can be a measure of the efficiency of the training, and as such, used to compare two alternative training approaches to achieving the same level of employee performance.)

Don't specify topics. Often, companies, seeing the error in specifying length, switch to preparing extensive lists of topics to be covered. This creates unique topics the trainer must cover, but rarely results in any measurable improvement in employee performance. Although these outlines might include a wealth of "nice-to-know" facts, they should not constitute a major part of training designed to produce a specific level of employee performance, unless, of course, that performance involves reciting nice-to-know facts. Don't specify media or techniques. Training is a means to an end, a necessary evil. Most companies would gladly purchase products that require no training if given that choice.

A common misconception is that there is one best way to provide all training, and that characteristics of the people to be trained, training environment, and specific performance levels are all secondary issues. Thus, it's assumed that media and techniques are more important than specific needs--just give me the latest state-of-the-art training media.

Programmed learning was an early example of this, and so companies wrote specifications requiring all training be provided via question and answer booklets, now seldom seen. Later, video training became the rage, and companies adjusted their specifications accordingly. Most recently, computer-based training and interactive video are viewed as the all-powerful media.

The fallacy here is that there is one best way to provide training. If your company's objectives include making a profit, the best way is the way that produces the desired results at the least cost. Period! Training that requires costly and often proprietary delivery equipment has a built-in disadvantage. It must be far more efficient in producing the desired performance if its cost/benefit ratio is to compare favorably with more conventional training methods.

Stand-alone specs

Stand-alone specifications are those cases where you must address a current training need, as opposed to cases where training is part of a specification for a new system. Your specification must clearly communicate two types of information: 1. What you want your employees to be able to do upon completion. Although this can be difficult, you must define this as precisely as possible.

By using action verbs--to install, to repair, to maintain--you'll communicate your training needs in terms of observable behaviors you want your employees to exhibit. This is not the case when you use abstract verbs, such as to know, to understand, or to be aware of.

Try to establish acceptable standards for each behavior by stating how well or how fast you expect your employees to perform. Will you be satisfied if your employees can repair the system within one hour in eight of ten cases? If so, specify accordingly. But, if you expect the system to be repaired within one hour every time, say so, but recognize that this may require a more comprehensive and costly training program. 2. The current skill level of your employees. In addition to knowing what you expect from your employees after training, prospective bidders need to know something about their current skill levels. If they have prior related experience, say so. This helps to prevent purchasing training you don't need. Also include any general information on their educational levels and reading abilities. Professional training vendors relish this information and will ask for anything critical you may have overlooked.

System specs

Predicting training needs for a major new system can present additional challenges. If you are specifying system results as a whole, you may have already begun to define what the training must accomplish.

The employees who operate and maintain an automated system are an essential component of that system. The complete system will achieve the desired production rates and tolerances only if both equipment and employees perform to the desired level of performance.

If performance goals are established for the system, one approach to training is simply to specify that the vendor's proposal include whatever training is deemed necessary to achieve this goal. This is a good approach where the technology is new to your company and accurately predicting training needs is difficult.

There is a potential problem, however. You will have to evaluate a variety of training alternatives. Although it will be in a vendor's (as well as your own) best interest to propose the most cost-effective solution, you must weed out proposals likely to fail. Be wary of those that make questionable assumptions about your employee skill levels or propose off-the-shelf solutions to requirements you feel are unique to your operation. Look for proposals that state what training alone will accomplish in precise, observable terms.

Frequently, companies that rely on vendors to propose required training publish supplemental standards that require vendors to include detailed information on how the training will be delivered and evaluated. Some even require that individual outlines, manuals, and audio-visual materials be submitted for approval in advance of training.

If you choose to publish such a standard, avoid standardizing on media and techniques. Give prospective suppliers some latitude to propose what they see as the most cost-effective method. Your standard should simply establish procedures that require a vendor to demonstrate that his proposed training program will, in fact, produce measurable results.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Fertal, Andy
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:May 1, 1989
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