If the only tool is a hammer …

A hammer is the right tool to drive a nail into wood or dry wall, etc. supporting the adage “right tool for the right job”. Until the closet you installed comes off the wall and you realize that perhaps you needed screws instead or an additional widget to support the anticipated load.

It isn’t until “in-use” performance feedback is collected that the realization of a different tool and additional support mediums are needed. Providing training (as in formal instruction) as the solution to a performance issue is analogous to using a hammer for every job.

Site leaders want business partners who can help them succeed with organizational goals, yearly objectives and solve those pesky performance issues. The more valuable the “trainer-now-known-as-performance-consultant is in that desire, the more access to strategic initiatives. So, the more a trainer wants to be recognized as a business partner to site leaders, the trainer needs to continue to build their “solutions toolbox” that includes more than delivering a training event or LMS completion report.

But I Already Do All That!

A trainer with strong instructional design skills could argue that s/he has loads of experience with 3 of the 4 roles sans solution specialist.  To that end, ADDIE has been the methodology and the foundation for successful training events for years.  A sound training design analyzes needs first. Incorporates change management elements. And includes evaluation activities for level 1 (reaction) and level 2 (learning) of the Kirkpatrick Evaluation Model.  So how hard could it be to master the role of Performance Consultant? 

HPI roles for Perf Consult
A performance consultant wears all these hats.

Does your current trainer have the necessary competencies to tackle the additional performance solutions?  A logical next step is to review the literature that has been published on the multiple roles for a Performance Consultant.  These include Analyst, Change Manager, Solutions Specialist, and Evaluator.  There are more, but let’s start with an overview of these four.    

The PC wears the hat of Analyst when working the business analysis and performance analysis portion of the HPI methodology by honing in with the skill of asking the right questions and being able to analyze all of the contributing factors for performance causes.   This is more than a needs analysis for designing a course. 

I Need Training for 800 Employees ASAP

A corporate auditor discovered a lack of training records for newly developed Job Aids during a Mock Inspection.  So, the easy fix would be to re-train everyone and then produce the records, right? Notice however, that the solution is biased towards retraining without discovering why the training was missed in the first place. 

Reframing the request allowed the Performance Consultant to not only find the root cause but to provide both immediate resolution and long-term prevention.  In the end, the HPI approach delivered the solution far quicker than the traditional training approach was originally planned for and the audit observation was closed before the due date! 

Read:  “Just Get the Audit Observation Closed Already, Will You?”  for a more in-depth description of how a cause analysis provided the true root cause and how the originally proposed training request would not have prevented repeat errors. 

The Solution Specialist role relies heavily upon systems thinking skills and is way beyond the power point training solution.  As a problem solver working the probable causes from the Performance Cause Analysis, s/he opens the toolbox and can look past the “training design tray” into other alternative performance solutions. 

The ATD HPI methodology adapted 6 categories of learning solutions from the work of Dean, Dean, and Rebalsky. Their *1996 study focused on analyzing employee perceptions about which workplace factors would most improve their performance. They categorized these factors into 6 key areas:

This is much more than a hammer in their toolbox. Implementation experience grows with each executed solution and a skilled PC also develops good project management skills.

Capturing SME Secret Sauce to improve KPIs for a business unit

A team of site leaders met to discuss (problem solve) what to do about lagging metrics for a business unit.  The idea of studying SMEs (aka key performers) to learn what they needed to do to meet or beat the numbers was brought up.  However, the outcome was already biased with a set of “knowledge based” assumptions unbeknownst to the Performance Consultant (PC). 

During the Key Performer Interviews, it turned out that those assumptions were brutally flawed and put this HPI project and another highly visible project in serious jeopardy.    The PC was able to uncover the right knowledge from the SMEs and successfully deliver a solution.  However, it was far from a traditional classroom training session or even an OJT session.  Yet, it had everything to do with capturing secret sauce learned on the job. 

Read  “Capturing Secret Sauce of Senior Equipment Operators?” to learn more about the revised project solution and the final outcome.

During implementation, the PC may also have to wear a dual hat of Change Manager.  Process changes, culture change and more require strong facilitation skills and process consultation techniques to manage the different phases of change depending on the nature of the solution and the size of the change impact. 

When Borrowing A Best Practice From Another Department Can Backfire

If having one department of qualified operators is good, then why not duplicate the best practice?  Hmm, sounds reasonable enough, right?  This is exactly what one manager thought after a department re-organization. 

So, she set out to cut-n-paste curricula from manufacturing operators and use for her staff of technicians.  But after months of reminding, little progress was made towards completion of the “cross-training requirements” project. She contacted the PC, and a performance cause analysis was conducted.  The results revealed a few surprises.  In an effort to expedite the cross-training program and hit the ground running, decisions about what to include in the cross training curriculum were done without input of the technicians. 

Read the more detailed version of “I’ve Been Re-org’d. What’s in it for me?” to learn more about those surprises and how this HPI Project was refocused on wellness and motivation as the right fix instead of completing borrowed training curricula.

And the Evaluator role begins to surface with understanding the cultural impact of performance solutions as the solution goes live.  Feedback collection, standards-setting, and re-assessing the performance gap to determine success or additional gap analysis are additional examples of what to expect from this role.

When an FDA Inspection Reveals a Performance Gap with Training on SOPs

During an inspection, FDA Investigators observed multiple departures from SOPs. When they inquired about the training, training records were produced. The investigators then asked, “How do you know your training was effective”? They had witnessed firsthand the performance gap between the set of written instructions and the signed training records. “What then did the operators sign for, the reading of the SOP or that I’m trained to do the task as written?” 

The client could not defend the effectiveness of their training “program” during an extensive FDA inspection.  Clearly the performance solution was going to be more than the mandate to use evaluation sheets or quizzes at the end of SOP Training.  They were routinely performing tasks that did not match the procedures they signed for.  After a thorough performance cause analysis and a comprehensive evaluation of the culture supporting the causes,the solution best matched to the causes was to improve structure and process for an Effective Training Quality System.

Read – Impact Story – “You Changed Our Training Culture” to learn more about what was allowing the performance gap to continue. 

A Word Caution: The Silver Bullet For Performance Problems Doesn’t Exist!

Oh, but if it did, life for a supervisor would be easier, right?  Let’s face it, “people” problems are a big deal for management.  Working with humans does present its challenges, such as miscommunications between staff, data entry errors, or rushing verification checks.  Sometimes, the task at hand is so repetitive that the result is assumed to be okay and gets “a pass”.  Add constant interruptions to the list and it becomes even harder not to get distracted and lose focus or attention to the detail.

Actual Behavior Vs. Performing As Expected

In their book, Performance Consulting: Moving Beyond Training, Dana Gaines Robinson and James C. Robinson describe performance as what the performer should be able to do.  A performance problem occurs when the actual behavior does not meet expectations (as it should have been able to do).   Why don’t employees perform as expected?  Root cause analysis helps problem solvers and investigators uncover a myriad of possible reasons.   For Life Sciences companies, correcting mistakes and preventing them from occurring again is at the heart of CAPA systems (Corrective Actions Preventive Actions).

A closer look at performance gaps

Dana and James Robinson conducted research regarding performer actions and sorted their results into three categories of obstacles:

  • Conditions of performers
  • Conditions of the immediate managers
  • Conditions of the organization

A checklist for common Performance Causes is available to mailing list subscribers. 

But weren’t they trained and qualified?

Hopefully, employees are trained using an approved OJT Methodology in which they are shown how to execute the task and then given opportunities to practice multiple times to become proficient.  During these sessions, they are coached by Qualified Trainers and given feedback on what’s right (as expected) and given specific instructions to correct what’s not right with suggestions for tweaking their performance so that their final performance demonstration is on par with their peer group.   At the conclusion of the qualification event, employees must accept that they now own their deviations (mistakes) from this point forward.  So, what’s getting in the way of performing “as they should” or in compliance speak – according to the procedure? We need to find out.

Is it a lack of knowledge, skill or is it something else?

The Robinson’s explain that performance is more than the training event.  It’s a combination of the overall learning experience and the workplace environment that yields performance results.  Breaking that down into a formula per se, they suggest the following: learning experience x workplace environment = performance results.

The root cause investigation will include a review of training and the qualification event as well as a discussion with the performer. 

  • Is it a lack of frequency; not a task often performed?
  • Is it a lack of feedback or delayed feedback in which the deviation occurred without their awareness?  
  • Is it task interference?

The work environment includes organizational systems and business unit processes that together enable the performer to produce the outcomes as “expected”.   These workplace factors don’t always work in perfect harmony resulting in obstacles that get in the way of “expected” performance:

  • Lack of authority -> unclear roles, confusing responsibilities
  • Lack of time ->schedule conflicts; multi-tasking
  • Lack of tools -> reduced budgets
  • Lack of poorly stored equipment/tools -> lost time searching

Isn’t it just human nature?

Once the root cause investigation takes on a human element attention, it’s easy to focus on the performer and stop there.   If it’s the first time for the performer or first instance related to the task, it’s tempting to label the event as an isolated incident.  But when it comes back around again, it becomes apparent there was a “failure to conduct an in-depth investigation” to correct and prevent.  Not surprisingly, a push back of “Operator Error as Root Cause” has forced organizations to look deeper into the root causes involving Humans.

Who’s human nature?

Recall that one of the categories of Robinsons’ researched obstacles was “conditions of the immediate managers”.  This makes managers uncomfortable.  With so much on their plates, managing a people performance problem is not what they want to see.  A silver bullet like re-training event is a nice activity that gives a big red checkmark on their to-do list.  However, Robert Mager and Peter Pipe, in their book, Analyzing Performance Problems, provide insights to managing direct reports that may lead to unintended consequences.  (It’s not always the performer’s fault.)

When It’s Not a Skill Deficiency

Examine these four general causes of non-performance triggers:

1. It is punishing to perform as desired.

2. It is rewarding to perform other than as desired.

3. It simply doesn’t matter whether performance is as desired.

4. There are obstacles to performing.

Want to learn more about strategies for these four triggers?

It takes all three to correct a performance problem

The third category of researched obstacles clustered around “conditions of the organization”.  I’ve already discussed task interference above.  To suggest that organizations are setting up their employees to fail is pushing it just a bit too far.   So, I won’t go there, but it is painful for some leaders to come to terms with the implication.  In order to prevent issues from reoccurring, an examination of the incidents and quite possibly a restructuring of systems have to occur, because automatic re-training is not the only solution to a “people performance problem”.

The role of Performance Consultant requires more variety of skills and depth of project experiences.  While training solutions are part of the PC toolkit, a training manager’s toolbox typically does not offer other performance solutions.   It’s usually a hammer when a swiss army knife is what’s needed. – VB 

Dean, PJ,Dean,MR,Rebalsky,RM. (1996) Performance Improvement Quarterly, 9(2), 75-89.

Mager R, Pipe P.  Analyzing performance problems. Belmont: Lake Publishing; 1984.

Robinson DG, Robinson JC. Performance Consulting: Moving beyond training. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; 1995.

Rothwell, WJ. Editor, ASTD Models for Human Performance Improvement: Roles, Competencies, Outputs. 2nd Ed, 1999.

Weiss, A. Organizational Consulting: How to be an effective internal change agent, USA, Wiley, 2003.  

Comments welcomed, feedback appreciated.

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Who is the Author, Vivian Bringslimark?

HPISC Impact Stories that describes performance consulting projects

So you were looking for the silver bullet and somehow the fix didn’t really solve the problem?

Vivian can help you diagnose why and suggest a different approach that is more effective.

(c) HPIS Consulting, Inc.