One of my favorite sayings is Hindu: Nothing changes if nothing changes. The reverse is also true: If nothing changes, nothing changes. Perfect! And so I was more than a little surprised recently when I visited a company that had made a sizeable investment in bringing continuous improvement into the organization. The surprise was not the decision to do so. My surprise was that there was so little result after more than a year. Senior leaders had brought in a first-rate training system as the core resource. Company coaches had gone through the train-the-trainer process. Everyone was geared up, psyched up, and raring to go. And they went! But a year later there was no noticeable change. Hardly a trace. The dial had not moved.
The VP of operations asked me to investigate. I reviewed the materials—splendid training content, solid logic, exciting adult learning. Excellent trainers with strong coaching, personal, and teaching skills. Plus outstanding management commitment. What had gone wrong? Then I turned my attention to the company’s implementation calendar. I wanted to check the pacing of the learn-and-do sequence. What kind of time had been provided for participants to apply what they learned in the classroom? I got my answer: none. There was no such calendar. There was a training calendar only. Huh?!
The trainers trained, trained, trained. But no one ever asked attendees to put what was taught to use—even though the training design specifically stated that people had to go out and apply after each and every classroom session. How did the company miss that? How had trainers missed: “Don’t begin your next lesson until you give participants the opportunity to test their understanding of today’s lesson through hands-on application.” Often in the form of a blitz. Instead, in-house instructors simply burned through the classroom sessions. And, lo and behold, nothing changed. Nothing grabbed.
What were you thinking? I asked as politely as I could. What prompted you to skip the “doing” part of learn-and-do? (Or more correctly: “teach-and-do” because learning comes from doing—applying—what is taught.) The response was heartfelt: “We didn’t really think it was that important. We thought it was enough to do a good job teaching in the classroom.”
Truth be told, I have encountered this scenario more than once in my career—even in reference to my own work. Each time, I am baffled by people’s notion that teaching is the same as learning. It is not. Teaching happens in the classroom. Learning happens after you leave. So I share a few short comments to anchor the point:
- One of life’s lessons is that it takes a lifetime to learn life’s lessons. Learning in life is the same as doing—only we never get it right the first time. In the process of doing—in the process of living—we always encounter some form of failure. But, because we are alive, we can (and often do) learn from those failures. And we grow. We get smarter and more refined. That is the essence of the journey from childhood to young adult… and from young adult to maturity.
- How could it be different at work? Why would it be? We are taught something new—perhaps, a new improvement approach. We try it out—and we are already successful just because we tried it out.
- Surefire failure means: we never try it out. Or, in the case of the company in question, we are never given the opportunity to try it out. In this case, the failure belongs to the company—not the participant.
- Companies that decide to put their employees through a training and do not expect and require the application of the lessons taught not only don’t get a smarter workforce, they send a loud message that they themselves do not understand how learning happens. As a result, they don’t get improvement and they don’t get growth.
- Trainers, when you teach, your report card is the extent to which the people you taught use what you taught them. That means part of your job is to make sure your students have an opportunity to use what you taught because you need a report card on yourself. You need feedback on the quality of your own teaching. And only they can provide it.
- You can be sure that your students will NOT get it right. There’ll be drops and holes, and only partial understanding. And as a good teacher, you will celebrate that as valuable learning for them and priceless feedback for yourself.
Yes, by the time I said good-bye to the VP, we had sorted through the debris and designed a way to re-start, re-launch, and re-ignite the learn-and-do process in his company. And as I drove away, I made note: There is no better compliment you can give a person than to expect him or her to learn, change, and grow—and no better praise than to celebrate that when it happens.