Six Ways to Link Training to Business Performance

"Leadership is lifting a person's vision to higher sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations." - Peter Drucker

Trainers frequently struggle in their attempts to bridge workshop learning and application back on the job. We all know the syndrome: Participants leave the workshop, rate the program highly on the ¡°course reaction questionnaire,¡± but the afterglow soon fades. Newly acquired skills are either underused or ignored. It doesn¡¯t have to be this way, if you pay attention to six key actions that prompt employees to use their new skills to achieve solid business outcomes.

1. Set Expectations Before Training Begins

People are enrolled in a workshop and know the date and time it begins. But do they know what to expect, how to prepare, or how the learning is relevant to their work? Taking the time to set expectations and provide management support before training begins helps learners to understand what will be expected of them and how the training relates to their work. Management involvement demonstrates that the organization is committed to the training and considers it a high priority. One pharmaceutical manufacturer found a direct relationship between setting expectations prior to training and achieving business results. The company had received a letter of warning from the FDA citing a backlog of open investigations and the failure to consistently get to root cause. In an attempt to remedy the situation, a select group of employees was put through our train-the-trainer program to become Program Leaders, certified to conduct our workshops and facilitate corrective- and preventive-action programs. Initially, the Program Leaders conducted workshops for all employees involved in the writing of investigations. This was followed by facilitated corrective and preventive action programs using troubleshooting skills learned in the workshops. In one of the company¡¯s facilities, the Program Leaders also conducted hour-long pre-workshop meetings that set expectations for the workshop participants. This facility outperformed all others in reducing backlog and finding root cause. In addition, the departments in this high-performing facility where there was managerial participation in the pre-workshop meetings outperformed the departments in which managers did not attend the pre-workshop meetings.

2. Provide Coaching to Support Success

Many organizations recognize that applying new skills in a fast-paced, day-to-day work environment can be daunting. A good coach or facilitator can make this transition easier. Coaches can guide employees as they apply their new skills on the job, helping ensure that these skills are being used properly. To help newly trained employees resolve real-life issues, the facilitator needs to carefully structure the facilitation session before it begins, manage the participants as they struggle with important issues, and follow up after the session to make sure the issues are resolved. Supplementary training can help trainers develop advanced coaching and facilitation skills. A medical insurance company enhanced training with coaching to support performance goals. After expanding its IT infrastructure, the company began soliciting data-management contracts to leverage its new capacity. As the business grew, there was a need for improved skills in problem solving, decision making, and project management. Employees were trained to conduct workshops to impart these skills. During the workshops, these Program Leaders helped participants apply the skills to IT-related issues and projects. They also followed up afterwards. Within the IT group, the Program Leaders/coaches developed a reputation for helping resolve issues and plan projects effectively. The news spread quickly to the rest of the organization, which began requesting coaching help. Many of the Program Leaders were redeployed, spending more than 50 percent of their time coaching and facilitating issue-resolution sessions. The coaching function has become so critical to the organization that now, as coaches are promoted to other jobs or leave the company, new ones are trained to replace them. For the coaches and the employees whom they help, improved job performance and effectiveness are their own rewards. For the company, the coaching program focuses resources on the key issues and projects that produce the most significant results.

3. Require Evidence of Application of New Skills

Once people have been trained in new skills, they are ready to apply the ideas. But they may not recognize opportunities to do so, especially when surrounded by others who do not share their new skills. Engineers at an oil refinery were hesitant to apply our troubleshooting process after completing our workshop. The process required them to go out and ask questions of the operators. They were not accustomed to asking the operators questions because they were ¡°supposed to know what was going on.¡± They thought the operators would laugh at them. Managers overcame this resistance by setting the expectation that participants would be required to begin specific troubleshooting applications during class and then complete them back on the job. Managers asked for status reports, gave participants enough time to complete their applications, then asked them to present the results of their work. The method produced immediate benefits. One participant had chosen to work on an increase in gasket wear¡ªgaskets were wearing out faster than in the past. Some colleagues thought this might not be very important; replacing gaskets is an inconvenience, but it is a cost of doing business. However, the analysis uncovered the fact that a recent explosion in the plant had loosened gritty material, and this grit was working its way through the system. The next question the participant asked was, ¡°Where else could this material be?¡± The material was found in an important but rarely used part of the plant that was due to be started up shortly. If this participant had not been required to apply his new skills, ask questions, and find true cause of the gasket wear, the line would have shut down at the moment it was most needed. Requiring learners to overcome on-the-job barriers and demonstrate their use of new skills quickly transitions training to application, integrates skills into the workflow, and accelerates the return on training investment.

4. Create a Work Environment That Supports the Use of New Skills

If the work environment makes it difficult to use new skills, training dollars are wasted. Program Leaders at a paper mill had trained many employees in our troubleshooting process, but after the initial training they seemed to have forgotten everything they learned. This became apparent to the plant manager when he observed a group of operators standing at a malfunctioning machine and discussing possible causes without using any systematic process. He called them into a conference room and asked a Program Leader to guide them through the process to address the issue. Within half an hour the problem was solved. A week later, the manager observed the same group of operators, standing at a machine, jumping to the possible causes of a new problem, and making no progress toward resolving it. His initial reaction was to provide a refresher course, because he knew the process worked if people used it. On reflection, he realized that this was not the appropriate response. The crew knew the process; they had successfully used their training a week earlier. Why? Before at that time he had clearly communicated that he wanted them to use the new troubleshooting process, provided a facilitator, and given them a suitable work environment. Once again, he took swift action. He provided the Program Leaders with facilitation training so that one would always be available in each area of the operation. He made it clear that after 20 minutes of downtime, he expected them to begin using the troubleshooting process. Finally, he provided a dedicated workspace with log books, easels, white boards, and coffee. Within two months, facilitators were trained, the new skills were used, and downtime was significantly reduced. An appropriate work environment can be virtual. After completing Project Management training, project managers at many of our client organizations rely on a virtual Project Management Office to support them. In addition to providing project governance for the organization, this virtual office can offer project support with Intranet-based project tools, a centralized repository for sharing project documentation, and access to coaching/facilitation support via e-mail and telephone.

5. Integrate New Skills into Routine Activities

Training can greatly enhance performance¡ªwhen people are provided with the opportunity to excel. The skills learned in training need to become the rule rather than the exception. One way to accomplish this is to incorporate the new skills into the documentations that employees routinely complete and the daily operations that they carry out. A steel manufacturer successfully transformed a mill that had been slated for closure by doing just that. In the past, the outgoing shift chief had hastily scribbled notes for his incoming counterpart to decipher. After all employees had been trained in troubleshooting, these individuals were required to conduct shift-change meetings that were attended by the key operators and support staff of both the outgoing and incoming shifts. Meetings were held in a workroom in which defective products were displayed and discussed by both shifts. Within 18 months, the mill showed a 30-percent improvement against all metrics and moved from worst to first. The division head arranged for other plant managers to visit and observe the now-model plant. During one of these visits, a skeptical plant manager asked one of the mill¡¯s shift coordinators what he thought about the shift-change meetings. The coordinator replied, ¡°I hate them, but I would never go back to other way.¡± In another success story, a pharmaceutical company needed to respond to FDA concerns about the way they conducted investigations. The company trained investigators and facilitators in our critical-thinking processes, then set expectations for the use of the new skills by integrating them into standard operating procedures. Quality and Operations representatives streamlined issue resolution by integrating a systematic approach to decision making into the SOPs that govern how deviations are treated. The cycle time to close out investigations was reduced by integrating processes for appraising situations and solving problems into the SOP that governs writing investigations. The manufacturing director noted that the new SOPs had reduced the time he spent reviewing investigations from over an hour to under 15 minutes. In addition, first-pass approval rates of investigations increased significantly.

6. Monitor Ongoing Application of New Skills

Your people have received training and have begun to apply the ideas. But how can you encourage them to continue to use them in the future? A major food manufacturer initiated a program that added the application of newly acquired problem-solving and decision-making skills to its associates¡¯ scorecards. Managers required documented use of the new skills each quarter. In this way, managers set expectations for participants and provided them with self-regulating feedback. Trained facilitators were provided to help employees apply their training and meet scorecard requirements. As people started using their training, they achieved better and quicker resolutions. Within a year, the application of the skills was simply ¡°the way work was done.¡± Under stress, people revert to their comfort zone, the way things have ¡°always¡± been done. Managers need to provide encouraging consequences to people for changing the way they work. If managers maintain an interest in the use of the new skills, so will the people they manage.

End Note Training alone is never sufficient to achieve lasting behavior change. To be successful, a training program needs to be supported by setting expectations before training, motivating and coaching participants afterwards, providing opportunities to use the new skills, integrating those skills into the daily routine, and monitoring results over time. Close attention to these supporting activitieswill strengthen the link between training andreal business-performance improvement.

( Source: Kepner-Tregoe, Inc. is a Princeton, NJ-based training and consulting company that works with organizations worldwide to develop problem-solving, decision-making, and project-management skills and systems throughout an organization, from the boardroom to the plant floor. John Ager ( is a Kepner-Tregoe master trainer, and Cap (Holman T.) White ( is director of Kepner-Tregoe¡¯s Leadership Development Institute. )

Warwick John Fahy is a professional speech coach and expert in presentation skills, public speaking and communication skills. You can contact him for more information.

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