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Improve the Effectiveness of Employee Training by Applying Lean and Human Factors Principles (Part 1)

Every employer provides some type of employee training.  The effectiveness of that training is often circumspect.  Did you ever have employees attend a training and afterwards you would swear that despite your ability to verify they were there physically, you questioned whether they really learned anything as nothing changed—not their skills, retention of information and/or actions.  Why is this and what can be done? 

I’m going to assume you’re probably familiar with the principles of lean and human factors.  A very quick overview:  Lean at its core is based on respect for people, continuous improvement, decreasing waste and increasing the value to the customer.  Human Factors at its core is based on optimizing human and system/organizational performance and continuous improvement.  (The human components includes individual physical and cognitive performance, and group/organizational cognitive and social performance.)

Many people who see the value of lean and/or human factors, and who have successfully implemented it into their workplaces (typically manufacturers), don’t recognize how those same principles and tactics can (should!) apply to their training programs.  In fact, I’d say they often go against the fundamental rules of lean and cognitive human factors by intentionally building in waste and overwhelming their trainees.  This results in the less than stellar delivery of value to their “customers”, i.e. their employees and employers compared to a training approach that integrates lean and human factors.


How We Learn

We need a basic understanding of how people learn and how the brain works to before we can apply Lean and HF to training.  Learning and development experts, based on research from cognitive psychology, believe that the process of learning and remembering can be broken down into four basic stages:

  1. Sensory memory:  Actively processes all the sensory stimuli in the world around you during training. This includes the temperature in the room, any noises, the view out the window, the actual training materials -- everything.  The brain automatically filters out most of this information so much so that you’re not actively aware of it. The stuff that doesn’t get filtered out automatically moves on to the next stage.
  2. Working memory:  The stuff you’re actively processing or “working on” in your brain. The problem is that the brain can only process and hold a small amount of information in the working memory. Traditionally, this estimate has been 7 + or - 2 bits of information, but more recently, the estimate has been scaled down to around 4 bits.  The information in working memory ends up either being stored in your long-term memory or forgotten completely.
  3. Long-term memory:  The new information in the long-term memory gets stored in little “packets” of related information called schemas. It is thought that long-term memory has an unlimited capacity and that once information is there, it’s there forever.
  4. Transfer to the job:  Finally, your workers will take the information stored in their long-term memory and apply it on the job. This is called transfer. Having the information stored in the long-term memory isn’t a guarantee that your worker will transfer it and apply it on the job, however. Sometimes the brain can’t find the stored information, and other times the worker isn’t motivated to apply it.

Lean/HF Techniques For Training

One of the goals of lean is to increase the value to the customer, i.e. the trainee/employee and the employer who is providing/paying for the training.  Value in this case is for effective training that leads to the employee(s) applying the desired knowledge and skills at work.  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the lean and HF thinking tactics that can be applied to the 4 steps of learning information to make training for effective. 

Continued in Part 2