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What's your problem?

Earlier in my career, I had a boss who had a somewhat unique way of responding whenever he (or his team) was asked to take on a training & development project that was outside of the regular technical development we usually focused on. It did not matter the size of the project or how many resources would be required or for how long, his first question was always the same… “What problem are you trying to solve”? Now before anyone pulls an optical muscle rolling their eyes, please let me add that I fully appreciate the fact that understanding the root cause of a problem before acting is common sense and not worthy of further discussion. In this instance, however the intent was not just to understand what was not working, but also to allow the requester time reflect as they were encouraged to do something they may not have spent too much time on, and that is to discuss in detail what specifically is at the root cause of the issue they are trying to resolve. By following this discussion path, we (the training team) could determine if in fact there was anything the team could do that would resolve the issue or help achieve the desired objective.

In thinking about the many training intake meetings I attended with my former manager, It was here that I thought he differed from many of his peers. It was not just for the direct approach to looking for a solution, but more so that he had the sensibility to be honest with the teams we supported in telling them something that can be difficult to understand, and that is that training, regardless of the form it takes (coaching, mentoring. eLearning, in-class, etc.……) cannot always fix what is broken.

Considering the above statement, I know that may seem a rather odd, if not career limiting thing for a training professional to say, but in all the years I have been in training I have learned that like myself, most of the people I support value honesty above all else. Understanding that, I think it would be more than just a little hypocritical of me to look a potential client in the eye and suggest that no matter what, I can fix their problem when that is just not always the case. To help illustrate my point, allow me to share a “real life” example.

As part of my role working for a large telecommunications company. I was asked from time to time to visit the third party contracting companies that were enlisted to help support field services, specifically the installation and maintenance of our cable and digital customer products. On one such visit the local GM pulled me in to her office and explained that her technicians were “in desperate need of training”. The reason for her urgency she explained was that almost half of her technicians were not properly completing cable and digital installations to any degree of consistency. She went on to tell me that the main issue was the technicians were not providing the customer with important account information which they, the customer, would need to fully use their services. Thus, the new customer would have to call in to the technical support team for assistance which in turn. created a negative customer experience.

After explaining the problem to me the GM asked me if I had a training proposal that could fix this problem. Our conversation went like this:

Mark: Are you familiar with the certification training all technicians must go through, including those technicians that work for you?

GM: Yes, I am, I have sat in the course myself

Mark: So then I assume you are aware that the cable and digital installation process is covered in detail, including the requirements for sharing important product and account information with the customer, and also that the technicians are tested on this?

GM: Yes, yes…I am fully aware that this topic is covered.

Mark: I see, so I guess then that since the technicians completed their training, no one from your company has said anything about the process your technicians are struggling with?

GM: WHAT? Are you nuts?? We have sent at least 6 memos and reminders this year alone, the managers mention it in the team meetings every week. Hell, I must have told each and every one of them myself personally.

Mark: OK. Let me make sure I have this right. So, the technicians were trained to always provide the customer information, their managers remind them to do this on a regular basis, they have received several memos telling them how important this is and on top of all that the General Manager has personally told them to follow the correct process. And yet, despite all that almost 50% of them are not doing this on a consistent basis?

GM: That about sums it up.

The GM eventually began to understand the point I was trying to make and realized that unfortunately she did not have a training issue but instead a more serious ailment…she had a compliance problem. And while there are a few ways to address a compliance issue in an organization, often training is not the answer. The reason for that is usually all you are doing is repeating the same message while expecting a different result, which as the great Albert Einstein once said, is a sure sign of insanity. OK, so I am paraphrasing his quote but hopefully the point is made.

As I am sure you can guess I did not end up working with the GM on her compliance problem though I did offer some suggestions. Be that as it may, I like to think that by being honest I enabled the GM to look elsewhere for a soloution (if memory serves they went with job shadowing) . and by doing so did in fact help with the problem she was trying to solve.

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