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Hiding Behind Training

May 6, 2011

By Michael J Tatham, Founder/Advisor, The Tatham Group

An engineer by training, I learned to use the scientific method to find the root cause of problems and by the late 60’s had an effective approach to designing training programs. Companies typically produce training programs that teach their people how to correct defects in the product rather than fix the process. As a result, a bad process keeps too many people busy fixing and reworking the output. Many companies around the world today invest millions in training programs focused on fixing and reworking output from bad processes. I’ll say the same thing I said 40 years ago: “When the process doesn’t work, fix the process; don’t blame the people.”

In my earlier days, I kept this phrase to myself because executives were not ready for it. With the development of Boot Camp this concept, as well as many others, was learned through group experiential exercises rather than teaching. The most important concept in Bootcamp is that all of the departments and functions of a company must be connected. Only then can the customer have a good experience. Boot camp contains these vital business concepts like soldiers in the ‘Trojan Horse’. Once inside the company, they take over the operation of the company, changing its culture.

The following is just one story of many illustrating ‘the disconnect’ in companies which led to the development of Boot Camp. Every year a particular major oil company was losing millions of dollars due to the clean up of home furnace oil overflows occurring during the tank truck loading process. Tank truck loading required the driver to climb up on top of the tank, open the compartment covers, insert a nozzle with a hand operated valve- identical to the valve we use when filling our cars at self service gas stations- and fill the compartment with fuel oil. I was hired by the training department to assist them in producing a training program for drivers on “Tank Truck Loading Procedures”. The operations department had concluded that drivers needed training on loading procedures because either they didn’t know the procedures or were not following them. I agreed to assist the training department, although, eventually involvement in the project became troublesome because I didn’t believe that people would intentionally deviate from sound procedures, unless they had to in order to get the job done. I brought this to the attention of the training manager, who informed me that the operations department had already determined what the training objectives were and that the responsibility of the training department was to produce the training program, not question the objectives. Fortunately, in the fall of that year, the training manager was receptive enough to allow me to accompany drivers in order to observe their daily activities. After several months and many delivery and loading trips, I was perplexed that there was absolutely no spillage during the tank loading process. Nonetheless, I continued to ride on delivery trips until winter. One very cold winter morning, as usual, the driver positioned his tank truck under a loading tower, climbed up on top of the tank, opened all the compartments and began filling the first compartment. That’s when I noticed that he reached into his pocket, took out a small wooden block and inserted it into the handle to hold the valve open. Subsequently, he climbed down from the tank and walked over to the loading booth to keep warm, as did I. The driver was engaged in conversation with people in the booth, when the oil began to overflow. By the time he remembered that the tank was still being filled, several hundred gallons of fuel oil had spilled out and was seeping into the ground. On cold winter days drivers used small wooden blocks to hold the valves open, which they left unattended while they warmed up and chatted. They invented this informal procedure to be passed on down the line from one driver to the next. All drivers knew the correct procedures but were compelled to deviate into using a tribal process that seemed to work in the cold days of winter. Funnily, it was carried into temperate months as well. Subsequent investigation determined that all drivers carried a wood block hidden in the glove box of their truck. Drivers were secretly aware of the cause of overflow but were too fearful to bring it out in the open.

An unhealthy company culture assumes that the root cause of its problems lies within its people. It has a tendency to use additional training or dismissal to solve problems. After several experiments involving front-line workers, we learned that the root cause of the problem was the process itself. Namely, it took too long to fill the fuel oil compartments and drivers were freezing their buns off standing on top of their trucks. Simply doubling the rate of flow of the fuel pump, making it impossible for the drivers to leave, completely eliminated all spillage. No further training required.

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