Training’s like dieting, or, weighting for results

About a year and a half ago, I decided to try losing weight by following the Weight Watchers program that my wife had enrolled in. After a few months, I began to view weight management as a kind of performance improvement project (see this post and this one).

(Here on my Whiteboard, I focus mainly on topics like workplace learning and performance improvement, areas I’ve worked in for decades.  No one in his right mind would pay me for advice on cardiovascular health, weight-change dynamics, or the physiology of nutrition and exercise.  I’m extrapolating from my experience to make a point about accomplishments at work, not telling people they should eat less or exercise more.)

I’m no longer such big deal

Although I didn’t say so at the time, my ultimate goal was to lose 60 pounds, 50 of them in the first year. Some 20 months after I started, I’ve lost 43. 

You could say “that’s great!”  Or you could argue I’ve fallen short of my goal.  I’ve felt especially frustrated by months-long stretches where I didn’t seem to lose any weight at all.  This in spite of what I think of as the bank-account approach to weight: there are 3,500 calories in a pound, so reducing your daily intake by 500 calories should have you losing a pound a week, give or take.

The New York Times recently ran Why Even Resolute Dieters often Fail, in which Jane E. Brody reported on a study by Dr. Kevin D. Hall and his associates. The study, which appeared in the August 27 issue of The Lancet, makes a number of striking points.  (By the way, that link to The Lancet leads to a summary of the study.  For the complete study, use the free registration option at the bottom of the summary.)

Among those points:

  • That 3,500-calorie model leads to “drastically overestimated expectations for weight loss.” Overestimated, as in predicting “about 100% greater weight loss” than the model that Hall and his colleagues set forth.
  • Weight loss requires much more time than many people expect (and more time than many diet-plan promotions imply). 

Although my 60-pound goal is reasonable for me, Hall’s study suggests I’ll see only “half of the [desired] weight change being achieved in about 1 year, and 95%…in about 3 years.”

I’ve read Brody’s article several times, and gone over the Hall study in detail; they helped me understand my own situation.  More to the point here, they offer me an opportunity to compare weight management with improving performance at work.

Training is like dieting: not a bad way to start

When I say “training,” I’m usually thinking of a deliberate effort to close an existing, important gap between current skills and those required for a newcomer to achieve acceptable results in the workplace.  I’ve worked on lots of projects where such training made sense for people like reservation agents, field salespeople, and health-claims adjustors. 

What I think these projects have in common is that it was possible to help people gain new skills so they could produe acceptable performance in a relatively short time.  They aren’t going to be master performers right away, but they’ll be good enough for now.  And they’ll be more likely to improve in the future, because they’ll no longer be complete novices.

What such workers tend to have in common is that they have lots in common: they do similar work,  they have similar job-relevant experience, they have similar skills, and they lack similar skills.  Often they’re in a few physical locations (like, say, central offices or reservation centers), or the organization can assemble them for training (classrooms, workshops) or assemble training for them (online learning).

As for the skills they need to acquire, those are predominantly procedural: how to check availability, how to manage customer accounts, how to conduct intake interviews.

How is this like dieting?  If you’re overweight (e.g., have a BMI over 25) or obese (over 30) and you’d rather not be, there are lots of approaches you can take at the outset.  Noting your caloric intake and decreasing it, so that you’re not taking in as many as you expend, is one approach that may be good enough for starters.  If you don’t have other serious health issues, and if a principal cause of your current weight is a caloric imbalance, then a deliberate reduction in overall calories–a diet–will likely produce results.

Don’t just take my word for it.  “All reduced energy diets have a smiliar effect on body-fat loss in the short run,” Hall’s study says.  “The assumption that a ‘calorie is a calorie’ is a reasonable first estimation…over short-time periods.”

Even in that short term, you have choices that are more effective and choices that are less so.   For example, the real-world Mayo Clinic Diet (as opposed to the “miraculous,” grapefruit-laden one) for example, will likely produce better results than the kind of “diet” that has you eating nothing but rutabaga and rockfish. 

To me, that’s analagous to the difference between “any training is better than no training” and training based on task analysis, needs analysis, and effective ways to help people learn.

From apprentice to journeyman (Deterline was right)

Thus far it seems that Brody, Hall, and I are in agreement, which is pretty classy company for me.  It doesn’t seem to matter much how you start on weight management.  Many different paths will produce results that are good enough in the short term. 

In the workplace, though, short-term thinking rarely pays off long term.  Likewise with job-related skill: good enough for a novice, after a while, isn’t good enough.  If you think of the newcomer to a job as an apprentice, you want him or her to eventually move to the journeyman level: more skilled, able to deal with a wider range of problems, and competent in skills that are not simply procedural.

That’s not easy.  As Bill Deterline once observed, “Things take longer than they do.”  Part of the path from apprentice to journeyman is learning to recognize and deal with complexity.  In the weight-management world, here’s some of the complexity revealed by Hall’s study:

  • When an overweight person begins consuming fewer calories than he expends, he loses weight–but the rate of loss slows as the ratio of fat to lean in his body changes.  (Weight loss is not linear; steady progress is unlikely.)
  • The same increase in caloric intake will result in more weight gain for an overweight person than for someone not overweight–and for the overweight person, more of the gain will be body fat.  (You risk regaining, and you’ll regain quickly.)

Here’s how Hall’s study suggests you think about goals for weight loss:

We propose an approximate rule of thumb for an average overweight adult: every change of energy intake of 100 kJ per day will lead to an eventual bodyweight chage of about 1 kg (equivalently, 10 kcal per day per pound of weight change) with half of the weight change being achieved in about 1 year and 95% of the weight change in about 3 years.

How does that rule applies to my original goal?  Let’s assume I was consuming just enough calories to maintain my starting weight.  Yeah, let’s assume that.  To lose 60 pounds would mean:

  • Reducing my intake by 600 calories a day (a kilocalorie is the scientific term for what dieters call a calorie), thus…
  • Losing 30 of those pounds in the first year, and in theory…
  • Losing 58 pounds–by the end of the third year.

From Hall’s viewpoint, I’m on track–I’m more than halfway to my goal, and I’ve managed to maintain that loss.  In a sense, I’m no longer a weight-management apprentice.  

What happens after a good start

I said that training is like dieting.  But I’ve implied (and I’m now stating outright) that most of the time neither one is sufficient for long-term results.  “Diet” in the traditional sense is a short-term planned restriction on caloric intake in order to produce weight loss.  “Training” in the traditional organizational sense tends to be a group-focused, short-term effort to provide people with mainly procedural skills that they currently lack, in order to produce acceptable results on the job.

Just in case it’s unclear, I keep harping on “acceptable results” because if training doesn’t relate to on-the-job accomplishment, I don’t quite get why the organization bothers.  I keep harping on a lack of skill because if people already have the skill needed but the organization is “training” them anyway, mostly what people learn is that the organization isn’t all that bright.

The Brody article and the Hall study reinforce what I think of as a movement from losing weight to maintaining health.  On the job front, it’s like the difference between a hotel employee’s using the hotel reservation system correctly and that same person successfully resolving a customer service problem.

Even entry-level positions involve some judgment, some decision-making, some degree of tacit knowledge.  You can’t train for these things specifically; you need to develop models, offer examples, offer opportunities to practice and reflect.

Thus Hall’s 3-year timeframe is one tool that an individual can use to set his or her own expectations regarding the rate of weight loss and the likelihood of plateaus, along with similar research-based principles like these:

  • We can’t estimate a person’s “initial energy requirements” (daily caloric need) without an uncertainty of 5% or even greater.  (Your reduced-calorie target is only an estimate.)
  • People are often inaccurate in describing or recording their food intake, either before or during a weight-loss program.  (Your munchage may vary.)

As Brody points out in her New York Times article:

Studies of the more than 5,000 participatns in the National Weight Control Registry have shows that those who lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for many years relied primarily on two tactics: continuing physical activity and regular checks on body weight.

How about that?  Behavioral change, the specifics of which vary, the results of which are higher levels of caloric consumption.  And a monitoring system to track data and assist in further analysis. 

(I weigh myself at the same time every day that I’m home, and have done so for 20 months.  Not only does the momentum of the practice itself carry me along, but I have a good sense for what the typical variation is.  Of course, if I’ve gained weight, that’s just a fluctuation, but if I’ve lost weight, that’s progress.  You go with the evaluation system that makes the most sense.)

I do think there’s a role for formal organizational learning (in my mind, a much better term than “training”)–though it’s a narrow role, in the same way that diet-as-restriction has a narrow role in managing overall health.  Both may in certain circumstances be good enough to start with, but both are likely to fall short over time.

In other words, I believe that letting new hires figure out the inventory-management system for themselves is probably a suboptimal approach.  You’re deluding yourself, though, if you think you can procedurize your way to workplace mastery .  If you’re trying to increase your organization’s effectiveness, you have to do better than telling people to eat more grapefruit.

CC-licensed images:
Balance-beam scale by wader.
Car-hire image by Send Chocolate (Tina Cruz).
Nighttime road by Axel Schwenke.

2 thoughts on “Training’s like dieting, or, weighting for results

  1. Dave, this is an excellent post and really highlights the best case scenario for L&D folks – that they’re creating a platform and situation where behavior change is possible.

    Also, congrats on the weight loss! My brother has lost 30 pounds on Weight Watchers over the last 3 months, and I think the key for him really is behavior change. WW provided a framework for him where he could understand a “better case” scenario – one where he eats a more reasonable number of calories every day. He needed the framework to guide his behavior change – and that’s been a successful outcome for him.

  2. Kelly, thanks for your comment.

    As I said in my posts last year, I’m not endorsing Weight Watchers per se; I just think many facets of the program offer an individual a variety of sensible ways to manage his behavior. One big difference, of course, is that “diet” is not a list of restrictions but a term to cover the choices a person makes. Can I eat an almond croissant? Sure — but on my terms, which means I want to fit it into my nutritional and caloric budget.

    As for people working in learning and development, or elsewhere in the learning field, my own take is that they can help to create the conditions in which effective behavioral change is possible. They need to pay a lot of attention to results, and to analyzing reasons why the organization isn’t achieving desired results, because as Tom Gilbert stressed, often the gap isn’t due to the behavior of the immediate performers.

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