Improving performance

Doing more than “training”

Oct 042015

In my Building Job Aids workshop (presented last Tuesday at DevLearn 2015), participants analyze multiple case studies, applying techniques and using job aids to, well, build job aids. Among the skills they practice are the ability to choose the right type of job aid for a task, and the ability to use that type effectively.

There’s a lot of thinking and writing: I make an effort to avoid explaining much before an exercise. Instead, there’s a minimal introduction, with a lot of what would have been explained turned into a print resource to be consulted as needed.

One potential downside is that especially an hour or so after lunch, thinking and writing are conducive to dozing off.

At the same time, my assumption was that participants would want and need additional practice on relevant examples. How could I give someone the chance to assess different job aids and rate their effectiveness? Did she think the samples would produce the desired result? How did they align with ideas in our workshop?

The challenge wasn’t so much finding the examples as structuring the evaluation. The tradeoffs I saw (or believe now that I saw):

  • Time constraints
  • Relevance
  • My desire for multiple elements in a rating system
  • My desire for a simple, overall total

Then the format presented itself in three words:

bja best in show

I liked this title so much, I was determined to use it. But I’ve learned not to be literal about this kind of borrowing. What  makes Jeopardy!-style games in training a dumb idea (even a counterproductive one) so often is not (necessarily) Jeopardy! itself. It’s the mismatch between the content and a format best suited to recalling isolated facts.

Some characteristics of dog shows that I thought suited my goals: I had widely different types of job aids, like the different dog breeds. I had limited time, which at least for me was like the dog-judging segment where the trainer fast-walks the dog in a set pattern before the judge. Plus judging.

That’s where I had the most trouble.  How to get multiple points, an overall total per judge, and a logistically sane process? I started with a three item scale, rating each job aid on its fit (is this a good job aid for this kind of task?), its function (is it likely to produce the desired result?), and its format (how does it stack up against the job aid guidelines in the workshop).

I could score each of those from 1 to 3, with an extra point thrown in for personal preference. No matter how I squinted, though, it looked like way too much math.

best in show singleThen I remembered the Apgar score – a quick assessment of a baby at birth. Five qualities like heart rate or respiration are each assigned a score of 0, 1, or 2. The total describes the baby’s physical condition on a scale of 0 – 10.

So I came up with a five-point scale for Best In Show:

  • Aptness: how well the job aid fit the task and the setting
  • Payoff: how likely it’ll achieve the desired result
  • Guidelines: how it fit with guidelines in general and for its particular type of job aid
  • Appearance: overall effectiveness of the design
  • Response: the judge’s own reaction to the job aid.

As you can see, each item had a line for its score, with a box on top for the total.

In the interest of time, I limited myself to six competitors. This was the score sheet:

best in show 3 x 2

(Click to enlarge in a new window)

Off to the show

I was pretty sure I’d have a decent internet connection. I made a slide with links to my six examples. I explained the scoring, distributed the ballots, and showed each competitor for 30 – 60 seconds, with some contextual commentary as needed.

If I’d had a large group, my plan was for each person to fold the completed ballot between the six boxes, so as to tear it into six individual sheets. I’d have had one person total the ballots for competitor A, one for B, and so on. My workshop group was small enough that I could divide a sheet of flipchart paper in six as Voting Headquarters. It was little trouble for me write down scores by candidate and then total them.

How it went

Best in Show was a success, both as a change of pace and as an exercise in judging job aids. It also broadened exposure: half the competitors were new; the other half had been seen only briefly, as examples, earlier in the day.

An unexpected plus: everyone could see all the individual totals. One job aid received solid 10s except from one person who rated it a 7. Another participant said to her, “I want to know why you rated it a 7.” The question was not a challenge but rather genuine interest in how another person applied the principles of the workshop.


Thomas the corgi (with the kind permission of Jane Bozarth)

Thomas the corgi, showing his best 
(with the kind permission of Jane Bozarth)

I’m really pleased this went as well as it did. I’m thinking of ways to make it work better (one participant was confused by my instructions and rated on a scale of 1 to 3 rather than zero to 2).

And if I have more time, I’ll have a follow-on exercise: Raise the Runt. The idea would be to see which job aid scored the lowest, and then talk about why and about how to improve it.


Jun 192015

Lots of people in my extended network have been working out loud — sharing what they do, and the thought process behind it — long before #WOL as a term got very far down the street. This informal reflection (often followed by informal exchange) has made a tremendous difference in how I learn things and how I get better at things.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, for starters there’s John Stepper’s book, and there’s Jane Bozarth’s Show Your Work. In both cases the emphasis is not simply on what gets done, but how it gets done.

Before the week’s over, I wanted to go out loud with a small item that’s produced a lot of progress for me in the past six weeks. I’d like to have something more obviously impressive, but I’m going with “personally worthwhile.” I can’t find the original source — most likely because it’s buried in the cognitive junk drawer of my Twitter favorites. But the idea is this:

Tick, tick, tickIf you’ve got some future goal — say, you’re giving a presentation in four months — there’s research to suggest that framing your goal in days, rather than weeks or months, is a much more effective way of spurring yourself on.

Try it yourself: which has more psychological weight? “I’ve got three months” or “I’ve got 91 days.”

The notion intrigued me, and with not much searching I found the Countdown Widget at the Google Play store.

The day I installed it was four months ahead of the target I’d set for myself. But the widget counts down in days — so it displayed 120 on my phone.

As you can see in the screen shot I took this morning, that’s now down to 78. I’ve got work to do this weekend.

I made sure to put the widget on the home page, and so every time I glance at my phone, I’ve got a double reminder of the schedule I chose: the number of days appears, and the bright ring around the number disappears, bit by bit, with each passing day.

What this has done for me is probably what end-of-the-day reflection does for other people, or a carefully tended to-do list: I look at this and ask myself what I can do next to move forward toward my goal.

Another out-loud angle: I talked about this with a co-worker, and at least three times a week she’ll notice the countdown on my phone and ask what I’ve done on my project lately.



Nov 202014

In a previous post, I showed a fictionalized example of an actual guide for assembling a piece of industrial equipment. These instructions weren’t particularly well done, and I set myself the task of making some improvements. I also wanted to explain what I did, and why I thought it was an improvement.

Revision, page 1

Revision, page 1

The original, written on seventeen sheets in an Excel workbook, had more than 50 steps. I didn’t fictionalize them all, and I haven’t tried to revise them all. I’ve done two pages (that cover what 5 of the original pages did). I think these revisions are representative. (You can click each image to open a full-sized version in another window.)

By the way: I don’t have any documentation other than what’s in the original widget vat instructions. In some places, I’ve made an educated guess about details that aren’t clear; in other cases I made things up. I’ll point these out along the way.

On to the revision!

Why my version looks this way

We’re guiding a task that’s mainly a procedure: a sequence of steps that follow one another logically, with relatively little decision-making.

Revision, page 2

Revision, page 2

I see this as a job aid for lots of reasons, including the large number of steps. A number of my revisions are part of what any good job aid should include.

A clear title

The original read “Main Assembly Instructions,” which is ambiguous at best, unless Quasimodo Corporation only assembles one thing.

Here I’m pretending that there are several models of widget vats that differ mainly in size. I’ve put the model numbers into the title so the assemblers can tell easily if these are the instructions they want.

First things first: safety and prerequisites

Every page of the original version had a box listing the same three pieces of safety equipment–as if the developer thought the assemblers might take off their safety glasses between pages 11 and 12.

I’m also pretending that the “submittal drawing” spells out things like how many fasteners you need of each type. If that were not the case, I’d have to find out from my client whether (for example) the fasteners were stored at the assembly point, and if so how the workers could get more when they needed.

Emphasis techniques

Emphasis techniques

Emphasizing what’s important

The original version didn’t make much effective use of contrast, alignment, or spacing, so it’s much harder to figure out what’s important. That’s one reason I’m a fan of language like “before you begin.” In my revision, that stands on its own as the header for a number of items that we want the worker to do before starting the assembly.

And rather than the original’s unfortunate use of ALL CAPS, I recommend using capitals, boldface, or similar techniques in specific, limited circumstances. One of those circumstances is to highlight words like DO NOT, EXCEPT, DANGER, and so on.

Don’t confuse people with detail

Although the original used over 50 photos, in my revision I’ve hardly used any. In part that’s because I didn’t have good replacements for the photos–but also because many of the original photos fail to contribute useful guidance.

One problem with the original images–and with photos in general–is that they often provide too much detail, making it hard to grasp what’s important in a particular step. Or they ignore context, also making it hard to grasp what’s important.

Take a look at these three examples on one page of the original (click to enlarge):

Details from the original instructions

Details from the original instructions

Drawbacks to these:

  • Left: Why do I need to see a picture of the parts cart? The instructions say it’s important to push rather than pull the cart–but they don’t say if there’s a specific end I should push from. If there is, show it. If there isn’t, spell that out.
  • Center: you might be able to figure out, after studying this picture, that you’re viewing the assembly area from the side–but you can’t tell whether the top of the assembled widget will be on the left or the right.
  • Right: the instructions tell you:
    • In my first revision, I’d missed the “four chocks total” part, which implies that neither the all-caps approach nor the FOUR (4) text/numeral approach helped.

image fix detail 2Although I didn’t have much to work with, I have a couple of examples of images I think would work better.

The top picture in “image detail” shows a closeup helpful for one assembly step: the flanges should face up, and they should face out from each other.

(Yes, I made up the term “bleem flange.”)

The lower picture is a line drawing rather than a photo. Line drawings are a great way to eliminate unnecessary detail. I’ve teried to reduce details to the essentials: you’re fastening two (more-or-less) L-shaped pieces together, and you fasten through holes that alternate large/small/large/small.

(I’ve made the assumption here that the assembler should alternate directions when fastening these things: one fastener from one side, the next from the opposite side. If it were important to do that alternating while fastening, I’d add a box to spell that out. If you can install all the fasteners from one side, and then from the other, I’d spell that out. )

Some  problems in the original version stem from the decision to always use three photos per page in the original. That’s a lot like deciding that you need to use one semicolon per paragraph: not wrong, exactly, but needlessly specific.

What I’d do instead:

  • Leave out the cart photo. My assumption: the assemblers know what the parts cart looks like. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be assembling widget vats.
  • Possibly include a close-up of the portion of the cart that I’m supposed to push, assuming there’s some sort of handle or push plate.
  • Use a bird’s-eye-view line drawing to show the layout of the assembly area.
    • In the text for this step in my revision, I made up some floor guidelines to show “top” and “bottom” of the assembled widget.
    • I also made up guidelines on the frame to show where to place some of the initial pieces.
  • Clarify where to place the wheel chocks.
    • Chock one wheel of each assembly fixture.
      • Written this way, it doesn’t matter how many fixtures you have, so you don’t need the FOUR (4) business so beloved by people writing procurement specs.
    • Place the chock so it’s closer to the center of the fixture than the wheel it’s touching. (If this is a best practice; I have no idea.)

Trying to build a useful set of performance guides like this can be a tool for analysis tool as well. You can’t create a successful guide without knowing what the inputs are, what the process is, what the outputs are, and what the standards for success are.

How many assembly fixtures do I need? On the framework, which side represents the top of the assembled piece? Can I install 20 fasteners in one direction, all in a row, and then 20 in the other? And what the hell is a “submittal drawing,” let alone the cryptic “BOM?”

What’s more, you can identify items that don’t need to be in the guide. Frankly, I think it’s…perhaps less than helpful to list “vat part cart” as an assembly aid. That’s like saying, “In order to build your IKEA Poang chair, buy the Poang chair and bring it home.”

The changes here, and the reasons behind them, apply to most performance guides like this. In my next widget vat post, I’ll show some revisions I’d make that are specific to procedural or step-by-step job aids like these instructions.

Nov 052014

Last week, I had a Twitter conversation with Jane Bozarth and David Glow. All three of us, I think, started by having fun with the, um, suboptimal material Jane had been given to start with. I briefly described a spectacular example of a wrongheaded job aid, but we moved pretty quickly to the idea that mockery (however well deserved) wasn’t enough.

So rather than post this fictionalized version as a candidate for the Worst Job Aid Ever, I thought I’d try doing two things: talk about why this attempt works so poorly, and suggest some things I’d do differently if invited. I’m grateful to David and Jane for encouraging me in this.

It’ll be a bit wordy, so  I’ll break it into two posts. This is the first.

Here are two pages taken from a set of assembly instructions for a piece of industrial equipment. I’ve edited the pages, but only to conceal the source. The layout is exactly the same as the original. (You can click the images to see them full size in a new window.)

QAC 02 page 1 1

Assembly instructions, page 1 – 1

 (By the way, when I said the layout is exactly the same as the original, I also meant that fifteen of the seventeen pages have an identical layout. Each page has space for three dropped-in photos; each has three borderless boxes of instructions [centered vertically, with text almost always in ALL CAPS]; each has the six boxes you see for safety, tools, quality, and so on.)

Assembly instructions, page 1 – 5

You may have noticed that the assembly instructions were created in Excel. I confess that I’ve kept this unique document for selfish reasons: it’s one of the most bizarre attempts at guiding performance that I’ve ever seen.

I’m not here to talk about bizarre–at least not today. I’m here to talk about why these instructors fail so badly.

What’s not working, and why

It’s true that never before nor since have I seen an assembly guide written in a spreadsheet, but that’s more a symptom than the underlying problem. A more important question: what’s Quasimodo’s problem? In other words, what are they trying to get done?

I’d say their goal is to have assembled widget vats that pass inspection and meet cost guidelines.

I’ve covered a lot of territory with “pass inspection,” but the second-last sheet makes reference to a number of Quasimodo standards. (Click this image to open it in a new window.)

QAC 05 inspection

Inspection guidelines and standards

Although I never saw the actual equipment, it’s clear from photos that the finished product is about the length and width of a roomy parking space. Two or three people assembly it in a factory, from start to finish (meaning, not on an assembly line–the parts come to the assemblers). Assembly involves over 50 steps, several of which are variations of “repeat steps 1-5 for all four edges.”

So what?

Well, mostly these steps are sequences of actions with few decisions:

  1. Position center end wall panel CAD on assembly fixture.
    • Use two people or a jib crane to lift panels.
    • Check submittal for end wall connection and bottom connection orientation.
  2. Fasten center end wall panel CAD to floor plane using 5/16 x 3/4 LG tappers.
  3. Fasten center end wall panel CAD to floor support channel ZCA using 3/8 x 1-1/4 LG screw.
  4. And so on and so forth…

I imagine these instructions were printed, pages slipped into sheet protectors and stored in a ring binder at the assembly area. They’re like a recipe from an industrial cookbook. So the fact they were created in Excel, while non-typical, is less relevant than the barriers created by their overall layout and especially by their approach to guiding behavior.

What else do we know about assembling the widget vat?

  • Workers need safety equipment like hearing protection and safety glasses.
  • Parts of the task involve specialized equipment (like that jib crane).
  • Some ways of working are more efficient or more effective than others (“start at the center and work your way out to the ends”).
  • Detail often matters (as in the note above to check the submittal, a kind of specification for one specific assembly job).

And why doesn’t this attempt work well?

QAC 05 1 5 detailTo shoot the biggest fish in the barrel: Excel isn’t a word processor. It’s not a publishing tool (unless you’re publishing numbers and charts, or else tables of data). Creating this guide in a spreadsheet needlessly complicates the task of updating and revising — and even searching.

This isn’t even well-done document publication via Excel. Here’s a portion of page 1-5 (the second image above).  Note that the photo includes two callouts labeled CA while the accompanying text refers to panels CAA, CAB, and CAF. If you had the Excel file, you could enlarge the two CA callouts in the picture, and then you’d see that one of them actually reads CAA while the other reads CAB.

So Doctor Spreadsheet may not have been a proofreading whiz.

But who cares? The reason Excel is a poor choice is that nothing calls for Excel. There isn’t a single calculation in the entire document. You might as well have produced this in PowerPoint. Or taken photos of alphabet magnets you arranged on your fridge.

From a graphics standpoint, the lockstep layout assigns equal weight to two areas (task photos and procedural steps), and the same total weight to six blocks, one of which (quality) reads “n/a” on all but one of the 15 pages.  Most of the time, a third of the space on a page is sitting around doing nothing. Nothing except confining the actual performance steps to their all-cap prison.

From a job-aid standpoint:

  • Before you begin information (like equipment and parts to have) should appear before the steps in the procedure.
  • Visuals, when necessary, should appear next to the step they illustrate.
  • Information that’s not needed on a page should not appear and shouldn’t have a reserved parking space that does nothing but delineate whether the information might show up on a subsequent page.
  • Steps should be clearer delineated, not crammed into a trio of one-size-fits-all holding pens:
Detail from page 1-6

Detail from page 1-6

The vertical centering manages to complicate reading even more, a remarkable feat for such a small amount of text. Another complication: in this example, step 5 says to repeat steps 1 through 5–a good recipe for an endless loop. I think the assemblers would figure out what the designer meant, but it’s no thanks to the designer.

So, as it exists, the QAC assembly instructions are hard to update, hard to read (from a graphics standpoint), and hard to follow (from a getting-your-work-done standpoint). It doesn’t seem like they’d easily get Quasimodo to the goal of assembled widget vats that passed inspection at a cost acceptable to the company — at least not until the workforce managed to build enough of these things to not need the instructions.

In my next post, I’ll show some possible revisions and talk about why I think they’d help. But I don’t have to have all the fun: add your comments. Ask your questions–if I’m able to, I’ll answer them. Let’s see if we can get to IPI sign-off a bit faster. You know, so we can excel.

Oct 062014
New! Improved! Now with TripleHorn API!

CC-licensed image by Kudu Photo

In the world of organizational learning, there’s always another bandwagon. In fact, they have to widen the L&D Highway every few years to accommodate late-model bandwagons, as well as service vehicles full of batteries, charging cords, and templated reports. Which is great–if you’re in the bandwagon-supply business, rather than the far less trendy business of helping people accomplish things on the job.

I work for an organization where much of the staff works with complex computer systems. In our case, the systems help us administer pension programs — enrolling people when they start a job covered by one of our plans, producing annual statements of benefits, calculating estimates, processing transactions related to salary and service, and managing all the pension-payment transactions.

Hundreds of thousands of people–I suspect millions, actually–work in similar jobs in any industry you can think of. I am pretty familiar with hotel, airline, and passenger rail reservation systems, and I’ve helped train people to use systems for managing inventory, conducting pharmaceutical trials, monitoring accounts in the consumer packaged goods industry, trading natural gas, and tracking shipping containers.

Almost none of these systems had a way for people to practice tasks in a robust way.

By robust practice, I mean features or capabilities that let people practice complete tasks, as they would on the job, without risk to data, resources, vendors, or clients. It’s my contention that most large corporate systems, although they’re the workhorses of the organization, have no way for someone to practice what he’s supposed to do in the production system–except by working with real data.

I say “production system” as shorthand for the ability to reserve actual airline seats or handle actual pension benefits or process actual bank loans. And I’m going to say “practice system” when I mean the ability to exercise the same steps and skills without reserving actual seats, handling actual pensions, or issuing actual loans.

In a financial system for managing bank branches, for example, if you wanted to practice the steps to process a car loan, you had to pretend you were issuing a loan to yourself. And you really had to remember not to click approve, or customer-you would have a loan.

“Don’t push Approve!” is good guidance in that situation, but a lousy way to train someone in loan approvals.

Is this your experience, too?

Of the large corporate systems you've worked with, how many had robust practice capabilities?

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Simulations are at best a half-measure. (At worse, they’re a fantastic way to set money on fire.) It takes forever and two weeks to develop a simulation, and the Thursday after it’s released, IT relabels the Pending tab and adds two new buttons on the Estimation form.

(Added to original post: a comment from Clark Quinn on Twitter made me realize that this last paragraph could be misconstrued. I was thinking of simulations of some complicated corporate computer system–in other words, a standalone imitation of the production system, one that requires at least as much maintenance as the production system does.)

True robust practice doesn’t mimic the production system; it mirrors or piggybacks on production’s capabilities while ensuring that anything that goes wrong in the practice system stays in the practice system.

At Amtrak, we created a set of imaginary passenger trains–the “training trains.” They had robust practice features, and also safety features.

Robust features:

  • Training trains ran on the same routes as actual trains, with the same schedules, fares, and accommodations.
  • The set of training trains contained every accommodation available, so you could practice reservations that might rarely or ever come to you otherwise.
  • Training train schedules, fares, features, and services were created using production-system data, so the training trains always reflected real-world conditions.
  • Practice IDs could retrieve such production-system information as schedules, fares, routes, on-board services, and operating status (“Is train 353 on time?”).
  • You could log into a practice ID from any terminal connected to the production system.

Safety features:

  • A person using a production ID could not display the training trains. (You couldn’t make a reservation for a real person on an imaginary train.)
  • A person using a practice ID could not reserve space, create reservations, or issue tickets on an actual train.
  • Practice users could issue the “print ticket” command, but the actual printed ticket clearly read TEST TICKET / NOT GOOD FOR TRAVEL.
  • Practice users could not enter or alter production-system information — e.g., they could not report an actual train as departing on time or change the hours of a ticket office.
  • To log into a practice ID, you had to log out of your production ID.

Additional safety measures guaranteed, for instance, that imaginary revenue from training train reservations was not counted as actual revenue in the production system.

We try so hard as learning professionals to create authentic, high-value formal training. And we talk a lot about the problem of transfer, the need for spaced practice, the value of whole tasks, and the like. But we don’t seem to advocate for measures that would deliver robust practice to the workstation, and many of us are a little uneasy about what was described to me as “letting people run around inside a practice system.”

Such running around, which I think of as “deciding what I want to practice, then practicing it,” seems to me to have far greater potential for performance support than run-of-the-mill elearning, no matter how many images it has of people in suits, talking on phones.