Improving performance

Doing more than “training”

Feb 272012

The Scrooge-O-Meter from LSS Financial Counseling Service is an example of a calculator job aid.  Calculators guide someone through a task by prompting for numerical values and performing calculations. The idea is to help a person reach some conclusion without having to master the factors or the math involved.

The Scrooge-O-Meter

(LSS Financial Counseling Service is part of the work of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.)

Who uses this job aid?

Most likely someone trying to learn the added financial burden of buying on credit.  (See additional thoughts from the group that created it, later in this post.)

What is the task supported?

I would say “awareness” or even “empowerment.”  The goal is to help someone understand the additional cost of purchasing on credit.  I filled in the numbers you see in this example.  The result says to me that “spreading out” credit payments for my holiday buying makes those purchases nearly 10% more expensive than I’d thought.

Notice that it doesn’t render judgment (“$68.72 extra?  Are you nuts?!?”).  The job aid simplifies the process so I can more readily see and understand the impact of buying on credit.  I’m free to make my own decisions about what to do next.

More about the Scrooge-O-Meter

LSS Financial Counseling Service wants consumers to know that they can turn to a national network of nonprofit financial counseling and debt management (FCS is a member of that network).  The page with the Scrooge-O-Meter offers a toll-free number, online counseling, a newsletter, and other resources.

Darryl Dahlheimer, program director of LSS Financial Counseling Service, was kind enough agree to its appearing here and also to provide these details:

There are many tools to help consumers calculate credit card repayment, but here are three reasons we like this one:

  1. It sets a playful tone, to overcome the shame/intimidation of finances for so many who feel “dumb about money” but want to learn.
  2. It helps make the true cost of using credit visible.  Plug in an example of buying that $500 iPad at a major store on their 21% interest credit card and then paying only the $15 minimum each month. You will pay a whopping $757 and take over four years to pay off.
  3. Conversely, it allows you to see the tangible benefits of paying more than minimums.


Feb 242012

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series When to Build a Job Aid.

The previous post in this series covered the initial go/no-go decisions: are you required to build a job aid?  Does a need for rate or speed make a job aid impractical?

If the answer in both cases is no, then you don’t have to build a job aid, yet there’s no reason not to (so far).  A good way forward at this point is to consider the characteristics of the real-world performance you have in mind.  This is related to though not the same as task analysis.  I have my own name for it:

What that means is: use what you know about the task to help determine whether building a job aid makes sense.  You can go about this in many ways, but the following questions quickly cover a lot of the territory.

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How often does someone perform the task?

“Often” is a relative term–in fact, most of the questions in Ask the Task are relative.  That doesn’t mean they’re not pertinent.  Asking “how frequent is frequent?” turns your attention to the context of the task and the people who typically carry it out.

Frequency isn’t the same thing as regularity.  Some tasks are frequent and predictable, like a weekly status update.  Some are more random, like handling a payment by money order.  And some are much more rare, like a bank teller in Vermont handling a money transfer from Indonesia.

Whether you end up building a job aid, designing training, or just tossing people into the deep end of the performance pool, you need some idea of how frequent “frequent” is, and where the specific task might fall along a job-relevant frequency scale.

Think about what frequency might tell you about whether to build a job aid.  Yes, now.  I’ll tell you more at the end of the post, but we both know you ought to do some thinking on your own, even if we both suspect few other people will actually do that thinking while they read this.

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How many steps does the task have?

It’s true, some tasks don’t really seem to have steps.  Or they have very few: look up the arguments for the HTML <br> tag.  And some tasks have so many that it might make sense to break them up into logical subgroups: setting up the thermoformer.  Testing the thermoformer.  Troubleshooting problems after the test.

Think of “step” as the lowest level of activity that produces a result that makes sense to the performer on the job.  If I’m familiar with creating websites, then “create a new domain and assign it to a new folder in the \public_html directory” might be two steps (or maybe even one).  If I’m not familiar with creating websites, I’m going to need a lot more steps.

That makes sense, because a job aid is meant to guide a particular group of performers, and the presumption is that they share some background.  If you have widely differing backgrounds, you might end up with two versions of a job aid–see the Famous 5-Minute Install for WordPress and the more detailed instructions.  Essentially, that’s two job aids: one for newcomers (typically with more support) and one for more experienced people.

As with frequency, you need to think about how many steps the task involves, and whether you think of those as relative few steps, or relatively many.

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How difficult are the steps?

You can probably imagine tasks that have a lot of steps but not much complexity.  For someone who’s used to writing and who has solid, basic word processing skills, writing a 25-page report has plenty of steps, but few of them are difficult (other than getting reviewers to finish their work on time).

In the same way, a task can have relatively few steps, but many of them can be quite difficult.

That’s the reason for two step-related considerations when you Ask the Task whether a job aid makes sense: how many? How hard?

Pause for a moment and think which way you’d lean: if the steps in a task are difficult, does that mean “job aid might work,” or does that mean “people need to learn this?”

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What happens if they do it wrong?

This question focuses on the consequences of performing the task incorrectly.  Whether a person has a job aid or not is immaterial–if you don’t perform correctly, what happens?  Personal injury? Costly waste or rework? Half an hour spent re-entering the set-up tolerances? Or simply “re-enter the password?”

As with the other questions, you need to think about the impart of error in terms of the specific job.  And, if you haven’t guessed already, about the relationship between that impact and the value of building a job aid.

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Is the task likely to change?

We’re not talking about whether the job aid will change, because we still haven’t figured out if we’re going to build one.  We’re talking about the task that a job aid might guide.  What are the odds the task will change?  “Change” here could include new steps, new standards, new equipment, a new product, and so on.

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Ask the task, and the job aid comes out?  Right!

You’ve probably detected a pattern to the questions.  So the big secret is this:

The more your answers tend to the right, the stronger the case for a job aid.

What follows is the 90-second version of why.  (As your read the lines, just add “all other things being equal” to each of them.)

  • The less frequently someone performs a task, the likelier it is that he’ll forget how to do it.  If you’re an independent insurance agent whose practice mostly involves homeowner’s and driver’s insurance, and you write maybe six flood insurance policies a year, odds are that’s not a task you can perform without support. Job aids don’t forget.
  • The more steps involved in the task, the more challenging it will be for someone to retain all those steps correctly in memory and apply them at the right time. Job aids: good at retention.
  • The more difficult the steps are, the harder the performer will find it to complete each step appropriately. A job aid can remind the performer of criteria and considerations, and even present examples.
  • The higher the impact of error, the more important it is for the performer to do the task correctly.  You certainly can train people to respond in such circumstances (air traffic control, emergency medical response, power-line maintenance) , but often that’s when the performance situation or the time requirement presses for such learning.  Otherwise, a well-designed job aid is a good way to help the performer avoid high-cost error.
  • The more changeable the task, the less sense it makes to train to memory.  Mostly that’s because when the change occurs, you’ll have to redo or otherwise work at altering how people perform.  If instead you support the likely-to-change task with job aids, you’re avoiding the additional cost of full training, and you mainly need to replace the outdated job aid with the new one.

Here are the ask-the-task questions, together once more:

Part 2: ask the task

Feb 222012

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series When to Build a Job Aid.

If you’re wondering whether you should build a job aid to support some task, this is the first of a three-part guide to help you figure things out.

Should you, or shouldn't you (part 1)?

That first consideration (“Is a job aid required?”) isn’t as daft as it might seem.  If your organization mandates a job aid for some task, then you’re stuck.  You want to do the best job you can with it (or maybe you don’t), but unless you convince the right people to reverse the policy, somebody’s going to be building a job aid.

Which means you can skip the rest of the “should I build?” stuff that will appear in Parts 2 and 3.

Assuming that a job aid isn’t mandatory, the next question is whether speed or rate is a critical factor in performing whatever the task is.  The short answer is that if speed matters, a job aid isn’t going to work.

Wing tips up, feet down, watch for that wave...First, when it comes to routinely high-volume work like factory production or air-traffic control, that normal high-volume state doesn’t allow the performer time to consult a job aid.  Successful results depend on learning–on committing skill and knowledge to memory, and on retrieving and applying those things appropriately.

I’m a pretty fast typist (65 – 80 words per minute if I’ve been writing a lot), but the moment I glance down at the keyboard my rate drops, because the visual signal interferes with the virtually automatic, high-rate process I normally use at a keyboard.

That’s rate.  As for speed, many jobs call for you to apply knowledge and skill  in an unscheduled fashion, but quickly.  Think about safely driving a car through a tricky situation, much less an emergency.  You don’t have the opportunity to consult a job aid.  If a kid on a bike suddenly pulls out in front of you, you can’t look up what to do.

Anyone who’s helped train a new driver knows what it’s like when the novice is trying to decide if it’s safe to turn into traffic.  We experienced drivers have internalized all sorts of data to help us decide without thinking, “Yes, there’s plenty of time before that bus gets here; I can make the left turn.” In the moment, the newcomer doesn’t have that fluency but has to be guided toward it–just not via a job aid.

What’s next?

Once you’ve determined that you’re not required to build a job aid, and that there’s no obstacle posed by a need for high speed or high rate, you’ll look at the nature of the performance for clues that suggest job aids.  That’ll be the next post: Ask the Task.

CC-licensed image of seabirds by Paul Scott.

Feb 132012

(Click image for a downloadable version of the regulations on Scribd)

I have a collection of job aids, some going back more than 50 years.  I keep them for various reasons: some are amusing, many are creative, and all of them are examples of helping people to perform some task.

What makes a job aid a job aid?

  • It presents information that’s external to the performer.
  • It’s used on the job.  It’s part of how the performer carries out some task.
  • It enables accomplishment: when a person uses the job aid, he can accomplish some result that he couldn’t otherwise.
  • It reduces the need for memorization.

I use “memorization” here only as a label for some of what we call learning, which is storing certain knowledge in your memory so you can retrieve it and apply it in the proper context. (I know, I’m oversimplifying.)

Job aids, when used appropriately, offload some of the cost of memorization: instead of learning all the information or steps for some task, the person learns how to use the job aid to carry the task out.

Just as not every task is suited to job-aiding, not every person can use every job aid.  A job aid supports the performance of a particular job, or at least the completion of a particular task.  Implicit in that is a certain level of background knowledge and overall capability.  If you don’t know much about photography and digital images, than a job aid for some advanced feature in PhotoShop probably was not designed for you.

Please understand that I mean no offense, and realize I’m making a possibly unjustified assumption, when I say that you, esteemed reader, probably couldn’t make good use of a job aid for a forequarter amputation.

That’s the surgical removal of someone’s arm and shoulder.  It’s not a common procedure.  In the UK, doctors perform about 10 per year, mainly on cancer patients.

David Nott performed one, too.  He’s a vascular surgeon who volunteers with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).  In 2008, while serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was confronted with a boy who’d lost most of his arm.  The child was at grave risk of dying; Nott knew the only procedure that could help him was a forequarter amputation.

As the  BBC reported, Nott believed he had the surgical skill but wasn’t sure he knew all the steps for this specific operation.  There was no way to get real-time support (say, over an open phone line).  So he contacted Dr. Meirion Thomas of London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, who provided performance support… via text message.

Click to view video on The Telegraph's site

Notice how Thomas’s instructions rely on skill and knowledge that Nott already had.  “Cont(r)ol and divide (the) subsc(apular) art(ery) and vein” is one highly compressed step.  Professor Thomas knew that the intended performer could get around the typo, could identify the vessels, and would know the meaning of “control” and of “divide.”

Nott told The Telegraph he was able to carry out the three-hour procedure thanks to the guidance, which is one of the truly distinctive job aids in my collection.

Feb 012012

I’m not a fan of catchy for the sake of catchy, which probably explains why “celebrity” is not a word that appeals to me.  I am a fan of titles, invitations, or openings that are succinct, intriguing, and mnemonic.

One example comes in the first paragraph of Unhappy Meals, Michael Pollan’s January 2007 essay in The New York Times Magazine:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Definitely succinct.  To me, intriguing–well, of course you should eat food.  (Pollan advocates avoiding processed and manufactured food. He points out that produce doesn’t usually come with a label shouting “healthy!”)  As for mnemonic (in the sense of assisting memory), his three phrases epitomize the three main arguments in his essay.

I’ve written about weight management (here and here and here) and tried to explain effective, evidence-based approaches as a form of performance management.  Perhaps that’s made me all the more receptive to an item in Obesity Panacea. Part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blog network, OP examines “the science (or lack thereof) behind popular weight loss products,” as well as discussing other items related to weight.

The item? Can you limit your sitting and sleeping to just 23.5 hours a day?

Peter Janiszewski, who writes the blog along with Travis Saunders, highlights a video by Dr. Mike Evans of the Health Design Lab at the University of Toronto.  Evans effectively poses his question in a succinct, intriguing way, and then offering a summary of evidence to support the treatment he recommends.

I find myself wondering how much practical information I could share like this, together with evidence, in less than 10 minutes.  (Personally, I’d leave out the sketching-on-a-whiteboard–the images are engaging, but for me the sped-up drawing lost its charm quickly.  That’s nitpicking, though.)  In terms of mnemonic effect, the title and the recommendation definitely stay with me.