Job aid

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 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 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.

One problem with those 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 say it’s important to chock “one wheel on each end of each vat assembly.”  Does that mean two chocks in all, four chocks in all, or (if I’ve counted the individual sets of wheels correctly) six?
Image detail: sometimes less is more

Image detail: sometimes less is more

Although I didn’t have much to work with, in my revision 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 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.)

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.
  • 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. I don’t know where they actually should go, but this is the sort of thing I mean:
    • Chock one wheel near each corner of the assembly fixture.
    • Place the chock so it’s closer to the center of the fixture than the wheel it’s touching.

A closing thought: trying to build a useful set of performance guides like this can be an analysis tool as well. How many assembly ports 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?”

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 the widget assembly 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.

Nov 132012
 

MomAs a girl from a small town in Nova Scotia, my mother had to go a long way for her professional development. It’s 1,200 miles (and they were miles back then, not kilometers) from Inverness to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where she did her nurse’s training, just before the outbreak of World War II.

Apart from a belated recognition of Remembrance Day, the Canadian term for what the U.S. calls Veterans Day, it’s as good a way as any to mention Toronto (known in the Victoria era as “Toronto the Good,” for its alleged  propriety). I spent a week there recently at the CSTD Conference there and led a session called Building Job Aids: How, When, Why.

I have some biases regarding job aids.

One is that an awful lot of people who call themselves instructional designers like to design instruction. So they write objectives and plan activities and encourage discovery and structure experiences. Some of them go on to embalm these things in SCOs. All in pursuit of that elusive transfer of learning.

A corollary to that bias: it never seems to occur to some of these people to not design instruction. For example, they don’t create job aids. They don’t see job aids as a way of reducing or eliminating the need for formal training, nor as a tool that people use on the job and thus should practice using during formal training.

Instead, job aids get crammed to the back of the cognitive closet, next to the icebreakers and under the smile sheets. Besides, you can’t track job aid use in an LMS, so how good can they really be?

Job aid for when the chips are down

Guys: if people don’t use it on the job, it’s not a job aid.

I kid because I love. Actually, I kid because I’m puzzled by the non-use of so practical a tool. So, in part because I’d like to make myself better known in Canada, I created a session that I thought would appeal to people who’d thought about job aids, or wondered about them, and who were interested in finding out if job aids made sense for the workplace problems they grapple with.

I included lots of examples of job aids, which I’ve been adding to my show-and-tell blog, Dave’s Ensampler. I included an exercise in which people would describe to a partner some task they knew about, with the listener assessing that task’s suitability to job-aiding using questions that I’ve discussed here before (When to Build a Job Aid).

What I did not do was to first walk them through–which, let’s face it, often means talk them through–that process. Given their likely backgrounds, people in my session were likely capable of putting a decent job aid to use on their own.

So: this allowed more time for the exercise, since I wasn’t going on about the exercise. Second, it provided a clear albeit small demonstration of a job aid taking the place of instruction. If people could get through the task-assessing exercise without my telling them how, even though they hadn’t made this sort of analysis before, then it’s pretty clear you don’t have to train people just because you’ve uncovered a skill-and-knowledge gap.

We discussed the decision questions afterward, and if you can imagine such a thing, there was very little puzzlement or confusion about what goes into the decision and why.

So then I did talk a bit, showing how a good task analysis is whispering very loudly that certain tasks would be great to job-aid. My experience is that this would be a new concept to many, so I demonstrated with a short example, and using that example showed some features common to all job aids.

At that point, we went into a second hands-on exercise. The day before my presentation, I created this as a replacement for what I’d originally planned to do. As I had been rehearsing, I felt that people weren’t getting enough opportunity to do things for themselves.

Why not have them try to create a decision table?  From the web site of the Superior Court for King County, Washington, I copied instructions on how to file for a protection order (an anti-harassment protection order, a domestic violence protection order, and so on). I chose this topic to emphasize that  job aids can apply to important real life tasks and not just to refunding a store purchase.

Participants started with a set of descriptions (created by me based on the court’s actual guidelines), along with a job aid for creating decision tables. For an exercise at 4:15 in the afternoon, less than an hour before conference-sponsored drinks and snacks, people seemed very engaged–lots of talk within the table groups, not too many obvious signs of boredom or frustration.

Thanks to comments from participants both in the session and afterward, there are changes I’ll make. My original thought was that I needed to add a detailed demonstration before the exercise. A week later, though, I think that’s just my internal instructor dying to explain something again.

Instead what I’m going to create  is a better  job aid for how to build a decision table once you’ve analyzed a task like choosing which protection order a person needs. I think an example–a model of building such a table–makes a lot of sense, and it too will probably be a handout.

In other words:

  • Provide details for the task that’s going to be job-aided
  • Provide guidance in drafting a decision-based job aid
  • Provide the least amount of description / explanation / instruction possible

Then, get out of the way. Let people work with the tools. Let those synapses fire. Stand ready to respond to questions or comments, with the aim of helping people come to their own answer.

I’m grateful to CSTD for accepting my proposal, and I’m indebted to the people who participated in the job aids session. Thanks to them, I’m putting together what I think of as a workbench (rather than a workshop): an engagement of three days or so in which I work with clients to build up job aid skills and immediately apply them to real work challenges. I’ll act as a guide in the skill area and as a coach for the client’s own efforts to build job aids.

CC-licensed photo by Carlos Almendarez.

Oct 312012
 

I’m in Toronto this week, at the Canadian Society for Training and Development’s conference. (On Thursday I’m giving a session: Using Job Aids: How, When, Why.)

I’ve been wanting for some time to rethink how I present examples of job aids, and after some experimentation at Whiteboard Labs, I’m launching Dave’s Ensampler.

“Ensample” is an archaic word with the same root as “example.” A long time ago, I saw a collection of organizing diagrams that Sivasailam Thiagarajam made, giving them the title An Ensampler of Hierarchical Information.

The job aids at the Ensampler have more consistent tagging, and I have a page that automatically displays the titles by category.  This is new, and it’s a work in progress–for example, I’m trying out a way to have a tab in the menu here at the Whiteboard link directly to the Ensampler.  If that works (or works well enough) I’ll put a similar tab up at the Ensampler to teleport back here.

Let me know what you think.

Jun 282012
 

There’s this:

Blended learning

“Stir the mixture well / Lest it prove inferior…”

And there’s this:

Blended learning and job aids

“…then put half a drop / Into Lake Superior.”

Even conceding that many of the “blended learning” hits are from formal education (schools, academia), it’s a little depressing that only 3% of them mention job aids. I personally doubt it’s because everyone uses job aids. It’s almost as if developers, yearning to produce ever-more-engrossing courses, are blind to this kind of performance support.

This is closely related to what Cathy Moore says in the opening minute of the following clip:

And here, at 4%… is what is possibly the least expensive and most effective approach [for blended learning]: on-the-job training tasks. Apparently we are still stuck in the mindset that training is a course.

The clip actually covers a lot of territory in six minutes, including realistic tasks, application, relevant examples, and so on, but I want to focus here on the aspect of figuring out how not to train — or, more accurately, how to not train. Cathy demonstrates the use of “a mega job aid” to enable on-the-job learning. This is her term for combining a job aid (which stores information or guidance so you don’t have to remember it) with instruction (which tells you how to apply what’s in the job aid to a specific task).

How do you know it’s a job aid?

  • It’s external to the individual.
  • It reduces the need to memorize.
  • People use it on the job.
  • It enables accomplishment.

I asked Cathy for some comments about job aids.

“Before designing formal training, consider whether a job aid is all you need.”

Here, she’s asking what makes you think you need formal training for X?  Is there another way to help people accomplish the desired result?

“If you decide training is necessary, make sure the job aids are top-notch, and consider having the ‘course’ teach people how to use the job aids.”

It’s not a job aid if you don’t use it while you’re performing the task. So if you build a job aid but find that people need to practice using it, that practice should be like on-the-job use.  They’re not going to be doing the real-world task from within the LMS (unless, poor devils, their real-work job is managing the LMS). Embalming a job aid inside a course is like disabling an elevator in hopes that people will learn how to get from the 3rd to the 9th floor without “cheating.”

“Don’t duplicate the job aid info in the course.”

  Part of the decision about whether to build a job aid involves the nature of the task. Among the considerations:

How likely is it that the task will change?

The likelier it is that the task will change (and thus that the steps for accomplishing it will change), the more sense it makes to build a job aid — and the less sense it makes to duplicate the job aid inside a formal course.

Instead, as part of your formal training, use the same job aid people will use on the job. And figure out how to make updates easily available.

No matter what learning management ideology claims, there are only three kinds of people who return to an online course for reference information:

  • People who work for the vendor.
  • Actors appearing in the vendor’s materials.
  • People on the job who are really bored or really desperate.

Because she involves herself with what people actually do on the job, Cathy has some inexpensive yet highly effective ideas about where to get started:

To evaluate and improve job aids, physically visit learners’ work stations and look around. What support materials have people created for themselves? Often someone on the job has already created a good job aid and you just need to “borrow” it.

Even if it’s a less-than-ideal job aid, the fact that someone’s created it and is using it suggests both that the task is important and that people feel the need for support as they’re carrying out the task. That’s one heck of a head start, and you haven’t had to create a single “at the end of this training program” statement.