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 312014
 

This is the first in a (theoretical) series of keepers — interrelated items shared by people I follow.

A place for everything...

CC-licensed photo by victoriabernal

The keepers:

Why I’ve kept them, why I’ve posted:

The Stanford and SharpBrains selections both deal with the brain. On the one hand, Stanford’s countering the simplistic attitude that doing X will keep senescence at bay.

The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline.
SharpBrains, for its part, says that its mission is “to pro­vide inde­pen­dent, research-based, infor­ma­tion and guidance to navigate the grow­ing cog­ni­tive and brain fit­ness market.” So cldearly they believe there are ways to maintain and improve brain fitness, though these beliefs don’t seem overdramatic. (Here’s Scientific American’s book review of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness.)
 * * *
That’s a lot of brain stuff, and I think a good supplement is the Roberts article on models that Mark Oehlert shared. It has a striking quote from anthropologist Alfred Gell:

The technology of enchantment is the most sophisticated we possess. Under this heading I place all those technical strategies, especially art, music, dances, rhetoric, gifts etc., which human beings employ in order to secure the acquiescence of other people in their intentions or project…to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favourable to the social interests of the enchanter.

Says consultant Roberts, “We’d like to think that our interests are coterminous with those of the people we advise…[However…] In pursuit of certainty in the face of uncertainty, is it not sometime the case that the enchanter becomes the enchanted?”

 * * *

The e-learning challenge examples, for me, move from brain theory to workplace practice. Although I don’t work with Articulate, much of what gets done through the challenge can serve as a stimulus or even a model to get me out of far more conventional ruts. What’s more of a challenge than asking–and trying to answer–“How did she do that? How could I do that? How could I do something different now that I’ve seen that?”

 * * *

I really enjoyed David Kelly’s comparison between curation and photography. Decades ago, as he says, “photographer” tended to mean someone with a lot of technical skill and a lot of technical equipment. Mere mortals took snapshots, not photographs.

…Just as tools exist today that enable the average individual to take a quality photo, tools exist today that enable an individual to curate information.
I’m not quite ready to call myself a curator, but this post does contains items I thought worth keeping for myself that and potentially worth sharing with others. That’s good enough for now.
Oct 302014
 

I’m not all that fond of the word “curator.” (Keep in mind, though, that for some time I wasn’t all that fond of the word “blog.”) I was fine with the original meaning–a person in charge of things in a museum, zoo, or similar place of collection. I agree it’s a logical extension to use it for someone who chooses items from a collection, or chooses the items that go into a collection.

In the online world, though, there’s a tendency to call anyone who slaps four things together a curator. Sometimes, I think, he’s just a guy letting you look into his virtual junk drawer.

David Kelly looks at this more seriously. He believes anybody in the learning and performance field (or probably any field) can be a curator if they listen, analyze, and share:

In a similar vein, Harold Jarche stresses the need for every professional to do his or her own personal knowledge management, and he talks about this in his Seek, Sense, Share framework.

I’ve just finished my first year in a new job. One of the things I want to do in the coming year is more deliberate personal knowledge management. Part of that involves collecting information from the networks I’m involve in and sharing that with my colleagues. I know from experience this increases my mindfulness, and the more I seek, the more things I find I have to think about and to share.

My trusty sidekick for sensemaking is Evernote. (I just looked up their home page, and I smiled at the tag line, “the workspace for your life’s work.”) On my own computer, I can use their web clipping widget to add notes, adding my own tags and (if I’m so inclined) sending the new note to a particular notebook (section) in my Evernote collection. I can email things to my Evernote account, and from my phone I can create notes directly (in the Evernote app) or share things from other apps.

All that’s by way of introduction. Some time back I created a “keeper” tag for items I wanted to hang onto, specifically because I might want to share them with people.

What I’m now planning: a series of keeper posts. Rather than fling a bunch of things onto a page here because I have a bunch of things, I’ll go through my most recent keepers and pull out a subset of them. I’ll try to explain what I’ve kept, why I’m keeping it, and (at least implicitly) why I’m sharing it.

That’s what the next post will kick off.

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.

Sep 142014
 

an leabhar beag gormMy ancestors were all Scots–MacDougalls, MacLeods, MacLennans, MacFarlanes, MacIsaacs, Rankins, Macdonalds, and more than one who spelled my last name MacFhearghais–and so I’ve followed the run-up to next Thursday’s referendum asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

This is a question for the voters of Scotland, and I don’t pretend to have advice on how they should vote. In the social media streams I follow, though, I’ve seen many remarks to the effect that, despite excesses here and there, discussions in Scotland have had a high level of seriousness.

Just today, on the Facebook page for an artist I follow who’s an ardent advocate for Yes, a person planning to vote No was invited to a public discussion. He felt secure enough to ask with an emoticon wink, “Will I be safe?”

Ordinary individuals are exploring, considering, pondering, which is a good thing for any democracy.

What this post is about is not a Yes or No vote in the referendum, but the thoroughness of one organization firmly on the Yes side–Wings Over Scotland, a political website focused on the media.

What I mean by thoroughness is their approach to communicating with potential readers. I only happened to notice this because I came across a link to An Leabhar Beag Gorm, the Gaelic edition of their publication, The Wee Blue Book(I don’t know much Gaelic, but I knew all four words in the Gaelic title, so it caught my eye.)

wee blue bookAs Wings Over Scotland explains in their introduction to The Wee Blue Book, none of the 37 national or daily papers  available in Scotland supports independence.  “Newspapers have no duty to be fair or balanced, but… the press being so overwhelmingly skewed to one side is a problem for democracy.

“Our website…is biased, too. We support independence…”

To that end, they’ve collected a great deal of information and assembled it into the Wee Blue Book.

What’s impressive is how they’re offering it up. You can see on their August 11 post that the book is available:

And, as you’ve seen, in Gaelic.

But wait! There’s more!

Wings Over Scotland has a print-ready edition–and when they say “print,” they mean A6 paper, self-cover, CMYK, saddle-stitched, with a 3mm bleed, on 130gsm stock, so you can “just hand the PDF to a printing company.”

Finally, they have a “low-colour, ink-saver version” for home printing, with instructions, so if you want to run off a couple yourself, you can.

I’ve never met the Reverend Stuart Campbell, who runs the site, but I’m pretty sure he’s a lot smarter than the average social media guru whose self-promotions rain down on LinkedIn and Twitter.