Job aids: training wheels and guard rails

The quick-and-easy definition of a job aid is something you use on the job to tell you what to do and when to do it, so you don’t have to memorize the information.

Job aids often struggle against what Tom Gilbert called the great cult of knowledge.  How many times have you heard performance dismissed with, “He had to look it up?”  A senior executive at Amtrak resisted the use of job aids for the reservation system because people “are supposed to know this stuff.”

Fortunately for the ticket and reservation agents, that view didn’t prevail.  For what was the new reservation, we produced 137 separate job aids.  One of those, for the “availability” command  (used to check schedules), hads seven optional parts and 288 possible ways to combine them.

Training wheels to facilitate results; guard rails to minimize risk.So the question’s not “how does a person learn this entry?”  It’s “how does a person do the job?”  Job aids offload some of the alleged learning (memorization) so people can accomplished useful results.

Learning by doing

Yes, some on-the-job performance should be virtually automatic.  If you’re an Amtrak reservation agent, you used the availability entry a lot–but not all 288 forms.  As you worked, you came to memorize five or ten combinations that suited the requests you handled most often.

You relied on the job aid for the oddball requests.  Or you used the standard entry because you’d learned there are only two trains on the route in question, and they’d appear in response to any of the 288 combinations.  (This knowledge, by the way, is a heuristic.)

So one of the functions of a job aid is to serve as training wheels.  Job aids guide the novice so that he produces results similar to those of an expert without having to internalize all the knowledge the expert has.

Repeated successful use of the job aid is reinforcing on two levels.  First, you come to trust the job aid; later, you tend to incorporate the job aid’s guidance into your own repetory of skill.  You don’t need the job aid any more, because you’ve learned the task through on-the-job performance.

What not to learn

In some cases, though, the organization doesn’t want you to learn the task.  Usually, that means there are high consequences to incorrect performance. We really don’t want you making a mistake because you relied on your memory.  Another reason to avoid memorization: the task frequently changes.  Instead of trying to teach you the new way once a month, the organization wants you to rely on the job aid.

Job aids used like this–think of an airline’s preflight checklist–are a kind of guard rail.  The job aid protects you from incorrect or unsafe performance.  (In addition, the organization needs to foster reliance on the job aid, in part to overcome the I-know-this-stuff attitude.)

In the photo above, the bicylist has training wheels to help her learn the basics of riding.  The bridge she’s crossing is wide enough for people to cross without having to have railings–but the risk of someone falling is far greater than the cost of having those railings.

The railings are like performance support built into the overall system.  Long ago at Amtrak, if someone wanted to travel from Detroit to San Diego, you had to know that the trip required a change of trains in Chicago and in Los Angeles.  The computer system couldn’t figure that for you.  So lots of training time went into “route structure.”

Today, while it’s helpful for an Amtrak agent to have a mental model of the routes, she can enter a request with just the origin and destination cities.  Route structure and sensible connections are now built into the reservation system.  If the passenger wants to go by way of San Francisco, the agent can modify the entry (possibly with the help of a job aid) to get the system to figure this alternate route.

Guard rails, training wheels: they both help you get where you want to go.

CC-licensed training wheel photo by Magalie L’Abbé.

4 thoughts on “Job aids: training wheels and guard rails

  1. Kia ora Dave!

    Training wheels and guard rails can serve another purpose, not necessarily directly to do with learning. In this further capacity they can provide help for some but also identify deficiencies in others.

    By their provision of a tangible boundary, the confidence of the practitioner can be bolstered. I sometimes refer to this as the placebo effect, for it engenders a confidence that is false for some who use it. And it provides its comforting assurance in many ways.

    Many who walk along the wide painted line with ease cannot walk along the high wall though their widths are the same. Many who can recite a page of poetry and with feeling in the solitude of their own home falter and freeze when called to perform the same on stage to an audience of thousands.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Ken, that’s an interesting perspective. In the first example, doesn’t part of the practitioner’s confidence arise from confidence that the job aid will guide him to acceptable performance? That may be a sign that he doesn’t feel ready to perform on his own.

    If it’s a widespread phenomenon, maybe one solution is to make the job aid easier to use in more situations. Another might be to gradually diminish its use, treating it more as scaffolding rather than as a job aid.

    The painted line and recitation examples differ, I think, because the performance situations differ. Tell the person walking the painted line that he’ll have to pay $100 each time he veers off it, and that performance will drop.

  3. Kia ora Dave!

    I apologise for the way I see things; I’m aware that they are not always seen the same way by everyone.

    You are right. The examples do differ significantly. I chose them to provide scope to my example.

    In both, however, the boundary is in the mind.

    In the recitation it is of walls and privacy. In the painted line it is of what’s at stake.

    The boundary in the painted line example is the ground that lies in the space either side of the line. The space takes on a different persona if the ground is not there or if the ground carries some other determining character, as it would do if the walker was barefoot and the ground was in high voltage.

    Making the job aid easier in more situations is the lot of the teacher, who often has to provide the model, metaphor or analogy a priori before introducing concepts that may not be accepted at first, though the model may be.

    Learners in such situations may be encourage to use the model (or rule of thumb) before learning the intricacies of how things are in reality (whatever that is :-). The rule of thumb provides a boundary to reality, but nevertheless provides the function of a job aid.

    Catchya later

  4. No need to apologize, Ken (though I feel I have to, with a three-day lag in acknowledging your comment).

    Some of the difference comes from specifying the performance situations, which is part of what van Merrienboer and Kirschner are talking about with their emphasis on whole-task learning.
    If my whole task is to recite from memory before an audience, then one cluster of constituent tasks involves the memorization and reciting aloud; another involves doing so before other people; the whole task combines those.

    We’re not in job-aid territory if I have to do these things from memory. I agree that rules of thumb and models may apply as I learn (e.g., memorize last verse first).

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