Part Two – How a Learning Needs Analysis Stops You Solving the Wrong Problems
In Part One of our series, we identified four ways in which business can waste money through ineffective learning and development programs. In Part Two, we’ll focus on how to clearly identify the problem you need to solve through L&D, and how a learning needs analysis can be key to stopping you from solving the wrong problem.
If we Managed Engineering Projects Like Learning and Development
Imagine leading a maintenance or engineering team, and one of your people approaches you with a capital request to modify an asset. Let’s say the conversation goes something like this:
Engineer: “I need $25,000 dollars to make this modification to (Asset X)”
Engineer: “It will improve its availability.”
Manager: “Is it breaking down a lot? How much downtime has it had recently?”
Engineer: “I don’t know, but the fitters and operators are always complaining about it.”
Manager: “What’s the cause of the downtime? Will this modification fix it?”
Engineer: “Maybe. The supervisor reckons it will. And the manufacturer says it’s a better-quality part than what’s in there at the moment.”
As a manager, could you ever imagine approving a request like this? There’s no analysis to say that the modification will fix the problem. There’s no cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate value. Worse, there’s nothing to confirm that there even is a problem, just hearsay and anecdotal evidence.
Learning and Development is the Same as any other Improvement Project
We can laugh at the situation above, but in many cases, that’s exactly how we treat learning and development. We would (hopefully) never treat an engineering or improvement project in this way – no scope, no value proposition, no analysis that clearly identifies the root cause and recommended improvements and is supported by evidence.
The biggest reason that L&D programs fail to deliver the value they promise is that we often approach them differently. Suddenly, the methods we use for every other type of business or engineering project go out the window. The end result is that learning and development is disconnected from what the business needs, and we risk spending money that we don’t need to (and not investing where we really do need to).
Why Safety Training Gets Priority over Maintenance and Asset Management
Think about the safety training that is available in your organisation. Almost certainly it starts with inductions and orientation, and covers everything from risk management, to isolation and tagging, to confined space, working at heights, and many more. There are probably external programs available as well, covering subjects like advanced risk management, human factors, incident investigation, and statutory compliance. The programs are normally comprehensive and well-structured.
Now, compare it to your maintenance and asset management training or learning programs. There will likely be some technical training for the maintainers, and probably something for planners and reliability engineers. But is it a structured program, covering all the capabilities that each role needs? Or is it limited in scope and somewhat ad-hoc, with training only happening when the reliability engineers decide they want to do a 2-week advanced vibration analysis course, or a 3-day conference in Sydney?
Although safety is obviously critical to a business, the main reason that it gets priority over maintenance and asset management when it comes to learning and development is because in most cases, safety programs offer a clear rationale linked to the objectives of the business. On the other hand, maintenance and asset management programs are often piecemeal, focussed on narrow problems rather than being tied to what the business needs.
How to Tie Learning and Development to the Needs of the Organisation
Whenever Bluefield are approached by a client to develop or deliver training, we start by asking them what problems they’re looking to solve, or what outcomes they’re looking to achieve. As we explore these questions, we often end up with a very different solution to what they first approached us about.
Developing learning programs is no different to any other type of project in that respect; no doubt we’ve all had similar experiences with engineering or business improvement projects.
These conversations are the crucial first step in a learning needs analysis, which is the process of identifying the capabilities that must be improved to close the gap between the current and desired performance of an organisation (and the individuals in it). To be most effective, the learning needs analysis must consider three levels as part of a single improvement opportunity (below):
Organisational – What business objectives are we looking to achieve through this improvement?
Operational – At a team or work group level, what processes or tasks must be improved to achieve the business objectives?
Individual – What specific knowledge, skills and behaviours need to be developed to bring about the operational improvements we’re looking for?
By considering these questions together as a top-down exercise, it allows a business to create a learning and development program that adds more value than a piecemeal approach. A business can be more confident that they’ll achieve their desired outcomes, and that they’re not wasting money on solving the wrong problem.
By the way – this doesn’t mean there’s no place for individuals identifying their own learning opportunities as part of their career development. There should always be a balance between the needs of the business, the team, and the individual.
Using Learning Needs Analyses to Solve the Right Problems
Learning Needs Analyses are flexible in how we use them; it all depends on the nature of the problem. At the highest level, they can be used to develop a detailed capability matrix for each role in a business. At a more granular level, they can be used as a tool for problem-solving or management of change that focusses on individuals or teams, but without losing sight of what the business wants to achieve.
Here’s a couple of examples that we encounter regularly in Bluefield. Firstly, clients often approach us wanting training for their reliability engineers or planners. There are many off-the-shelf options available, a lot of which are excellent, but it’s about understanding what the business really needs.
Generally, we have a short conversation or workshop with the client to understand the tasks that their engineers and planners perform as part of their job, and therefore what capabilities they need to have. (The role description of a “reliability engineer” can vary significantly between different sites – it’s surprising).
It’s also important to understand the current state of the team’s capabilities – are we going to waste time training a reliability engineer on Reliability-Centred Maintenance if they’ve been doing RCM’s effectively for years?
The second, more granular example was a client who asked us about defect elimination training for their reliability team. Specifically, they were after training to improve the quality of their failure investigations. When we explored the problem with them, we found that their engineers were already performing thorough, good-quality investigations on almost every failure. In fact, they were doing so many failure investigations that there was a huge backlog of improvement actions awaiting completion!
What the client was really looking for was to reduce the number of breakdowns. The real cause wasn’t poor failure investigations; they were reacting to failures just fine, but they weren’t preventing them. Looking through their investigations, the common thread was that many of the failure modes that had occurred didn’t have a task to manage them. Refocusing the client’s attention on the root cause saved unnecessary spend in training that was not going to deliver the required value.
In Part Three of our series, we’ll look at the benefits to a business when they consider learning and development from a team perspective, rather than focussing on individuals.
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