Taking Time to Work on Training

By Maggie Bayless, ZingTrain’s Founder and Co-Managing Partner
originally written for Gourmet Retailer, July 2010

Have you ever caught yourself saying, “once things calm down a bit, I’ll ...(fill in the blank)”? I don’t know about you, but those “calm times” I keep waiting for don’t ever seem to arrive. So if I don’t just make time for whatever it is I want to accomplish, it’s never going to get done.

I see many managers making the same mistake, especially when it comes to creating, updating or implementing training for their employees. For many people, creating a “training plan” feels like a huge project that requires a big chunk of time and because that big chunk of time never materializes—neither does the training.

Contrary to popular belief, improving your organization’s training doesn’t require some huge master plan. There are many meaningful changes you can make that don’t require lots of time. But they do require implementation and consistent follow-through in order to be effective. Setting aside time to focus on training each week—and then really doing it—will get you much farther in the long run than any one-time shot—no matter how many hours you devote to that initial session. An investment as small as 30 minutes/week, if made consistently, can yield significant results.

Look at Your Bottom Lines

So, OK, you’ve set aside some time. Now, where to start? It is impossible to do everything at once. We all know that’s true intellectually, but most of us find ourselves trying to do the impossible anyway. Training improvements, like any other project, will benefit from some up-front thinking about priorities. So curb your inclination to just rush right in and start changing everything. Spend your first weekly training time allotment on determining your top priorities.

At Zingerman’s we work towards positive results on three bottom lines—Great Food, Great Service and Great Finance—and we measure our progress in each of those areas. As a result, we focus our training, which we call Bottom Line Training, on making a positive bottom-line impact.

Although you may not talk in terms of multiple bottom lines, I think most retail managers would agree that product quality, service quality and financial results are all top priorities. So look at your organization’s current performance in each of those areas. If you feel you’re particularly weak in one area, focus there.

What’s Bugging You?

Another good place to start is with your gut. That’s right, with those feelings down in the pit of your stomach about what is not going the way you know it should. I’m usually most in touch with these feelings when I first wake up in the morning and find myself anxious about some aspect of work. For some managers, it’s whatever they find themselves thinking about as they walk into the store each day, hoping that there hasn’t been a problem. Still others know they’ve hit a hot spot when they’re grinding their teeth upon returning after a couple of days off. You get the idea.

The situations that generate these anxieties can run the gamut from relatively minor to quite serious:
Are the display cases set up by opening time?
Are our phones being answered correctly?
Are the cash drawers consistently short?

Whatever it is that’s bugging you, if it’s been an issue for more than a day or two, it’s probably worth looking into. Because until you resolve that issue, the anxiety about it is sapping energy that you could apply elsewhere.

Is Training the Answer?

So let’s say you’ve decided on a problem that you want to focus on. Something that’s been bugging you and/or an issue that you know impacts your product quality, customer service or financial performance. Is training the answer? Good question, and one that all too often goes unasked—and unanswered.

Training is not the answer to every problem. Training is only the solution when lack of training is the cause. Lack of systems and lack of management are other important causes of business problems.

To decide if training is the solution to your problem, ask yourself these three questions:

#1) Is there an effective, agreed upon and documented system in place for performing the task—one that works if it is followed? For the situations cited
above, these would be procedures for setting up cases before opening, for answering the phone, and for handling cash.

If the answer to #1 is no, you’re dealing with a systems problem. Until leadership agrees on a system that works and documents it, there isn’t anything
to train. The focus here should be to leverage the people who understand the situation best to design a system that—if followed consistently—would
eliminate (or greatly minimize) the problem.

#2) Is there an effective, documented system in place and the employees know how to use it, but it’s not being followed?

If the answer to #2 is yes, you’re dealing with a management problem. If employees already know how to use the system, they don’t need more training.
What’s needed is effective leadership. Putting people through additional training on things they already know is NOT a good bottom line use of
resources, but as managers, we often default to training when we are uncomfortable holding people accountable.

#3) Is there an effective, documented system in place, but employees don’t really know what it is or how to use it?

If the answer to #3 is yes, you have uncovered a training problem. What’s needed is effective training. If you have no current training on this system the
answer is obvious: create some. If you are currently offering training on this system, it isn’t as effective as it needs to be, so you’ll want to redesign it.

Look for situations in which the answer to question #3 is yes, and you will find the places where training can really make a difference. If these situations also have a big impact on your bottom lines, you’ve uncovered some top training priorities.

Getting Started

Make a commitment to set-aside “training time” each week. Sit down right now, pick an amount of time that you know you can devote week-in and week-out to training, and block that time off each week in your planner. Committing to 15 minutes a week and always doing it will be much more effective than committing to 2 hours a week and only doing it once or twice. But you also want to be sure that the time you invest is being used effectively. So as you focus on the problem you want to address, review the 3 questions above and ask yourself, “Is lack of training (or poor training) the primary cause of this problem?” If the answer is yes, you can be assured that you’ll be putting your “training time” to good use.