Originally posted on trainingdr.com | No longer available

Performance problems can be caused by a myriad of things; perhaps your organization has undergone a downsizing, or perhaps a department is understaffed or their equipment is unreliable.  Unfortunately many managers and organizations assume that poor performance is directly linked to a lack of skill or knowledge which can be solved by training.  In my 20 plus years of consulting experience, I’ve found that what is initially presented as a training problem is often something else entirely.

Before embarking on any training program it is imperative that a needs analysis is conducted in order to pinpoint the exact cause of poor performance and to ascertain if the poor performance can be solved by applying training.  Unfortunately, most organizations skip the needs analysis, assuming that they already know the cause.

The following 21 questions will help you to pinpoint the true cause of a performance problem and also help with the design process by ascertaining what training truly needs to be created.  Ask these questions of the individual in the organization who is requesting that you design and develop a training program to address an assumed training issue.

1. What is the problem you are experiencing?

Often you’ll hear a request along the lines of, “My sales team needs training on teamwork.”  Well that’s putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it?  Ask the requestor to give you a big picture view of the factors they see as contributing to the poor performance.  Do not accept their definition of the performance problem (in this case, lack of team work) until you hear more about the work environment, the intended audience, their job related duties, etc.

2. What are the symptoms that led you to believe this was a problem?

Notice the keyword “symptoms.”  Very often what presents itself to be a performance problem is truly a symptom of a deeper or related organizational problem.  For instance, a large publishing company believed it needed customer service training because it came in dead-last, in the customer service category, in a survey published by its industry magazine.  When more investigation was done, it was determined that the organization was suffering from an inadequate technology system that led to the symptom of poor customer service.

3. Tell me about the audience – age, tenure, education, etc.

Having an understanding of who the potential audience is often provides clues to their on-the-job performance capabilities.  Perhaps the staff are all newly hired within the last year, and lack an historical perspective of how their job is done.  Perhaps the staff is near retirement age and is starting to “coast” in their job.  I often work with organizations that find lack of performance is caused by the fact that the staff utilizes English as a second language and a simple translation of work procedures would solve the performance problem, rather than more training conducted in their non–native language.

4. Tell me about their typical workday / overall job responsibilities.

Much like the question above, this question can help you to spot process breakdowns that can appear to be performance breakdowns.  For example, a manufacturing firm intended to conduct cross-training because its machinery broke down so often that many of its personnel simply had nothing to do until their machine was fixed.  It was discovered that the machinists were not doing preventative maintenance, as was expected.  Once a stricter protocol was put in place regarding preventative maintenance, the need for cross-training was moot.

5. Tell me about their work environment.

The work environment can have a large impact on performance ability.  Perhaps tools aren’t where they are supposed to be kept.  Perhaps processes that are interrelated are hundreds of yards apart.  Perhaps the work environment is so noisy that communication frequently breaks down.  Until you understand the environment in which your potential trainees work, you will not understand what factors may be contributing to their lack of performance.

6. Why do you think this is a training need?

Remember, the person requesting you to design and deliver training has their own perspective on the situation.  When this question was posed to a retail executive his response was that a particular department’s reports were consistently wrong and therefore they must not know how to use the reporting software.  The executive made a huge leap from the evidence of erroneous reports to employee’s lack of skill or knowledge. The intended trainees will also have their own perspective and it’s a good idea to ask them, at some point, if they feel a need for training based on the evidence at hand.  When further investigation was done with the intended trainee group, from the above mentioned retail organization, it was discovered that the employees lacked basic math skills but knew how to use the software quite well.

7. Have they ever been able to do __________ in the past?

Fill in the assumed lack of knowledge or skill for the blank line in the question.  If the answer to this question is no, then you may in fact have a training need.  But, if the answer to the question is yes, then there’s typically something else at play.  If the workers could do the task at some point in the past, but now they cannot, you need to investigate what it is in their environment that has changed.

8. What organizational factors might be playing a role?

When organizations are in flux, a sense of ennui trickles down to every individual’s performance.  If the organization has been talking about an acquisition or merger, it can cause people to change their work habits.  If a downsizing has occurred and more work needs to be accomplished with less people, it’s logical that poor performance will follow.  Perhaps the department has had three different managers in the last 18 months, and every manager has a different perspective on how the work should be done; eventually people start to second-guess their abilities and perform at a minimal level in order to “play it safe.”

9. What training already exists?

Often you’ll find that a “training problem” is a frequent issue within the organization, and one that has been addressed in the past.  Determining what training already exists is helpful in two ways: 1) it helps you to determine what training people have had in the past and alerts you to look for reasons why that training did not “stick,” and 2) it should minimize your need to reinvent the wheel because it’s probable that you can repurpose the existing training content.

10.  Have you researched the market for off-the-shelf training solutions?

Before determining that a custom training solution is necessary, ask the requester of the training if they have spent any time looking for generic, off-the-shelf, training solutions that may fit the bill.  Why reinvent the wheel? Very often topics such as customer service, financial acumen, software, and soft skills training are already in existence and can become a low-cost, highly effective training solution.  It’s also possible to find a product that “almost fits” and to request that the vendor modify it or repurpose it for your organization’s needs. Either way you will save time and money over trying to custom-create something yourself.

11. What training has the audience had in the past?

Similar to question number nine, this question helps you to ascertain what knowledge or skill your expected training audience has already acquired.  It’s not necessary that this training has occurred through your organization.  For example, perhaps some workers have had college-related experiences that make them more capable than others.  Or perhaps a few workers have come to be employed at your organization from one of your vendors or competitors.  Very often you’ll find a range of tenure within our organization; the “older” workers will have had training that was delivered a few years ago while the “newer” workers are at a loss.  Again, if you discover that they have had no training, you may indeed have a training problem on your hands.  But, if training has been delivered to the audience, and they still are not doing the job as expected, other factors are impacting worker performance and it is your job to discover what those factors are.

12. Does the audience think they need training?

This is a great question because whether or not your audience needs training is only half the equation – the other half is whether the audience is ready and willing to accept training.  One manufacturing organization, which was trying to cross-train its workforce, had a problem with trainees simply not showing up to the training classes!  No matter what they did to entice or cajole the workforce, the workers simply would not leave their stations to go to the training because they did not feel it was of benefit to them.

13.  What if we don’t train them?  What’s the worst that will happen?

Sometimes an intervention is more expensive than the problem being experienced.  A retail organization which had a 112% turnover at the hourly level, was contemplating providing management training with the expectation that better managers would equate to happier staffers and therefore increase tenure.  With just a bit of research it was determined that training really would not be worthwhile for two reasons: 1) in the retail industry, 112% turnover is not that bad and 2) the company really had a hiring issue – choosing to employ teenagers without a strong work ethic and being in an urban location without a nearby bus route, which often impacted their employees’ ability to arrive at work.

14. How will this training tie to business goals?

If there is no business outcome expected from the training, it will be hard to enlist the support of the organization and it’s possible that your project will be canceled if it seems to be a “nice to know topic.”  Your time and effort are valuable commodities, so you will want to ensure that there is a true business goal such as increased sales, decreased accidents, reduction in personnel, or the like, that it is associated with the training.

15. What’s most important to you in solving this problem: quality, speed, cost?

If you have ever taken a project management course you know that there are three factors always in play in project management: quality, speed, and cost.  You cannot have all three.  The same is true in training.  If a training program is to be created and delivered within a short time frame (speed is most important) it will require a good deal of money to make it happen and it’s possible the quality will suffer.  But the same token a quality job will require time and money.  By asking the project requestor which is most important, you will have a good understanding of where to apply your efforts.

16. What resources can you give me to assist with this?

This question is intended to test the commitment of the project requester.  Too often you’ll find that the requester is trying to make his or her training problem your problem.  There’s only so much that you can do in your role as a trainer; so by asking what resources the project requester is willing to commit, you have an understanding of how much that individual is willing to invest in the success of the training.  It’s possible you may need an office in their facility, or access to an internal database, or access to subject matter experts, etc. Think about what resources you would need to be successful and ask for them early in the process.

17. Who will give their sign off / blessing on the final design of the training?

Every once in awhile you will discover that the person who is requesting the training is not ultimately the decision maker.  It’s important to discover early-on who the individual with final authority is.  I once worked with the Director of Operations to develop new hire training for a 15-store retail organization.  We spent over 40 hours each creating content and materials only to be told, when we presented them to the Vice President of Operations, that we had taken them entirely in the wrong direction.  Who would have thought that the Director of Operations didn’t know what the organization was trying to achieve?  Now I always ask, “Who will ultimately approve this training?”

18. Are there other industries or companies that you know of, experiencing the same problem?  Do you know how they are addressing it?

I find it hard to believe that most organizational needs are so unique that no one else has dealt with them in the past.  Again, try to avoid reinventing the wheel, check with your industry association and/or your competitors to see if they are also experiencing the same need. In a best-case scenario you may be able to purchase or license something they have already created.  As an example, the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association created a stellar forklift-safety video-training program and sold it from their association website for a mere $99.

19.  What is the life expectancy of this course?

Will the course be a one time offering?  Will it be quarterly?  Will it be delivered on a weekly basis?  The shelf life of the training will require extra effort when considering how the program will need to be maintained.  Are there government regulations that will periodically need to be checked and updated?  Are there forms that may become obsolete?  Will trainers change and therefore the leader materials must be exceptionally detailed? Knowing the shelf life of the training program will influence your design approach.

20.  How will this new knowledge / skill be reinforced once the training is over?

Remember, you can only do so much as the trainer; eventually the trainees must go back on the job and start deploying their new knowledge and skills.  Since no one will ever leave a training program having mastered what they were taught, there is a period of time on-the-job when the training must be either reinforced or an ease-in period allowed for.  One organization attempted to change the way that their salespeople answered the phone.  Unfortunately the managers didn’t go to the training and didn’t really didn’t see a need for changing the way the phone was answered; within a week the salespeople were back to answering the phone the “old way” and the training program and the trainer were implicated in this failure.

21.  How will we know when the problem has gone away?  What do you want to see change / done differently?

Beware of the requestor who says (or implies) “I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not this.”  If they don’t know what improved performance looks like you certainly will not envision it.  Without a clearly defined performance turn-around, how will you know when you’ve achieved it?  Don’t accept a training assignment from someone who’s essentially telling you, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

One of the issues that we as trainers have faced for decades is our inability to truly identify the value we return to the organization.  By finding out the answers to these 21 questions, which can be achieved in a conversational way in about an hour, you will be in a much better position to create and offer training initiatives that will clearly return business results to your organization.