March 2012 v8no1
Building Capability
Find the "Shortest Path" to Performance
In This Issue
The Shortest Path
Distance Learning
Tom Gilbert Book Review

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Have you ever wondered if performance engineering can overcome natural human knuckelheadedness?  Check out this blog post.


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Conference Presentation Materials
Check Out the October 2010 PI Journal

   We are very proud of a big project we did a few years ago for a major pharmaceutical company. If you want to read the story, check out ISPI's publication "Performance Improvement" from October, 2010.  
   The article describes the project approach and . We built about 6 weeks of instructor-led and coached training in about 12 weeks of calendar time (with holidays in the middle of it).
   And, the client measured ROI at 44% over five years (and 191% if you included loss avoidance). If you are wondering, their costs included all SME time and the time the operators were being training and qualified.


PRH_4  We wish you a (very) belated Happy New Year! By now, the standard resolutions have probably dropped off of your radar and only those serious enough to be classified as "goals" remain. As we all know, goals are great, as long as you do the planning needed to achieve them. Often, the hardest part is just weeding the list of "wish items" down to a manageable number.

   Last year, we ran a series of articles on creating strategic development plans for key roles to ensure that your organization has the capabilities it needs to achieve its business goals. Last year we coincidentally did a number of projects to design and implement accelerated development paths to reduce the learning curve cycle time and get employees productive more quickly. We came up with lots of ways to do that and it generated lots of positive ROI...we hope to continue those types of projects in 2012.


   But learning or development is never the "end in mind." The end goal is performance and our ultimate aid is to take the shortest path to performance. Any time we can distill or even eliminate, the learning curve we can create even greater returns. Reduced training costs, sure. But also more flexibility in managing labor, because employees are able to perform a larger set of tasks with less prep. Typically, this leads to better responsiveness to customer needs for the same reason. You should also see more consistent performance, because the tools and methods that condense the learning curve also help standardize the work. And, if capability support is effectively embedded in the work environment, employees waste less time looking for help or information. (And if they leave, they don't take as much of it with them.)


   The digitization of content brings with it a lot of ways to take a shorter path to performance. Give us a call if you want to talk about some ideas. 


  I hope you enjoy this issue of the newsletter!


Peter R. Hybert, CPT  

Principal Consultant

The Shortest Pat
Can Planned/Managed Development Co-exist with "Just-In-Time" Task Learning & Support?

   Ideally, we would never need to learn anything. Ever. Whatever we needed to do, we could just pick up a relevant tool or resource and just do it. Too bad most tasks worth paying someone to do, don't fall into this category.

   We keep trying though. And, with the increase in digitized information, we can get closer to that state for a number of tasks. Think about all the Google or YouTube videos, or even user forums, available on how to do a wide range of things. We figured out how to replace an electric automobile window by watching a Google video and saved about $600. (We ended up having to fix three windows!) 

   Just like in the old days (remember "job aids"), the tasks that are best to address this way are those that are infrequently performed but not terribly difficult. But with the manufacturers working on making things easier and people trying to avoid paying outside fees for a specialist, it seems that the number of tasks that fit this category are growing larger. 

   Sure, doing your taxes is complicated. But, with Turbo Tax, people who would be frustrated by navigating paper forms are able to just answer questions on the screen and let the program generate their tax return.

   The question becomes, if your organization has invested in developing employees using an extensive training function (including classrooms, hands-on lab equipment, instructor staff, etc.) but pressures of cost-reduction and faster "spin-up" seem to work against that strategy, what should you do? 

Two Opposite Errors

   Several years ago we were working with a client that had a large number of call center agents. Between learning a lot of different computer systems, transactions, product and service features and requirements, and communication skills, these agents had a very long learning curve. But, even with lots of training (one of the errors), the company still experienced a high level of turnover and substandard performance once people got on the job. Imagine a conveyor belt that is running too fast to keep up (e.g., Lucy making chocolates or Bill Murray on the stairmaster in "Lost in Translation") and you see the training problem. They needed to reduce the learning curve and improve retention just to keep up with the immediate needs of the business.

   What they had tried before we got there (i.e., the other error) was pushing the vast majority of the information to their systems. So, when an agent got a call, they relied on their system to prompt them for the steps of the call and their own communication skills to manage the conversation. The plan was for the agent to simply look up the answer to any questions or detailed procedures for performing the transaction.

   Sounds good...but they told us it hadn't worked too well. The agents took too long to respond (because they constantly had to look things up) and couldn't offer much detail in their answers (because, they had just read the customer everything they knew). 

   Somewhere, there has to be a balance between "built-in" employee capability and reference or tool support in the work environment. We believe the solution is to first analyze the work, so you understand the requirements. Then, evaluate strategies for development and support that fit those requirements. Even better, streamline and simplify the work upfront so that it requires less training and support to begin with.

How to Proceed   

   Just like executives would like the costs of the business to be zero, they would like the learning curve to be zero. In practice, you keep trying to reduce and improve, targeting the areas with the best potential. 

   Our recommendations are tailored to specific customers' needs, but in general, the items below are worth considering when you are looking for learning curve reduction opportunities.
  • Get employees performing tasks early...avoid a major block of time where employees are in training right upfront 
  • Create an overall development approach where learning responsibilities are distributed between employee, supervisors, coaches, and the corporate learning organization
  • Create development paths that identify key capabilities needed, resources for building those capabilities, and a reasonable sequence and timeframe...
  • ...but, assume that employees will build their own career. Any development path needs to allow ways to enter or exit at multiple points.
  • Focus on the core business. Build a solid foundation on the fundamentals that underlie your business. (This content usually doesn't change as much or as quickly as you might think.)
  • Support any and all tasks that are important to be performed in a consistent or standard manner. (Usually, this list will grow as the benefits become visible.)
  • If you can, align capabilities with role levels and work requirements.
This is kind of a quick "fly-by" of what can really become a complex subject. We plan to return to the idea of "the shortest path" over the year and focus on one or more of the bullets above -- we hope your find this interesting and useful. Please let us know if you have an audience group or performance that has presented these types of challenges. We would love to hear about what you did and how it worked!


Interesting History of Distance Learning 


   We have always maintained that the media isn't as important as the instructional process. "Distance learning" is no different. It isn't really a new way to learn but a new way to reach people who are not where you are in time or in space. This problem has been around a long time and, to get a broad perspective on the issue in an interesting and immediate way, check out this infographic from the Brighton School of Business and Management


Don't goes to 2012...
Quick Book Review 
"Human Incompetence: Confessions of a Psychologist,"
Thomas Gilbert

   This entertaining book is available on Amazon through  ISPI's link. If you are a Tom Gilbert fan (and, if you aren't, you should be) we highly recommend giving this a read. He really did some Feynman-style thinking about human performance and knowledge. It was interesting and kind of reassuring to read about some of the challenges he faced in his career that you might not otherwise know about. 

Book Cover  One warning, however. Some of the anecdotes and concepts in the book are also addressed in Gilbert's previous book "Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance." If you are only going to buy one book on human performance, it should be Gilbert's "Human Competence." He ranges through a lot of territory, from measuring performance to instructional design, but it is full of great stories and examples. 

Thank you for your interest in PRH Consulting! For more about our company, approach, and experience, please visit our website at  
We hope you think of us the next time you need help improving or supporting performance.


Pete Hybert, CPT


PRH Consulting Inc.
Wheaton, IL

All content is copyrighted by PRH Consulting Inc. (2012). Any re-use must include this notice.