As a professional skills trainer, I believe in the benefits of training. In an organizational setting, it is important for employees to have access to relevant training when it is needed. Effective training provides employees with the necessary knowledge and skills to boost performance. Effective training aligns with performance goals in a way that bridges the gap between the current performance and the desired performance of the employee. In this way, thoughtfully designed training can indeed improve performance when applied in situations where a lack of knowledge or skill is the root cause of a gap in performance.
I also believe that employee-development activities like training contribute to organizational improvements in safety, productivity and quality. Furthermore, employee-development activities, if applied correctly, have a tendency to improve other organizational factors, such as recruiting and retention.
Although training is often viewed as the go-to solution for any performance issue, there are other factors beyond training that support performance improvement to an even greater degree. Not only do these factors offer greater leverage in terms of their potential to improve performance, they also come at a lower cost than most training.
I developed my four-factor model for performance improvement based on the findings of others in the talent-development community. These specialists include Thomas Gilbert, Roger Chevalier, Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, who view performance improvement from a systems standpoint. In recognition that many factors contribute to performance improvement, my four-factor model for performance improvement consists of the following elements:
- Culture, as experienced by people in the work environment
- Resources and processes
- Information and feedback
Each of these factors contributes to performance improvement, some more so than others. By addressing all four factors within a performance-improvement plan, leaders have the best chance of helping employees apply their knowledge and skills at the workplace and achieve the overall goal of improved performance.
Frequently, training is thought of as synonymous with performance improvement. Unfortunately, training alone is not guaranteed to improve individual performance, because there are other barriers to optimal performance besides lack of knowledge and skills. Because of this, factors beyond training are often more impactful on performance than the training itself. This is because performance improvement is not exclusively a “people problem” that can be solved by enhancing individual knowledge and skills.
The assumption that training will solve all performance issues essentially blames people for systems issues, unsupportive culture and poor information architecture within an organization, while simultaneously assuming people don’t know what they are doing. In fact, oftentimes people do have the skills required to complete a task, but lack support in other areas that cause them to be unable to execute as expected.
As arborists, we understand the concept of leverage. (Image 1) When installing a pull line to assist in directional felling, the concept of the lever arm and its length shows us what we need to do to gain the greatest amount of leverage. We could certainly pull a tree while placing the pull line closer to the face cut, but this requires more effort and is less effective overall. If we were to apply this concept of leverage to the four factors in the model (Image 2), we can see which activities are higher leverage. As you can see from this model, we certainly can solve some performance issues with training, but many performance issues require a deeper look at the root cause in order to apply the appropriate solution. Additionally, training is often delivered haphazardly, almost as an afterthought to achieve compliance.
A similar dynamic applies to culture and the work environment. The work environment can either support or impede performance improvement. Even the most skilled worker will eventually disengage in a toxic work environment. Conversely, a supportive work environment brings out the best in people across the entire range of knowledge and skill levels.
Unfortunately, culture is not often considered as a causal factor in poor performance. Consequently, it is frequently ignored when addressing performance problems. Asking and answering questions about how culture influences individual work performance requires honesty and imagination on the part of leadership, a dilemma often compounded by a lack of management skill and transparency. Because culture is often defined through the experiences of those within it, it is often easier to observe than it is to describe.
For example, one may consider work culture and its relationship to work performance through the lens of the customer. In order to assess work culture, leaders must consider what the customer sees in terms of employee engagement as reflected in the quality of service ultimately delivered to the consumer. If the customer experience is less than satisfactory, work culture may be to blame. Although culture takes effort to assess and time to change, there are other factors influencing performance that can be evaluated and improved on right away.
The two highest-leverage performance-support elements are resources/processes and information/feedback. Let’s take a look at why these activities are so effective with only a small amount of input from you as a leader.
Resources and processes
Resources and processes can either support or inhibit the application of knowledge and skills. A skilled worker will not be able to perform to their maximum potential if they do not have access to the appropriate resources that support performance. Leaders should provide employees with the right tools for the job in order to maximize the benefits of training. With proper resources and processes, success can be built into the system, leaving less room for error and increasing the chances for success.
Often, frontline workers pay the price for lack of appropriate resources associated with optimal performance. In these cases, even the most skilled workers cannot function at their peak. For example, someone trained and competent in SRT cannot perform at peak levels if they do not have access to the appropriate equipment. They cannot perform at their best if they are not allowed or are unable to bring their best because of a lack of resources. Of course, they could still climb trees, but they would exert more effort for less of a return.
Specifically, a top climber with all the skill in the world will not excel without an appropriate process or appropriate resources in support. In such cases, the fix to this performance issue is relatively inexpensive. The leader need only provide the appropriate SRT equipment to support high performance.
Information and feedback
Information specific to the performance goal is important to support the application of knowledge and skills. Leaders should ensure that employees have clarity concerning what is expected of them and are given concrete and complete information to work from. Similarly, feedback is an important aspect of performance improvement. In order to appropriately apply knowledge and skills, employees must know whether or not they are reaching the goal. Effective feedback is focused on the performance goal and the gap between the actual performance and the desired performance. In the absence of feedback, there is no way for an employee to know if they are reaching the performance goal.
Applying the four factors
Bringing the four-factor model to life in the field has taken a great deal of thoughtful consideration and years of practice. My most successful interactions focus on the highest-leverage factors that contribute to performance improvement. My approach focuses on a combination of reinforcement and support, rather than exclusively relying on the identification and correction of gaps in knowledge and skills.
During most crew visits, I certainly evaluate whether employees have the knowledge and skills they need to do what they are assigned to do. Beyond that, I assess the state of the work culture as expressed by each individual crew member. What is perhaps unique about my approach lies in my interaction with each crew member to uncover deficiencies in resources, feedback and information. I typically ask each individual three questions.
The first question is, “Do you have everything you need to do the job?” This question prompts a variety of answers, all of which are opportunities for me as a leader to show my support by ensuring that everyone has what they need. These discussions also give me useful information about how to improve the systems and processes within the organization.
Second, I ask, “What are we doing here today? What’s the plan?” These questions provide many opportunities to clarify and give feedback, while also providing opportunities for group learning by sharing information with one another. I often find that if I approach interactions in this manner, I am able to help people and learn something myself in the process.
Finally, I ask employees what they want to do in the future. “What are your goals? How can I help you get there?” Asking these questions gives me another opportunity to share information, give feedback and offer support.
One memorable crew visit illustrates these concepts in a colorful manner. After assessing the job-site setup and the workflow, I asked the crew leader what his plan was. He said he was raising the crown of some trees along a pathway, and pointed out that the work order was poorly written and didn’t accurately reflect the scope of the work. Additionally, weeks in advance he had requested a tool that would have made this job easier. Fortunately, I had a spare tool with me and I was able to give it to him, effectively making his job easier. After taking a few minutes to discuss and address other concerns, the crew leader shared an idiomatic expression that demonstrated the relationship between work systems and high performance: “If you ride a donkey, you will never get there.” In this case, I was able to help the foreman significantly by giving him a tool, sharing some information and feedback and showing my support.
A leader who wants to reinforce the knowledge and skill taught in training understands all aspects of the four-factor model as they relate to the employee experience. Additionally, leadership should consider performance issues in light of other factors beyond training. It is important to consider the highest-
leverage factors and use them appropriately in order to support training, if training is indeed part of the solution.
Although training is an important aspect of performance improvement, training alone is not guaranteed to improve performance or change behavior. Employees need specific information that tells them what to accomplish and feedback to know whether or not they did it well. Additionally, employees must have the right tools available to support the application of knowledge and skills, and work processes should make the goal easier to achieve, not cause roadblocks to success.
By managing all of the factors in the four-factor model, leaders can support the learning process in a way that boosts not only employee performance, but a strong culture of engagement as well.
Bill Owen, CTSP, QCL, is director of operations with BrightView Tree Care Services – NorCal Tree in Martinez, California, a division of BrightView Tree Care Services, a 36-year TCIA member company based in Calabasas, Calif.
This article was based on a presentation he made on the same topic during TCIA’s Virtual Summit ’21, which took place in January of this year. Click play below to listen to an audio recording of that presentation.