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21 Questions to ask before Designing Any Training Program – part 1

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on a quick and easy way to conduct a needs assessment:

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 key word “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.