Fall, 1997

Cover & Feature Stories

Secrets To Proper Training

When it came to training, my father had no particular academic degree, but he understood it instinctively. As a boy, I would go with my parents to our supermarket in Union City, NJ. I remember my father taking a party platter from the deli counter and intentionally taking the longest line. His goal? He wanted as many people as possible to see him paying for the party platter. I am absolutely sure that this little piece of “training” taught everyone at the store more about how to comport themselves than a full series of orientation sessions, videos and CD-ROM programs.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to training. One of the smartest retailers I know once told me he hates to invest in training: The turnover is too high, knowledge retention too low, the training programs too difficult to customize, the time off from work too expensive.        

“But,” said my smart retailer friend, “what is our alternative? Hire people and don’t train them?”

The challenge, of course, is simple: We have to take the ordinary people we find in our stores and, somehow, generate extraordinary results. Part of the answer is traditional training, by which we teach people how to do various tasks that they didn’t know how to do, or did poorly, before we trained them. If you don’t use the best interactive computer-based training and combine it with more traditional approaches, you are actively costing your company sales and profit.

Much of the secret to proper training lies not solely in what we train people to do but, more, how we set up the system and the environment in which they work.

The first variable is operational engineering. How do we set up our operations so that it is most likely that we will get the results we desire? In all the recent hullabaloo regarding the beef recall and the attention paid to Burger King’s role in that controversy, a small fact was often overlooked. Neither Burger King’s employees nor its customers were ever at risk. Why? Burger King employs an automated broiler, which maintains the temperature in excess of 155 degrees, a level at which E. coli cannot survive. The relevance for us is that Burger King didn’t train employees to look for E. coli or to train them to do E. coli tests, or even train them to cook hamburgers at high temperatures. It engineered its way out of a potential food safety problem.

            It is this engineering and system design that is the crucial key to getting the desired results. Do you want to have your employees in clean uniforms? Well, don’t set the standard that whenever a uniform is dirty, an employee can turn it in and get a new one. We could try to train the employees on what makes a uniform dirty but, far from effective, would be to engineer the problem out of the system. If you really want clean uniforms, you instruct your employees to pick up a freshly laundered uniform every single day.

Even store design plays a role. If you want your employees to put away the potato salad immediately after they are finished putting some in trays, well, you better have the cooler very conveniently located. Otherwise, the employees will wait until they finish the whole job they are doing before walking across the store to the cooler.

The second variable is compensation programs. Over and over again I see businesses failing to achieve their goals because their compensation program does not reward what policy says is the goal. Domino’s pizza had an embarrassing situation some time ago when it was forced to drop its 30-minute delivery guarantee after several drivers had accidents. Domino’s official policy always told drivers not to speed, but managers would, in fact, berate employees who were late on delivery and had to give away free pizzas. It doesn’t take a teenager long to realize that this company may say it wants safe driving but what it really wants are the pizzas to be delivered fast.

Equally in our stores we often have policies that claim we value food safety but what we actually compensate managers on are such things as keeping shrink and spoilage low. So, if the company policy says that potato salad must be thrown out when it is out of code, but the manager will be given a bonus for keeping shrink and spoilage low, there is an enormous incentive being set up to keep the out-of-code, yet unspoiled product on the shelf.

Same thing with limits on overtime and hours worked. If you have a night crew preparing your signature carrot raisin salad from scratch and they accidentally drop it on the floor, well, remember they have orders to have a lot of work done in the morning. If they start to make the salad again, they won’t get the work done in time. Will they be berated for being lazy? If so, the message that is going to go out is that what the company really wants is to have the employees pick up the salad off the floor, remove all visible dirt, put it out anyway and just pray that no public health inspector comes through that day.

Of course, everything, personnel training, operational engineering and compensation programs are overwhelmed by the general corporate culture.

When, as a teenager, I showed up at work one day wearing loafers without socks, my father sent me home. “This is a place of business,” he said. “We show respect for what we do here.” I never forgot it…and neither did the rest of our employees.

My father always served as an example to his employees, He worked long hours, comported himself ethically, and treated people fairly. In this age of the CD-ROM and the Internet, I remain fully convinced that watching a manager like my father is the best training of all. I count myself fortunate at having received it.  DB