A group of teachers’ assistants at a local school are given one hour each day to make copies of tests and assignments for the teachers. Often, one or more of the assistants return without the needed copies at the end of the hour. What would you do if you were in charge of providing education for these assistants?
Training is probably the most common solution when there’s a performance problem. But it isn’t always the best one. Courses, whether they’re delivered online or in a classroom, take a lot of time and planning. When they only address the symptoms of a problem they’re not likely to lead to any real improvement. The process of tracking down “the real culprit” is commonly called needs analysis or root cause analysis. It’s always a good idea to identify a goal and then figure out what’s causing the problem. Then you craft a solution that addresses the issue or issues, because there can be more than one.
Goal: All of the assistants will make the needed copies within one hour each day.
Now it’s time to gather information. You start by coming up with a list of possible root problems. Then you have a conference call with the teachers and make arrangements to be in the copy room when the assistants will be working. Here’s what you discover.
Possible problem 1: Maybe the assistants aren’t motivated to get the copies made on time.
Observations: The teachers tell you that they choose their own assistants from among their top performing students. The assistants tell you they’re frustrated that they can’t always get the copies made on time.
Possible problem 2: Maybe they don’t know how to use the copy machine(s) well or aren’t comfortable with using it/them.
Observations: The teachers tell you that all of the assistants were trained on how to use the copier when they started. While in the copy room, you notice that the assistants seem to be very efficient with the machine. They are even confident about troubleshooting and fixing the paper jams that take place. When one assistant has trouble the others helped them.
Possible problem 3: Maybe one hour isn’t enough time for them to make the number of copies they need.
Observations: The teachers tell you that their assistants are only able to help them for one hour each day, the rest of the time they’re in other classes. You see that there’s one industrial grade copier in the copy room. The assistants take turns using it. It’s slow and frequently stops working because of paper jams.
It seems like the existing copier is too slow to allow all of the assistants to make the copies they need in one hour. The one hour timeframe is fixed, so the assistants can’t get any more time. That leaves two possible solutions.
Possible solution 1: Repair the existing copier or replace it with a faster one.
Possible solution 2: Buy at least one more copier so the assistants aren’t all waiting for the same one.
You present these ideas to the school. It turns out the current copier is still under warranty, so having it looked at won’t cost anything. A few weeks later, you get an update from the school. The copier was completely defective. The replacement was covered under the warranty and now the assistants all finish running their copies within fifteen to thirty minutes. This gives them time to help the teachers with additional tasks.
If someone had put together some training, without looking for the root cause, this problem wouldn’t have been solved. I should know, I was one of those teachers’ assistants. Training can be a good solution, but there are often other possibilities and knowing why something is happening is the key to problem solving. Can you think of any other performance problems that training won’t resolve?
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If you’d like to read more about instructional design best practices, check out the rest of this author’s blogs.
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