Learning not taking hold in your organization? It may be because you have lots of training activities, but also have lots of training waste. Waste can be found in what you do—or don’t do—to enable people to learn faster, better, and more efficiently, and then to translate that learning into valued performance. This is where your training strategy (including eLearning), approaches, processes, systems, philosophy, and attitudes come into play.

So let’s focus on waste and how to eliminate it. These are seven waste factors—prime targets of opportunity in the drive to make training more efficient and more valuable. This month, we’ll look at the first four project level contributors to waste that your L&D organization can deal with directly. I’ll present three more strategic level factors that require more organizational buy-in next month.

Waste Factor #1: Solutions before problems

Failing to identify business and performance problems first has a ripple effect for everything that follows. It is wasteful to just evaluate what you are doing without looking at why you’re doing it. So, before you rush to build a course, think about what the business goals are, and what individual and organizational performance requirements you should put in place to meet them.

When you jump to any solution before you fully understand what problem you are trying to solve, you invite waste. Yet many people, from trainers to executives, focus on training courses in an almost knee-jerk reaction to any perceived problem in the organization. The fact is, training, while useful in many situations, is also expensive, and there are many other solutions to consider before a training decision is made. How do you determine when training is appropriate? By conducting a needs assessment to first determine exactly what the performance requirements are and whether or not learning may be necessary to achieve performance goals. By resisting the need to offer up courses without such an assessment, it is more likely that the courses you do offer will be much more appropriate and work better.

Waste Factor #2: Bad training, poorly delivered

Even when a training solution is called for, tolerating poor design and implementation will almost always create waste, killing any positive value. Simply “shoveling” content into a training format can seem easy and inexpensive, but if it’s the wrong content, or focused on the wrong people, learning will suffer. Even seemingly accurate and appropriate training can be fruitless if it’s unrealistic, boring, or not designed and presented in a cogent manner. That’s why quality and context matter—a lot, and why the right instructional design and delivery decisions are critical for learning that is not wasted.

Waste Factor #3: Testing knowledge rather than performance

How do you know if training is working? Relying on traditional tests may measure whether any learning has occurred (assuming the tests are actually valid—they often aren’t), but they may not be adequate to determine whether performance has changed or any value to the business has been realized. So merely testing employee knowledge following training can lead to unsubstantiated projections about performance.

The consequences of inadequate assessment, both financial and physical, loom large. The wasted training—resulting in having to spend time and money to rework the solution a second or even a third time to get it right—is just the tip of the iceberg. Putting people in jobs they are not truly trained for can result in lower organizational productivity, profitability, and competitiveness. That’s real waste!

Waste Factor #4: Failing to support job performance directly

When people have to stop work to take training, their productivity, while in the training mode, falls to zero. Since there are many situations when some training is highly desirable, the issue here is not to eliminate training, but to determine how much training is appropriate—no less and certainly no more.

What if learning (and performance) could be facilitated faster so that less time is taken away from work? What if at least some components of learning were embedded directly into the flow of jobs and tasks (the workflow)? What if learning and work were so closely aligned as to become indistinguishable from each other? It seems that the more learning is aligned with work, the fewer disruptions and waste there will be. Of course, you can never eliminate all disruptions from work; there will certainly be times when “off-task” training, in the classroom or online, is called for. But what if you could reduce the amount of those disruptions by 20, 40, or even 60 percent? What would that mean for productivity?

This is where performance support comes in. The idea behind this is simple: Look at what people are doing, and determine whether you can develop tools to simplify or expedite the task so that it can be completed faster, easier, at a higher level of quality, and/or with fewer errors. The classic example here is tax preparation software that allows people to complete a tax return in less time, with greater accuracy (the higher level of accomplishment), and at a lower cost than using an accountant or trying it with no support (the value).

No matter how much training people get, it is a wonder that they can successfully operate the increasingly complex technology common in most work situations. To get to this level of performance, there is an emerging understanding that training can only go so far; the complex technologies must be more user-friendly, simpler, and more intuitive. So almost every technical system increasingly needs a corresponding and extremely important effort to build tools and interfaces to guide the user. In a sense, the systems are designed so that they enhance the competence of the user beyond what the training could have provided alone.

Now, the strategic side

As noted, your L&D organization may be able to address these four waste factors on its own. However, there are three additional strategic level factors that create waste in learning that will require broader, institutional support. I’ll discuss these next month.