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Making Training Transferable: Or, How Sheep Are Not Like Spreadsheets

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Making Training Transferable: Or, How Sheep Are Not Like Spreadsheets

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Think back to the last training course you signed up for that was aimed at changing the culture of your work environment, such as Agile, Lean or Scrum: was the learning you were asked to do based around imaginary, or overly simplified scenarios? Most training courses that aim to introduce cultural change focus on creating hypothetical situations and showing you new ways to work within them, using the techniques the course is trying to introduce. In the interests of doing this, the trainer might tell you that, for the next hour, you’re to think like a sheep farmer, for instance, and make decisions as a sheep farmer that will help you to shear your sheep better. Unfortunately, a scenario of that kind is going to be both too simple and too far from your own experience to be much help.

Thinking Like A Sheep Farmer

Could you slip yourself into the shoes of the sheep farmer, or whatever unfamiliar job role the trainer asked you to take charge of? Were you transported to the sights and smells of the sheep pen and immediately aware of all the specific challenges your rubber boot-wearing counterpart would be up against that day? Probably not, especially if your day job doesn’t involve shears and sheepdogs.


It’s unfeasible to ask someone to imagine their way into a completely unfamiliar situation and extrapolate from its specifics. With neither previous knowledge nor a vested interest in the outcome, why would we care?

To a sheep farmer, those questions would be absolutely fundamental, and his or her interest would immediately be piqued. Here, would think the sheep farmer, is someone who’s going to help me breed happy, healthy lambs to skip across my fields. To the sheep farmer, this training example is the most helpful it could possibly be, because it relates directly to his or her experience. But, to the rest of us, in our varied and wide-ranging occupations, it’s not quite so easy to identify with – and that’s a difficult challenge for a trainer: how do you find a hypothetical scenario that’s going to suit everyone in the room?

The answer is: you can’t. It’s impossible to create a scenario that will be immediately relevant to the person you’re trying to teach, unless you use their own, personal scenario. The key to making lasting changes to how you approach your work is to address real problems that are affecting you, in your working life, right this minute. Unless you’re a sheep farmer, bypass the sheep.


Taking the Knowledge Away


In this example, everyone but the sheep farmer would likely come away from the training session feeling that, though they understood the concepts quite well during the course, they have no idea how to apply them in their actual working environments. It is a simple fact of nature and evolution that sheep are not the same as spreadsheets.



Rooting out real problems that are at that very moment affecting your working environment, and guiding you to solve those problems using a different way of thinking, is mutually beneficial. By doing so, not only does the trainer have an effective way to teach you to see and understand how to apply the new way of working, you get immediate value to your work at the same time.

The Best Learning is by Doing

Whether because of time constraints or for ease of understanding, the hypothetical scenario is likely to be as simplified as possible, and that poses another important problem: how do you then translate this new way of working from a simple, classroom example to our complicated, interwoven, ever-changing working lives?

The key to taking theoretical knowledge and making it useful in your context is to find ways to apply what you’ve learned as soon as possible to your real world environment. For instance, most of what Agile, Lean and Scrum trainers teach can sound very simplistic at first, causing people to think, “Oh, yeah, that’ll be easy to do.” That same simplistic appearance might conversely make people think, “That’s all fine and good in this simple scenario, but it’ll never work in my complex environment.”

Both sentiments are born of trying to understand how the new knowledge applies by thinking about it instead of doing it. The best way to understand these new ideas and develop the associated new skills is by applying them to your work. Unless the trainer then shows you how the concept applies to you, personally, and the work you’re doing right now, it might not click into place for you.

When you’re seeking cultural change such as Agile, Lean, Scrum or Kanban training, and the associated shifts of mindset, applying new ways of working one at a time, with the support and guidance of an expert, is what helps make those changes stick. Doing things, one at a time, to improve your work experience makes training a rewarding experience from start to finish.

So, Can You Make the Most of Training You’ve Already Had?

“You’re right,” you might be thinking. “I’ve had training like that and I’ve already forgotten everything I was taught, because it didn’t work for me when I went back to my desk. I took down pages of notes, but it seemed like way too much to do all at once. Any tips?”

Actually, yes. It’s never too late to make use of the training you’ve already had, even if you couldn’t see how to make it work in your own context at the time. We strongly recommend applying the principle of “one thing at a time”:

Step 1: Go back to your notes.

Identify something you remember from the training that you think has potential to address one of the issues or problems you’re facing right now, or could improve the way you do a certain element of your work.

For example: Let’s say you think you could use One Piece Flow to streamline the process of adding inventory to your store. One Piece Flow is a way of working in which you see one thing through to completion, rather than perform one stage at a time for every item in a batch (for example: write, address, stamp and post one letter rather than write 20 letters, then address 20 letters, then stamp 20 letters, then post them all).

Photo courtesy of At The Twisted Pine Gallery, Wyoming USA

Step 2: Come up with some criteria you feel would indicate an improvement in that problem area after using the new technique or idea.

For example: Adding inventory is a confusing process because it involves applying number codes to every item you want to set out for sale. By the time you get to the final stage, where you enter those codes into your database, you’ve invariably forgotten which code applies to which item and have to keep going back and forth to check. By using One Piece Flow, you could give the item a code, tag it, place it in the store and then enter it into the database and you would, by doing so, get rid of the problem of forgetting codes, because you wouldn’t have to keep more than one in your head at a time.

Step 3: Start applying that technique to your work.

Periodically check against the criteria you decided on to see how well your new technique is doing to make the improvements you wanted. Make adjustments as necessary.

For example: You’re finding that you’re still, by the time you get to the database stage, forgetting the code, so you decide to switch up the order you do things in: apply the code, add the tag, then enter it into the database before placing the item on the shop floor. That way, the item is right next to you when you’re working in the database, code and all. Checking back later, you realise that you have finally managed to get rid of the forgetting problem - hurray!

Step 4: Move on to the next piece of learning that you think will help you out.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a single thing at a time that you implement - that may not be practical - but the point of the principle is to not take on too much change at once. The one-thing-at-time approach keeps you focused and gives you time for the new technique you’re adopting to sink in. You should find that, the next time you spot a problem, you’ll find it easier to also spot how that new technique might help you solve it.

It might not be as easy to make use of new techniques if you weren’t shown how during the training session, but don’t let that stop you. Improving the way you work is worth the effort if, in the end, it’s going to make your life easier!


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