I recently facilitated an online discussion on training with a group of operations managers. One of the group members was looking for solutions on how to create a continuous education program to help drive retention in his organization. As we were trying to clarify the exact nature of the challenge, the group concluded that a successful program had to place a great deal of emphasis on the first few days of employment.
You could design any number of sophisticated educational programs full of technological wizardry, but if that employee did not feel connected to the organization in the first few days, there was very little chance the new team member would blossom into a long-term veteran.
In the traditional distribution progression, we tend to hire people into entry-level material-handling positions. Hopefully, we have taken some care in our selection process so that our candidate can be promoted through the ranks. I could dive into the merits of pre-employment aptitude testing, but I’ll save that for another column.
With new material-handling people, we often expose them to the inventory flow in the warehouse. Perhaps they spend a little time behind the wheel, delivering orders to the customer base. Ultimately, they might find themselves slotted behind the will-call counter as their customer-facing skills improve.
In many organizations, this can take anywhere from six months to two years. How did they get to this skill level? What were the steps that preceded this point in their career?
For most companies, this transfer of knowledge is based on failed methods. Many of us were taught the “shadow method.” This is probably the laziest of all educational schemes. On day one, after all the requisite HR paperwork is filled out, our new team member is told to follow and observe a more seasoned veteran of the warehouse.
There are three big failures with this method. First, the new guy learns from the old guy, the old guy learned from the dead guy and you hope the dead guy did it right. As you guessed, both good and bad procedures are passed down to this new candidate. The trouble is, we don’t know which is which.
Second, the cynic in me would have a difficult time categorizing someone with less than a year of experience as a “seasoned veteran.” Unfortunately, the person assigned to teach has just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Third, this type of training tends to be very job-specific and does not inspire the candidate to move forward in our progression. The big picture is completely missing.
The Big Picture
With the help of this peer group, I realized that the success of any new employee is greatly enhanced when we take the time to show what the company is about. When I help companies design a first day, I make sure two critical areas are covered: the value proposition of a distributor and how money works in the company. Rather than skills-based education, I am exposing them to purpose-based thinking.
I have found that when we show this new candidate where we fit in the supply chain, and why we even exist, they begin to see the big picture. If we are lucky, that exposure to the big picture will spark curiosity and ultimately lead to a self-directed learner.
Before I dance too far into a utopian state, we need to get back to the practical application.
One of the more interesting outcomes of our discussion came from the lengthening of this exposure to the organization. Several of the members suggested that new employees spend an entire week on broader concepts. For example, one person talked about how new employees spent a week in the headquarters meeting with different departments. The idea was to explain the connections between each department and how they fulfilled the service commitment to customers.
Imagine your CFO sitting down with an entry-level warehouse employee to explain how money flows through the company and the function of AR and AP. What if your CEO sat down with new employees and talked about the company culture and the expectation of integrity? What kind of impact would these interactions have on a new person joining the company?
Either you would lay the foundation for a long-term veteran or the person would realize that your organization was not a good fit. I would be pretty satisfied with either outcome.
When it comes down to skills training, a well-documented progression can help guide the educational experience. As I have written in previous columns, building this progression can lead to self-directed education and an abundance of qualified bench players. In growing organizations, it is critical that we prepare candidates to fill rapid vacancies.
In my discussion with this group, some of the members have paid particular attention to documenting procedures. Granted, the exercise was part of a more extensive certification process, but these written procedures create the foundation for a skills-based education system.
Documenting procedures, and the ever-present anomalies, can be a tedious process. It is not a weekend undertaking. Rather, it is a process of continual observation and discovery of process improvement and efficiency. Would we rather have our new entry-level employee learn from a set of established procedures or a “seasoned veteran” with a couple of years under their belt?
I challenge you to gather your management team together and evaluate your onboarding process for new team members. Don’t get confused by “onboarding” as it applies to the folks in HR. I’m talking about what we are doing to ensure that this new employee has a fighting shot at becoming a long-term player in the organization.
You only have one shot at making a lasting impression with a new employee. Take the time to make it count.