Finding the Learning & Performance Black Box

Recently, I’ve been posting about pursuing Embedded Performer Support [EPS] strategy and the importance of being at a state of readiness as opposed to just being ready to start the integration journey.

Question: If flawed performance was a jet airliner with a broken engine how far would it fly?

Answer: All the way to the scene of the crash.

And the scene of the crash is precisely where Training should show up to investigate the potential for building learning and performance solutions…after they find the black box.

The point of impact is where the NTSB searches for clues. The first thing they look for is the Black Box because it maps every action taken, word spoken, and mechanical function that transpired on the way to the crash. They accomplish rigorous discovery by interrogating the black box to determine root causes. Without root causes how can they recommend remedies to prevent future crashes?

To assume pilots need to be trained on how not to crash, may completely miss the mark and waste big bucks on unnecessary interventions. Instead, they pursue thorough investigative data-gathering to isolate what went wrong in order to determine the actual cause(s). That is an exacting discipline that has a rigorous protocol of discovery. We [Training] need to follow that example and apply our own rigorous discovery protocol when we receive a training request caused by [allegedly] poor performance.

In recent blogs, I point to a discovery discipline that rigorously searches for root causes. Performance Consulting [PC] is the underlying skill set. Every training organization should have team members with this skill set. Pure play PC goes beyond the scope of our needs in Training, but some of the basic tenants of discovery are exactly the skill set that needs to be in our toolbox. We need to determine what training can fix and what it cannot and PC discovery skills are essential.

That also means we must get ourselves out of the “training paradigm” to consider that the solution may be something as simple as Performer Support [PS]; a simple job aid, quick reference guide, checklist, or maybe a live collaboration with a SME or Help Desk; maybe a blend of several PS assets form the solution and not a stick of training necessary. Time-to-performance impact? How about only a week or so to develop PC assets versus 8-to-14 weeks of training development?

Importance of the Black Box

Making the right call at the scene of a performance crash means we have to find the “black box” to source root causes. We are NOT exclusively seeking data to build valid learning objectives through completing an ADDIE-based training needs assessment. There may be a need to go there, but let’s investigate the black box data first. Maybe it was a broken engine [a flawed business process] at the root of the performance gap. All the training in the world will not fix a broken process. Maybe the performance gap really does point back to flawed human decisions like “Do I cut the red wire or the blue wire?”

We have to ask; “Is that something that requires training, or is it a downloadable matrix that tells the Performer when you cut blue and when you cut red?”

What’s In the Black Box?

Truthfully, we will never know what is required until we investigate root causes at the scene of the crash...or the explosion…or the muffed sale…or the key account lost… or the material waste created…or the law suit. To put it another way, how many training programs have we invested precious dollars only to find out we have not moved the performance needle a whit? Been there; done that. Yes, I’ve been guilty of training to fix symptoms myself. We all have at one time or another by being obedient, responsive order-takers from stakeholders convinced they have a training issue.

Maybe secretly we thought, “This is not a training issue!” but we plowed ahead anyway because that’s what the stakeholder asked for. Had we accomplished discovery using the black box at the scene of the crash, we would have had enough evidence to push back and say, “A training course is only going to impact a small fraction of what’s really broken!” Without having the essential PC discovery skill set, we don’t know what we don’t know…and neither does the stakeholder. And we certainly do not have the evidence to propose a performance-based solution. Performance enablers and/or restrainers are easily overlooked…especially if you never look for them.

Here’s a perfect example: In a previous life, I was tasked by the SVP of Sales and Marketing to revamp the Marketing curriculum because his marketing team was not operating at a world-class level. Seriously, that was his request. Fortunately, I had already adopted my own PC discovery methodology gleaned from about four different sources. I often say I became a performance consultant in self-defense – tired of being blamed as the source of crappy training; crappy, not because it was…but crappy because it did not sustain performance outcomes. So, taking a defensive posture, my response to the request was a stock PC answer, “Sure, I can help you with that, but I have a few questions I’d like to ask first.”

At the scene of the crash, I conducted about twenty discovery interviews across several roles ranging from Directors to new-hires in marketing. Data points gathered were then plotted over six categories in my discovery protocol. [See Figure #1]

The pie chart below served as my first-pass proposal to the SVP. Yup…single sheet plopped on his desk as we discussed what he really needed to consider.

Figure #1

The SVP, my client, asked for a training curriculum update to improve performance, and his request was based on treating what he felt was the root cause – out-of-date training. Training falls into the Capability bucket along with several additional enablers. As is typically the case, Training is only part of the solution, but in this particular case, Training represented less than 18% of what caused “the crash”.

The rigors of performance consulting discovery revealed that 42% of his issues centered upon what turned out to be broken workflows and out-of-date processes. 82% of what was an issue to performance had nothing to do with Training. Clearly, his world-class gap was not a training problem. His biggest pain point belonged to the Six Sigma team. Responding to his request with an updated curriculum would have positioned Training to be 100% effective on less than 18% of his problems. Been there; done that before too. My team never used to search for the black box, and we wound up treating symptoms and totally missing what caused the crash…despite the awesome training we built.

Leading Black Box Discovery

My professional pursuits these days fall squarely upon assisting cross-industry organizations integrate an Embedded Performer Support {EPS] strategy by first assessing readiness and then adopting protocols around new methodologies, skill sets, and technologies. All of these pieces and parts of the EPS discipline center around the search for the black box at the point of performance impact. None of us want to waste precious resources to treat a symptom rather than the root cause of performance gaps. I do not have the budget, nor do I have the time to chase the wrong rabbit, and am guessing neither do any of you.

Find the black box first and discover what caused the crash. Who knows, you may only be a week and three job aids away from impacting business performance in a sustainable way.

My recommendation is simply this – if your team does not have an EPS protocol in place and/or the skill sets to go there, acquiring those skills and knowledge should be a priority. I welcome any dialogue or thoughts on this approach.

Thanks for reading!

Gary G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning