Training Resolutions

By Maggie Bayless, ZingTrain Founding Partner

Happy New Year! As the retail world catches its breath after the whirlwind of the holidays, many managers find their New Year’s resolutions include “doing something to improve training.” How about you? Now that there’s hope for a little down time, does training figure in as one of the projects you hope to accomplish? Very likely, since you’ve chosen to read this column. Here are some ideas to help you turn your resolutions into actions.

Give Yourself Some Time

First of all, to make any progress toward your goals, make the time to think about, plan, and implement training improvements. In my experience, you’ll be more effective if you set aside a little time each week and really stick to it. If you wait for that illusive “free week,” it may never come. Contrary to popular belief,improving your organization’s training doesn’t require a huge master plan. There are many meaningful changes you can make that don’t require a lot of time. They do, however, require implementation and consistent follow-through in order to be effective. Setting aside time to focus on training each week — and then really doing it — will get you much farther in the long run than any one-time shot, no matter how many hours you devote to that initial session. Any consistent investment as small as 30 minutes per week can yield significant results.

Look at Your Bottom Lines

Now that you’ve set aside some time, where do you start? It is impossible to accomplish everything at once. Training improvements, like any other project, will benefit from some up-front thinking about priorities. Curb your inclination to rush right in and start changing everything. Spend your first weekly training time allotment on determining your top priorities.
At Zingerman's we work toward positive results on three bottom lines — great food, great service and great finance, measuring our progress in each of these areas. As a result, we focus our training, which we call Bottom Line Training, on making a positive bottom-line impact.
Although you may not talk in terms of multiple bottom lines, I think most retail managers would agree that product quality, service quality, and financial results are all top priorities. Look at your organization’s current performance in each of those areas. If you feel you’re particularly weak in one area, focus there.

What’s Bugging You?

Another good place to start is with your gut. That’s right. Those feelings down in the pit of your stomach that tell you things are not going the way you know they should. I’m usually most in touch with these feelings when I first wake up in the morning and find myself anxious about some aspect of work. For some managers, it’s whatever they find themselves thinking about as they walk into the store each day, hoping that there hasn’t been a problem. Still others know they’ve hit a hot spot when they start grinding their teeth upon returning after a couple of days off. You get the idea.

The situations that generate these anxieties can run the gamut from relatively minor to quite serious:
• Are the display cases set up by opening time?
• Are our phones being answered correctly?
• Are the cash drawers consistently short?

If something has been an issue for more than a day or two, it’s probably worth looking into. Until you resolve that issue, the anxiety will sap energy that you could apply elsewhere.

Is Training the Answer?

Let’s say you’ve identified a problem on which to focus. Something that’s been bugging you, or an issue that you know impacts your product quality, customer service, or financial performance. Is training the answer? A good question to ask, but one that all too often goes unanswered. Training is not the answer to every problem. Training is only the solution when lack of training is the cause. Lack of systems and lack of management are other important causes of business problems, and you’ll need to make the distinction in order to fix the problem properly.

To decide if training is the solution to your problem, ask yourself these three crucial questions:
1. Is there already a system in place for performing the task, one that works if it is followed? Some examples might be the procedures for setting up cases before opening, for answering the phone, or for handling cash.

If the answer to No. 1 is “No,” you’re dealing with a systems problem. Training won’t help until you’ve created a system that employees can be trained to use. What’s needed is effective systems design.
2. Is there a system in place that the employees know how to use, but are not following?

If the answer is “Yes,” you’re dealing with a management problem. If employees already know how to use the system, they don’t need more training. What’s needed is effective leadership to ensure that systems are being used.
3. Is there a system in place, but employees don’t really know what it is or how to use it?

If the answer to No. 3 is “Yes,” you have uncovered a training problem. What’s needed is effective training for this system. If you have no current training on this system, the answer is obvious: Create some. If you currently are offering training on this system, yet it isn’t as effective as it needs to be, you need to redesign the system.

Look for situations in which the answer to question No. 3 is “Yes,” and you will find the places where training can really make a difference. If these situations also have a big impact on your bottom lines, you’ve uncovered some top training priorities.

Effective New Year’s Resolutions
Back to those New Year’s resolutions. The decision to make improved training a priority in the coming year is an appropriate resolution for most managers. In order to make your resolution more effective, and more likely to yield positive bottom-line results, don’t forget to include two additional elements:

* Make a commitment to set aside “training time” each week. Sit down right now, pick an amount of time that you know you can devote week-in and week-out to training, and block that time off each week in your planner. Committing to 15 minutes a week and always doing it will be much more effective than committing to two hours a week and only doing it once or twice.* Before investing any time in creating new training or changing existing training, review the three questions above and ask yourself, “Is training the answer to this problem?”
P.S. — Over the next year, this column will focus on a variety of situations in which training is at least part of the answer for many organizations.