Most of the billions of dollars that asset-intensive industries pour into training each year is simply wasted. A commonly quoted estimate is that as much as 85% of all training investment has zero on-the-job impact. So if you want to avoid becoming a statistic, it is worthwhile spending some time thinking about how things go wrong so that you can figure out what to do to make them go right. Here are 5 ways to avoid common failures that prevent organisations improving maintenance and reliability performance.

1. Train early and often

The first and simplest way to improve performance through training is easy – train early and often. As the old adage goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, so leaving things as they are will cause your organisational performance to stagnate too. This is particularly true in specialist technical fields like maintenance and reliability.

Our tools and techniques are evolving all the time and we need to be running just to keep up – think of the introduction of the ISO 55000 standard for asset management, the growing interest in big data, augmented reality, digital twins, real time condition monitoring and remote operations. There is massive potential for improvement out there, but your people need skills and knowledge if they are to deliver this potential in your organisation.

By the way, if you’re worried about investing in people that might move on, remember that other old adage: What’s worse – training them and having them leave or not training them and having them stay?

2. Train the right people

Another great way to ensure a successful training program is to deliver training that matches the attendee’s needs. Who hasn’t sat in a course for a day thinking “well this is a waste of my time”? The course may have gone over your head, tried to teach you things you already knew, or simply covered knowledge that was not relevant to your role. Either way, the time and money invested was wasted.

If you’ve ever stood at the front of the classroom, you probably know the glazed look of the student you’ve “lost”.

To avoid these situations, it is essential that the need for the training is well defined at each of the following levels:

  • Organisational level – the training will deliver skills/knowledge required by the organisation
  • Occupational level – the training will be available to the appropriate work group
  • Individual level – the training will be provided to the correct individuals

To achieve this, it’s often best to start with a Training Needs Analysis, which broadly consists of the following 4 steps:

  • Identify – identify the business outcome (performance change) that is desired. Examples might include:
    • Reduce maintenance error rates for proxy switch installations
    • Improve reliability by investigating significant defects
    • Achieve certification against ISO 55001
  • Plan – identify appropriate methodologies for establishing the cause(s) of the performance gap. Common tools include surveys, focus groups and interviews.
  • Conduct – work the plan to verify the existence of the performance gap, clearly establish the causes and identify possible solutions. Note that training may not be the best solution and is rarely the only solution…
  • Implement – obtain the required approvals and implement the agreed solutions. Again, note that training will usually be one of a number of coordinated activities to achieve the desired change, including changes to processes, responsibilities, equipment, information systems, budgets…

Once this has been done, the results should be institutionalised by capturing the required competencies and training in individual/group job descriptions, competency matrices and training plans. That way, you can roll new employees straight into the program and get them up to speed fast. 

3. Train them the right way

Even if you’ve managed to conduct the right training for the right people, you can still manage to fail if you get the delivery wrong. Remember all those presentations where the smart, knowledgeable presenter simply read from their slides? The style needs to be engaging for the particular audience if the training is to be effective.

In the case of intelligent (OK, mostly intelligent) maintenance and reliability professionals, “engaging” means that the training mostly provides them with the opportunity to explore the topic and learn for themselves. It also includes opportunities to offer their experience. Good activities include case studies, exercises and role plays. Where “chalk and talk” is absolutely necessary, it should be on a challenge and response basis, where the facilitator poses a question and the students attempt to answer it from their experience before the “correct” solution is revealed.

4. Measure results, not just attendance

It’s unlikely that a training program will completely resolve a performance gap on the first pass – and even if it does, the requirement will drift over time as the asset base and supporting technologies change.

That means you have another pitfall to overcome if you are only measuring attendance (or nothing at all!), rather than the effectiveness of your program against the business outcomes it was meant to deliver. If you aren’t measuring and adjusting to those outcomes, the cumulative effect of the initial defects and subsequent requirements drift will undermine the relevance and value of the training.

Your people will pick up on this, lose motivation and eventually stop responding to the training altogether.

An effective evaluation approach creates a continuous improvement loop that will keep a training program alive. Perhaps the most widely accepted approach is the Kirkpatrick Model, which consists of the following 4 levels of evaluation:

  • Level 1 – Reactions – Measures the participant’s immediate response to the training through end-of-course surveys, informal comments and (possibly) focus group sessions.
  • Level 2 – Learning – Measures the changes in participant knowledge, skills and attitudes through pre/post course quizzes and practical tests/observations.
  • Level 3 – Behaviour – Measures the actual on-the-job performance changes through observations, focus groups and peer/manager interviews.
  • Level 4 – Results – Measures the changes in the targeted business outcome, usually through common key performance indicators.

Most organisations go to level 1 in the above list and pat themselves on the back, but there is real value in going all the way to level 4. 

5. Look in the mirror

Your last chance to improve – management commitment. If management is not committed to changing performance, it is practically inevitable that the training program will fail. Common pitfalls that lead to this failure include:

  • Prioritising other activities over the training
  • Reducing/eliminating training budgets
  • Not following through on the other changes required – for example:
    • Not changing processes or duty statements to take advantage of the new knowledge and skills your personnel possess, so that your people end up doing the same thing as before, even when they know it is wrong
    • Not establishing performance measures (from the individual to the organisation) that will establish whether the desired change is being achieved
    • Not taking any action (reward or punishment) on the basis of the performance measures

Regardless of the issue, employees will quickly determine that this training is not important to management and will therefore avoid it in favour of other activities. When they do go, they may be unmotivated or disruptive, knowing they are safe from any repercussions through their managers.

Either way, they won’t acquire the expected skills and knowledge, or will not apply it in the workplace, and the training (and associated performance change) will fail.

These types of issues are probably even more relevant for maintenance and reliability activities, where underperformance can be hidden for years through allocation of blame to operations, supply and simple probability.

If you want a disciplined, professional workforce that is best practice in maintenance and reliability, look in the mirror. It all starts with you.

Getting it right

A last point – you don’t have to do this alone. There is a great deal of complexity hidden in the above and this is the type of change activity that consultants excel at. Change doesn’t have to be intimidating – if managed correctly it can be a major driver of value for your business.

As management consultants, we have worked with many asset-intensive organisations to develop or review management strategies that can help to achieve this value. Some of our case studies in this area are below – if you would like further information, or to explore an opportunity within your business, please don’t hesitate to speak to us.

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