Jim Smith will make you believe in training. During his long career at Caterpillar, he signed up for every course he could, worked his way from the shop floor to senior management, and eventually developed training courses for others at the company. “I saw early on that training was going to be my way up the organization,” says Smith. Since retiring from Caterpillar, he has continued to offer training courses. In addition, he was named the 2007 QualityProfessional of the Year, and received ASQ’s E.L. Grant Medal this year.


The goal of training is to become more proficient at a skill.

If done correctly, the student should be able to better perform a job-related task.

Without practical experience, the training might as well never have happened.

Training can offer many benefits. But it’s also expensive. According to a March article in the New York Times (“Paying for Workers’ Training”), the private sector is estimated to spend more than $100 billion per year on training. And manufacturers shell out $1,500 per employee on training each year, according to the 2014 Manufacturing Skills and Training Study by the Manufacturing Institute and Accenture.

But how to be sure this money is not being wasted?

If you want to make your training count, there is really one main thing to remember: use what you’ve learned. Without practical experience, the training might as well never have happened. Just because someone shared the information with you doesn’t mean that you went out to incorporate it into your work. Training does not necessarily equal learning.

The goal of training is to become more proficient at a skill. If done correctly, the student should be able to better perform a job-related task. But of course, this is not as easy as it may seem. Perhaps the training didn’t stick—the lessons weren’t applied right away and then forgotten, or there was a shift in thinking and management decided not to implement a new methodology, or perhaps classes were interrupted by others on-site with questions for their co-workers.

In the ideal scenario, students take a course, are engaged and interested during the lessons, practice applying the lessons during the course, and then go on to use what they’ve learned. Afterwards, the training’s effectiveness would be measured. It would have been proven to be successful. So how can companies be sure they are following the right steps?

Training Continues to Evolve

As with many things in the last twenty years, training has changed. Richard Rahn started doing manufacturing related training in 1994. At that time, he said the approach was a “one-way street.” Students were there to be filled with ideas, and the instructors didn’t think too much about what they did with that knowledge, says Rahn, a principal with Leonardo Group Americas. Today his company offers weekly online quizzes that continue a year after the course to remind students of what they learned. “More helpful is integrating more doing in the class itself,” Rahn says. Teachers still have to relay information, but there are a lot more handouts and team exercises today. He said in the past, classes might have been 90% lecture, whereas today it is more like 50%. This way, students are immediately applying what they’ve learned. “Outside of the workshop itself, once they go home, the best thing is to be able to apply it right away,” Rahn says. “This is not always possible; it may not be possible to design a line or change your material delivery system.”

In addition, Rahn himself tries to keep up with industry trends and continue learning.  “If we don’t go and see what other people are doing, we tend to get kind of insular,” Rahn says. “As a team, we keep an eye out for those kinds of opportunities.” He attended a training workshop recently where the instructor didn’t use PowerPoint at all during the three-day class. Instead, there was a music stand, a flip chart, and team exercises. He was engaged the whole time rather than lulled into a passive, slide-induced haze.

Faster and Faster

But not all training trends have been positive. Carmine Liuzzi, vice president of training and improvement solutions at SAI Global, says the biggest trend in training is: “Can we do this in the quickest amount of time possible?”

But doing training in the shortest amount of time possible is not a good trend, he says. It’s “check the box rather than get a lot out of it.”

Even when companies devote resources to classroom training, teaching on-site can be problematic. Liuzzi says that all throughout class people will be popping in, asking, Can I borrow so-and-so for ten minutes? And then the person is gone for an hour. He said it’s almost better to have a local training done offsite at a hotel rather than deal with constant interruptions.

In addition, the use of online courses is growing. With training online, “The question that always comes up is: are they listening or answering emails?” Liuzzi asks. “In order to combat that, in competency based courses we can always have exercises to build on the original material. The trend is definitely going to making it more convenient, to make it easier and more cost-effective for people on the receiving end.”

Liuzzi advocates “just in time training” so people can use what they’ve learned just before they need it. In addition, in order to make classes more engaging, he says, they can create more of an interactive workshop for students. For example, for a kaizen event, they might spend the morning talking about tools and the afternoon applying those techniques. Though this requires a good amount of preparation, it often leads to significant improvement a few months later. And this offers the company a template to teach others the same techniques. They can pass the skill along without needing the trainer to come back, Liuzzi says.

How You Learn

But no matter what training method you use, there are some key items to keep in mind.

“One of the things we always ask is: what are your expectations of what you’re going to learn? What skills?” Liuzzi says. Then the instructor will put this on the wall and emphasize it throughout the training. He also starts by asking, “Why are you here?”

“We do get a lot of folks who say, ‘Somebody told me to come here,’” Liuzzi says. “We tell them, ‘Okay, you are here now. But what would be able to help you to reduce your hassle at work? How can we help you become a better, stronger part of the organization?”

This leads into another training tip: participate. This means both in the class and after. Liuzzi says he tries to create an atmosphere conducive to questions. He will get to class early and stay late, and tells students to contact him if they have questions in the future. He said former students have emailed him even five years later to ask questions.

“Most folks do want to be there and do a good job,” Liuzzi says. They recognize that being surrounded by others in similar situations can also help improve their situation at work.

During the training, Liuzzi will check in with the class and ask, “How are you going to use that back in your area? We always try and have that discussion at the end of the modules. What are the lessons learned coming out of this? 

Consider 70-20-10

Lonney Gregory, principal consultant at Linkage, explains learning with the 70-20-10 construct. This idea says that true learning is acquired by 70% challenging assignments, 20% exposure to environments that allow for learning related to the job, and 10% for formal or informal coursework and training.

“For me, that is the most appropriate and meaningful way for an individual to acquire the knowledge they need. Learn about that domain and then apply it,” Gregory says. “For my money, that’s the approach organizations ought to take.”

In terms of informal training, he recommends reading and following LinkedIn groups to read what others are doing, and shadowing colleagues or sitting in on meetings.

He said training must be evaluated, especially with skills relative to the program. And unlike most programs, this isn’t just questions like “did you like the instructor?” Companies have to evaluate the individual against the skills that they need to develop.

Gregory said companies might send technicians to a course to learn a new system, but then there could be a delay and the new system doesn’t come online for months and once it’s finally installed, they can’t recall what they were taught. “I see that so often,” Gregory says.

Without applying the knowledge, training can be a dead end.

“It’s the experience that turns training into learning,” Gregory says.

 Jim Smith agrees. Training helped him throughout his long career, both in getting ahead and not getting downsized. “You can go to all the training you want, but if you’re not applying it, you’re expendable,” he says. “In my 25 years at Caterpillar, through many downturns, not one day was I out of a job.”