How to Improve on the Job Training

I asked a maintenance old-timer how much maintenance competence is transmitted in schools versus how much is learned on the job (OJT). He answered 85 percent on the job, and noted that there are three issues of training.

One is knowledge, he said. Schools do a pretty good job of teaching. The second is skills, which schools do a fair to poor job of teaching. The third issue is wisdom, which schools do not teach.

In the 1970s, when this fellow was an apprentice, maintenance was primarily a skill-based business. People with just knowledge were said to be able to talk the talk but they couldn’t walk the walk.

But even then there was critical knowledge. An electrician, for example, had to know how many amps a 10 AWG wire can carry when it is in a conduit.

In the old-timer’s world, knowledge would have clearly been the stepchild of the other two competencies. Knowledge and “book learning” were the providence of engineers. In that world, if the engineer had the knowledge, he was usually considered a “desk jockey” and should not be let loose in the shop.

Today, the balance is tilting toward knowledge. A skilled mechanic can tell a lot about an engine from just listening, but someone with the right knowledge can “plug” the vehicle and get a comprehensive read out of all the attributes, faults, settings and diagnostics of both the engine and transmission.

It still pays to be able to listen, but we are rapidly moving towards computers telling us what is going wrong and what to do about it. We can bitch and moan about that trend, but the days of the shade tree mechanic are rapidly becoming history.

You learn judgment or wisdom from being around wise people and, unfortunately, making your own mistakes. Wisdom or judgment is invisible, slow to acquire and hopefully rubs off on you so that when you become the senior guy you have it too.

We always said judgment was the result of experience and experience was the result of making mistakes and learning from them.

In today’s litigious society, people are not allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. We must look for alternate roads to wisdom so that the development of wisdom is not stunted.

  1. Knowledge. Observable behavior: Being able to describe, diagram, argue, etc. Performance level: Being able to answer “x” out of 10 questions correctly.
    Sometimes you will find mechanics that can do something but don’t know what or why they are doing it. This creates two problems.
    One is that the person might unintentionally create a dangerous situation or a cascade failure in another system. The other problem is without the knowledge, the person cannot be as creative and think outside the normal way to solve problems.
    There are a wide variety of ways to transfer knowledge. Since schools are the center of this domain, they do straight lecturing, discussions, readings, programmed learning and demonstrations.
  2. Skill. Observable behavior: Being able to demonstrate, show, perform, solve, etc. Performance level: Doing a task in “x” minutes with no mistakes.
    Most on-the-job training consists of skill training. In maintenance, we admire skilled mechanics.
    Many people have the knowledge without the skill.
    There are a few ways to teach skills, but they all boil down to having the trainee do something and having the senior person (or some other way) give them feedback.
  3. Attitude. Observable behavior: Performing with comfort and no hesitation, etc. Performance level: Working to one’s own confidence and satisfaction.
    An example of this domain would be to discuss the technician’s comfort level with a particular technology or their work ethic.
    This is more difficult to test because someone could conceal their discomfort. You occasionally run into trades people that have the skills and knowledge but lack the will or the confidence to do the work.
    At the other end of the spectrum are people with inappropriate confidence. These people are a danger to themselves and others.
    The last quality filed under attitude is the employee with a “bad” attitude. Attitude problems might start with a void in a skill or knowledge that creates frustration and eventually a bad attitude. In other cases, the person might lack the capabilities such as strength or height to do the job. Fear might also play a role.
  4. Aptitude. Observable behavior: Having the physical, mental capability. Performance level: Demonstrating strength, visual acuity or intelligence.
    Many jobs require a certain strength or endurance level. Other jobs require simple - or not so simple - computations. Every job has its minimum capabilities required.
    Failure at a job might simply be a lack of strength, visual acuity or other physical or mental ability. This lack might be able to be accommodated for through such things as power lifting gear, magnifier inspection lamps or redesign of work space. If the job cannot be redesigned or accommodated in any reasonable way, then the person is not suited for that job.
    Sometimes the deficiency is confused by supervisors with the employee having a bad attitude, as the person tries to cover up their problem. It is the supervisor’s job to notice these types of problems because a great employee could be lost to an inappropriate job.
  5. Wisdom or judgment. Observable behavior: Having judgment about situations and sees deeper into what is best for the company. Performance level: Wisdom comes from hanging around wise maintenance masters. But the bulk of it comes from doing, and seeing, what happens.
    Wisdom can be fostered by giving the trainee a wide range of opportunities to work with different people on widely different equipment and situations.

A final observation: Make sure trainees take advantage of training opportunities and have a chance to teach what they learned.

Joel Levitt has trained over 6,000 maintenance leaders from over 3,000 organizations. Since 1980, he has been the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services a variety of clients on a wide range of maintenance issues.

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