It was a warm day in May as my slide projector motor ran
hypnotically. I was in a frenzy trying to make a particular course
interesting. (You try discussing cationic versus anionic polymers
to nonchemists on a warm spring day.) One student, always the same
student, was leaning slightly off vertical and his eyes were rolled
up so all that I saw was white. I called a break and met with the
individual. I asked what I could do to make the class more useful
to him. He said that it wasn't the class but that he was so tired.
I wondered out loud, since the class wasn't required, why he
couldn't skip class and go out to his car and take a nap.
He explained, "I am the local cop as well as the water and
wastewater operator in my town." Two nights ago, somebody called at
2 a.m. to report a rabid dog. Last night there was a fire and he
had to make sure the volunteer firemen had enough water. As soon as
he got back to his bed the phone rang reporting a potentially
violent marital quarrel. "I am afraid to go to my car because they
can reach me there by radio," he said.
He was telling me he had to go to my class because he needed the
sleep! This particular class ran for six hours. It covered most
aspects of feeding chemicals in wastewater treatment. Since it
covered a wide range of chemicals and equipment, my average student
may have only needed about five minutes out of the entire six
hours. Think of it, five hours and 55 minutes of filler for five
minutes of useful information.
I changed my approach to training in the morning and toured the
facilities of my participants in the afternoon. On the tour, they
discussed their problems while the other participants offered
suggestions. It wasn't very flattering, but I soon discovered that
most of the learning took place when I wasn't in front of the room.
A compliment at a conference
While attending an annual wastewater operator's association
conference, an operator walked up to me and said, "Glenn, I want to
thank you for your idea. It really works!"
I couldn't remember the conversation or my suggestion so I asked,
"How did you implement it?" As he explained, I started remembering
our original conversation.
He had asked me about a thick layer of norcardial (a threadlike
microorganism) scum on his aeration tanks that was preventing
necessary oxygen transfer in his tanks.
I asked, "What have you tried so far?"
"Did it work?"
"The chlorine didn't reach the scum floating on top."
"What do you think you should try next?"
"I'm thinking of spraying it on top but the chlorine will probably
eat through the piping."
"Where have you worked with chlorine before?"
"In our pump house."
"What kind of piping do you use for chlorine in your pump house?"
"Do you think that might work for your spray system?"
"It should, I will give it a try."
So where was the idea I gave him in all this? It was really his
idea. I simply helped him to have more confidence in his own
skills. I could have suggested a similar approach, but then I would
have reinforced his lack of confidence in his ability to problem
Formal teaching and training essentially reinforce the parent-child
dynamics. If you need your participants to assume an adult or
leadership role, you can't get there by being a parent. You have to
work with them adult to adult as they identify problems, develop
strategies, implement solutions, and reflect on what they've
learned. This may seem slow and inefficient, but it is the quickest
way to achieve lasting performance improvement.
Consultants Thomas Mickelson of ALG Incorporated and Bob Hegg were
conducting an operator training program in northern Wisconsin on a
treatment process called "activated sludge." They were working
harder and harder but nothing was happening. They asked the
participants at the morning break, "What can we do to make your
training more effective?" It turned out that none of the
participants needed any information about activated sludge. They
were all pond operators who dealt with a very different process.
They were just there to complete continuing education requirements
to renew their state wastewater operating licenses.
Mickelson decided to stop teaching about activated sludge for the
rest of that course. Instead, he asked, "What problems are you
trying to solve at your plants?" He changed the focus from the
presenters to the participants. His participants were working to
solve real problems. That was the spark that lit the room. Later,
many of the participants reported that it was the best learning
experience they had ever had.
That was the beginning of what is now identified by Mickelson and
Hegg as implementation training. What made this process different
from typical troubleshooting courses was that it was
participant-centered. Coaching and training were imbedded into the
activities only when needed as part of the problem-solving process.
Mickelson learned that adults don't want to be trained - they want
to be given tools to solve their own problems. If you hand a wrench
to a mechanic working on a job when he needs it, he will use it. If
we hand information to our participants when they need it, they
will use it. If they use a particular tool or procedure three or
four times, they will remember it when they need to use it again.
This process is called embedded training and it is at the heart of
I worked with Mickelson to help Madison Metropolitan Sewerage
District adopt implementation training as its central learning and
performance support strategy. In an effort to better describe the
intent of implementation training, we renamed the process Learn
While You Work Leadership Development (LWYW).
The process evolved independently from action learning (a concept
put forth by author Michael Marquardt), but has a number of
similarities. So whether you call it implementation training or
Learn While You Work or action learning doesn't matter. Here's how
you can make it work for your organization:
Start with careful project selection. Your project
should be regarded by the directors and the participants as an
important project. The project should have an inherent learning
opportunity and should be conducive to a cross-functional learning
Draft a specific statement of the problem to solve or
opportunity to capture. Your project charge should be
specific, measurable, attainable,
realistic, and time-bound (SMART).
Carefully plan for both the project's implementation and
the related learning opportunities. This involves
attention to a detailed checklist. Remember that time spent in
project identification and planning is much less costly than time
spent with a room full of project participants.
Follow specific procedures for the implementation
phase. The start-up of this process should be very formal
and outlined on a task list. Once the project is started, however,
the facilitator must be very flexible and only provide assistance
and training when needed and requested by the participants. (This
is not significantly different from effective project management.)
Allow time at the end of each project for celebration,
reflection, and action planning. Celebrate early and often
but make sure you take the time to reflect on what was learned. The
reflection process is what reinforces what was learned in the
implementation phase. It also is what distinguishes this process
from standard project management. Be sure to ask, What went well?
What lessons were learned? How can we use this information in
If you follow this process carefully, you will solve problems of
strategic importance while building organizational capacity to
address future problems. How's that for ROI?
Note: This article originally appeared in the
August 2005 issue of ASTD Links.
Author Glenn Smeaton worked for 10 years as training manager for
the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District and recently started his
own consulting firm. He combines a master's degree in water
resource management information and education with over 30 years of
training experience in public and private sectors.
ASTD Links Field Editor Terrence Gargiulo is a consultant and
author of Making Stories: A Practical Guide for Organizational
Leaders and Human Resource Specialists. If you have ideas or
wish to submit an article be sure to contact him; email@example.com;
2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.