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?"

"Chlorine"

"Did it work?"

"No."

"What happened?"

"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?"

"PVC."

"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 solve.

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.

The spark

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 implementation training.

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 team approach.

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 future efforts?

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; terrence@makingstories.net; 1.781.894.4381.

2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.