Thursday, June 30, 2011

C'mon...not training again!

I was shopping a couple of days ago in a local grocery store. Since I am one of those people who very seldom goes to the grocery store with a list, it usually takes me longer because I  am trying to remember what I really need besides food for dinner. Anyway, as I was wandering from aisle to aisle, I heard an announcement calling all available individuals to the front to help with bagging. Shortly after this announcement, a second announcement was made calling individuals by name to report to the front to help with bagging. I smiled to myself and thought, so they did recognize that having baggers to support the cashiers was the appropriate intervention. Now, you are probably saying, why is she smiling about about this annoucement in a grocery store? And what is an intervention?
Well, this grocery store was my client once upon a time. You see, the CEO at headquarters wanted me to design a training workshop for the cashiers because the “mystery shopper” reports for the store reflected that the cashiers were not consistently asking customers seven required questions. I indicated that I could not design a workshop until I had collected some data to identify the learning needs. The mystery shopper data only reflected that the questions were not being consistently asked…not why.  So, I observed the cashiers, surveyed the cashiers, and had focus groups with the cashiers. And guess what? The cashiers knew the questions by heart but indicated that they did not always have enough time to ask the questions since they were also responsible for bagging the groceries. They were also very sensitive to the impact their bagging had on customer service….the lines got longer and the customers grew more inpatient. Their one request was to have help bagging when the lines were long and the store was busy.
 I thought…hmmm…this has nothing to do with training. The cashiers really want to ask the questions but wanted their customers to stand in line for as short a period of time as possible. They just wanted help with bagging the groceries when it was busy. They also thought having an opportunity to occasionally have meetings with management to make other improvement suggestions would really help resolve other issues but bagging was the red light right now.
So, I shared my findings with store management. They were surprised by the findings and proceeded to guessed it....a  training workshop. My response was…”training for what?”  The cashiers knew their job and they knew what would contribute to efficiently moving customers through the grocery line. The managers responded that baggers were not allowed. Subsequently, my second recommendation was that perhaps they needed to re-examine the “bagger” policy and ask the cashiers for more input when revising it. The third recommendation was to re-consider if the seven questions added value by making a difference in customer satisfaction or providing data for process improvement. My last recommendation was to meet with the cashiers. I never did design the training workshop.
Listening to the announcement as I was strolling through the aisles of the grocery store made me smile because I was happy that management had decided to change the bagger policy and obviously was being creative when the need for baggers arose. AND, the only question I was asked when I checked out my groceries was, “did you find everything you needed?”  Of course, because of my sloppy shopping habits, I had to answer, “Yes and then some.” But what’s the take home message here? This was a classic case of a request for the wrong intervention.
What is an intervention? Most of us think of it as a medical term meaning “any measure whose purpose is to improve health or alter the course of disease.” However, the term is increasingly being acknowledged by both consultants and their clients to refer to activities that facilitate change.  In their book, Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement, French and Bell define an organization development interventions as “sets of structured activities in which selected organizational target groups or individuals engage in a task or sequence of tasks with the goals of organizational improvement and individual development.” There are different categories of interventions including diagnostic activities such as surveys or focus groups, team building activities, strategic management activities, coaching and counseling activities, educational and training activities and the list goes on. Unfortunately, many organizations default to education and training as the intervention of choice regardless of the issue.
A common pitfall associated with requesting or designing an intervention is usually the lack of data or working from an assumption about what is needed. Consequently, the wrong intervention is requested or designed based on little more than a hunch. For example, the grocery store assumed that the cashiers did not know they had to ask the seven questions, or how to ask the questions, or what questions to ask because of the mystery shoppers’ observations.  The focus was on the questions not being asked not why. However, the cashiers knew exactly what questions to ask although did express some curiosity about why they were asking these questions when no one asked them what the customers were saying. They also knew that customers became frustrated and upset when made to stand in line while the bagging was being done by the cashier.
On the other hand, management thought the intervention of choice was training since the issue had to do with a lack of skill or knowledge concerning question asking. Right? Wrong! The issue had not been clearly defined. The data from “diagnostic activities” not only provided insight into the inconsistent cashier performance but led to a very different type of intervention other than a training workshop.
A word of cautionwhen considering what needs to be done! Choosing the wrong interventions or sequencing interventions in a haphazard way may contribute to confusion, frustration, and the real issue left unaddressed. It is important to take the time to gather the data, identify the real issue or issues, design an appropriate intervention or sequence of interventions which may include training, and evaluate for effectiveness. I always like to ask the question, “is this a technical problem or an adaptive challenge?” Sometimes, it’s a combination of both but each requires a different approach.
 Surprisingly, in the case of getting baggers to help the cashiers, it took a little while to make it happen because the grocery store headquarters was stuck on the idea of having a training workshop even after store management saw the light. Thank goodness store management was willing to experiment and try different approaches for getting the cashiers the support they needed. Hence my smile as I was wandering the aisles of a very busy but successful grocery store. It reminded me that not all who wander are lost….it just takes a little time to find the way.