Staff development can include training for technical skills as well as management and supervisory skills.  Photo via iStock.

Staff development can include training for technical skills as well as management and supervisory skills. Photo via iStock.

In many instances when someone mentions staff development, the first thing that comes to mind is technician training. But staff development is much more than that. A well-thought-out and properly executed staff development plan not only impacts productivity but also promotes operational and maintenance standardization, seamless transitions of responsibility, and the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.

At a Glance

When creating a staff development plan, ask the following questions:

  • Are outside factors affecting employee productivity?
  • What’s the baseline from which you should measure staff productivity?
  • Can you also incorporate management and supervisory skills?

Staff development and succession planning are synonymous with each other. Remember, you are not only training your administrative staff and technicians to be more proficient, but also to one day take on higher-level management positions.

Staff development plans should not only address an employee’s current job title and responsibilities, but also delineate a clear and concise path toward upward mobility. A well-defined development plan will positively impact employee morale by removing the ambiguity and confusion that pertains to their career advancement. If you were to randomly select a group of employees and ask them what they should know in order to be considered for promotion, would they be able to correctly answer the question? If your organization is like many others, the answer is — probably not.

As management, we get so caught up in the day-to-day operation of our fleets that we tend to forget there are employees who one day aspire to fill our shoes. When advocating the importance of a development plan to your employees, you should convey the benefits of the training and the correlation it has on their career paths. Keep in mind that several personal factors  will guide the successful deployment of a development plan. Knowing what motivates a person to learn will help you sell the program to your employees and encourage active participation. These factors include: money, job security, promotion potential, pride, etc.

As with any viable and meaningful planning process, you must break down the program into logical and sequential steps. Following are five steps you should consider when developing your staff development plan.

Step 1: Determining the Need

Management tends to concentrate on the here and now, placing aside future requirements. When assessing need, you not only need to look at current training deficiencies but also future gaps in staff development, such as the retirement of seasoned employees.

Unexpected or unplanned loss of long-term institutional knowledge is probably the most destructive event that negatively impacts organizational effectiveness. Unless properly addressed, the effects of reduced institutional experience are rapid, and it may take many months or even years for agencies to recover. The reason most fleet managers dread the day their supervisors retire is because they failed to properly prepare their replacements prior to their departure, even though the date is normally known well in advance. This effect is exacerbated when the selected replacement is an outside applicant who is completely unfamiliar with your fleet operation and equipment.

Determining whether or not an employee is proficient in his/her job may be difficult to assess and could be interrelated to other factors that are not under the direct control the of the employee. Possible factors that could impede an employee’s performance may include: lack of a fleet management information system, lack of or poorly written standardized procedures, condition/age of the fleet, and poor management, to name just a few.

Start determining the need by conducting an initial assessment on the strengths and weaknesses of your staff. Be self-critical of your organization and list what things are going right or wrong and the foundational factors that contribute to success or failure. Knowing the cause and effect relationships will help you determine the root cause and better plan for a successful outcome.

To determine the appropriate level at which your staff is expected to perform, you need to develop a baseline from which to measure. An example of a baseline would be: You expect the parts department to maintain a loss ratio percentage of less than .05% of total stock on a monthly basis. The term loss is then defined as “any parts or supplies that cannot be accounted for through appropriate documentation.” With the baseline established, you can then begin to examine the fundamental reasons why the parts staff is not capable of meeting the baseline.

Lastly, technical skill improvement should not completely define your staff development plan. Management and supervisory skills should also be considered and included. Remember, you are not only training your staff to make them more proficient in their jobs, but also to replace you one day.

Step 2: Developing the Plan

Once you determine the need, you must then decide how you are going to fulfill it. In this step you will develop the who, what, when, and how aspects of your plan.

Start by listing all the requirements you identified as critical gaps in training. List them in a logical and sequential order and group them into occupational categories, e.g., mechanic, parts, administrative. Once your analysis is complete, decide which instructional method you would employ to best fit your needs. It could be instructor driven (classroom), self study, video, text, or computer/web-based programs. You can also consider on-the-job training and mentoring programs.

You are not only training your administrative staff and technicians to be more proficient, but also to one day take on higher level management positions.

Budget your equipment and supplies needs well in advance and consider funding for software and training aids. You should also consult with your Human Resources Department to incorporate development criteria in employees’ official job descriptions and possibly include the successful completion of a development plan as part of the promotional requirements.

Now that you have determined who will be trained and what you will teach, it’s time to plan for the when. Start by determining the appropriate scheduling requirements and their impact on your day-to-day operation. Create formal training schedules and distribute them to the staff well in advance of the proposed training dates. Training schedules should be developed in such a manner that class content becomes progressively more advanced.

To help you make the most of your training class and to maximize its effectiveness, develop the following employee handouts:

  1. Formal course outlines that go into detail about the course, its length and training dates, and learning objectives.
  2. Reference material: Copy key policies and procedures that are pertinent to the class topic. You may also wish to provide each employee a complete copy of your latest Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). In the case of private manufacturers’ documents, check their copyright and distribution restrictions prior to releasing the information.
  3. Cheat sheets: abbreviated quick reference guides that highlight key points of interest.
  4. Graphics and process flow diagrams: These are used to help explain complex tasks and provide a visual representation of each step within a task. Process flow diagrams are very helpful in detailing cross functional steps and use directional controls that guide the employee in making the right decision.

To track the progress of employee training, you may want to develop detailed task lists for each distinct job description that are based upon the critical tasks necessary for the job. The task list should contain specific task requirements, and the number of iterations that must be successfully demonstrated in order for the employee to be considered competent in his or her job.

For example, a task for a supervisor could be listed as “Evaluate completed work orders for correctness.” A sample of the sub-elements for that task would be as follows:

  • Determine that appropriate labor times are listed for the work performed.
  • Determine that all parts billed to a specific repair task are applicable to the repair.
  • Determine that all parts installed have a corresponding write-up and labor times.

Consider creating sample work order documents that are difficult to assess in order to fully test employees’ ability to find the errors.

In addition to the training documents, continuity binders can also be a useful tool in staff development. The use of a continuity binder not only supports the seamless operation of the fleet in the absence of management personnel, but also diminishes the effects of the loss of institutional knowledge. Continuity binders should be standardized as to what content is contained in the binder. As a minimum, the binder should contain the following:

  • Critical tasks and responsibilities that must be performed on an ongoing basis
  • Key points of contacts and their relationship to the operation
  • Copies of recurring reports along with details on the date required, data provided, distribution hierarchy, and how they are compiled
  • References to specific regulatory documents and website addresses.

Lastly, a word of caution: Ensure that the content of the training does not conflict with, but reinforces, existing policies and procedures. Nothing is more damaging to the validity of a class than to provide inaccurate information to an employee, only to then correct the information at a later date.

Refer to your SOP to confirm there is no conflict in the training information provided. If your operation does not have a formal SOP, you should write one prior to implementing your staff development plan. Staff development classes should never be utilized to create or introduce policy, but to reinforce existing policy. The last thing you want in a formal class is to start a debate on policy issues. It will distract from the intent of the class and could eventually lead to a complete breakdown of classroom decorum and schedules.

Step 3: Implementing the Plan

The most critical aspect of implementation is the successful transfer of information from the instructor to the trainee. A well-thought-out training plan can go completely awry if it is not properly implemented.

Your instructors should be senior employees or management personnel who are well versed in the topic that they are teaching. Have your instructors rehearse the training sessions in front of management staff well in advance of the scheduled class. An unorganized or poorly executed training session will do more harm than good. Disorganized classes will induce confusion and may lead the employees to develop a “Well, if management doesn’t care, why should I?” attitude.

The instructor needs to know the audience. Not everyone learns at the same pace. Have the instructor take into consideration audience experience levels and start out with the basics and progress from there. Set the speed of instruction so as to allow time for employees to absorb the material being taught, but not so slow as to bore quick learners. Include question-and-answer sessions during the training session to determine if the pace of the instruction is appropriate. If the majority of your questions are answered incorrectly, you may need to adjust the pace of the class.

Remember, different people learn in different ways (visually, hands-on, etc.) and at different speeds. Most people learn by doing, so try to incorporate as much hands-on activities as possible. Lastly, document training topics and attendance. You need to keep track of who was trained, what they were trained on, and when they received it.

Step 4: Evaluating and Modifying the Plan

How do I know if the training was effective? Did everyone learn the objectives of the training? How am I going to measure the before-and-after performance metrics? These are the questions you should ask yourself when evaluating the success or failure of your program.

Pre- and post-instructional tests or verbal quizzes are helpful tools in determining the effectiveness of the training. Develop tests that key into the critical aspects of the training. Keep the tests short and to the point. Avoid creating lengthy tests that are formatted just to fill up space on the paper. Hands-on evaluations may also be more appropriate than written tests, as most people learn by doing. Have management staff review the tests to ensure there is no ambiguity in the questions. A pre-course exam can determine the before-­and-after instruction level of employee knowledge.

If you want to know what the employees thought of the training, you may wish to seek feedback in the form of an anonymous comment card. Generally speaking, a person is more likely to express his or her true opinion when there is no fear of retaliation by associating his or her name with a negative comment.

The use of a continuity binder not only supports the seamless operation of the fleet in the absence of management personnel, but also diminishes the effects of the loss of institutional knowledge.

You should expect an immediate positive effect on performance after the completion of a proper and well-executed training event. There should be no reason to not expect a significant improvement in performance. Utilize your baseline metrics to measure the amount of increased performance. If you fail to notice rapid improvement in performance, you need to reevaluate your entire training program.

Step 5: Sustaining the Plan

Repetition is the key to maintaining any skill set. Any successful staff development plan requires periodic refresher training in order to sustain the gains achieved. Remember that as time passes, people tend to forget what was taught to them. Keep in mind that the more complex a skill is, or the greater the time span in which it was last performed, the faster the rate of learning decay will occur.

Develop a long-term refresher training program that reinforces your training needs. Consider revising the training cycles when you experience a large employee turnover event. Tailor your training priorities to critical and complex tasks and don’t overdo it. Too frequent and/or too lengthy repetition eventually leads to a diminishing rate of return. At some point, your employees will lose interest in the training, and it may make them feel that management does not trust their intellect.

Lastly, remember that sustainment is the most critical aspect of any staff development plan, and without it, all previous steps are doomed for failure at some point in the future.