In my experience in small businesses, it often takes 2 years for a new employee to reach the same productivity of a senior staff member. I believe this is why many small business owners complain about not being able to find good people –at the price they want to pay. This situation develops because small business owners use the age-old method of follow-the-leader to train their people. This practice is also known as job-shadowing, apprenticeship, etc. However, this two-year onboarding speed is achieved only if the candidate is talented, has a heart for the industry long-term, and is motivated to become the best on the team. Otherwise, they will leave before ever reaching the productivity of the existing senior staff –if ever. Or, worse yet, they fail to reach target productivity and stay. This problem is expensive, largely because it is slow. Thus, to be competitive and growing, we must accelerate training. Our goal? Look for roles that take two years and bring them down to <90 days. 

There are two stages to shortening the time required for training. First, the documentation stage. Second, the execution stage. Within each stage there are numerous steps. The cost? It takes even longer initially.

Before we dive deep into each stage, allow me to conduct some quick math to help remind you of the magnitude of the problem. If a new team member starts at 50% of a fully trained person and gains skills evenly over 8 quarters (2 years) the lack of productivity will amplify as you add more people. The problem is exacerbated as you interrupt the high performer with questions and requests from the newbie. Thus, you (the employer) carry the full expense of the new personnel but get below-target productivity for both, and at a larger total cost. Ouch. Hire more within two years? Incur more turnover? The costs explode. The compounding costs and relationship complexity destroys profitability as you add or change staff too quickly. If you don’t have a good training system do not begin a rapid growth plan. Trust me, I’ve been there.

The solution is better training. And better training is defined as “faster” –to reach full productivity. This is usually achieved by splitting up job responsibilities. Make two or more jobs that used to be done by one person. This is typically done at the lowest level first, where two specialists can easily do more than twice the work of one master craftsman of the previous model simply by the volume of repetition they gather. But, wait, before we skip to cutting up job descriptions and hiring people into roles that have never existing, there is the documentation stage.

Documentation Stage

I say, you must “document to delegate.” This simple rule means you are not allowed to permanently delegate a recurring task to a subordinate until you have documented it. Good managers like to delegate because it frees them up to take on new and more valuable projects that have less clear scope.   Good employees like to be delegated to because they gain more valuable skills. They are also empowered to delegate themselves, which continues to free up time for more people to move up. This all sounds great in theory, but isn’t there a risk that someone delegates the wrong thing to the wrong person? Sure! That happens all the time. And the source of the problem is either poor documentation, poor context, or poor training.

Step 1: Produce good documentation. Write down the role that is responsible for performing the procedure. Reference the process the procedure fits within. Describe the purpose of the procedure to help guide the undocumented nuance that sometimes develops. Write the 5 to 10 steps of the procedure. Provide a list of resources required.

Step 2: Give good context. Do the procedure with the person to whom you will delegate it. Then, give them a description of what you did and the documentation. Do it again and have them ask you questions. Ask them to do it and you observe. Provide them feedback. Then, finally, have them do it on their own. Through this process you will help them see the context of what happens before, during and after the actual work. Depending on how simple you can get your documentation, you may be able to send them the documentation –which has the context—and they can do it successfully. That is ideal, but rare for anything more than the most simple and common tasks. And those are not usually necessary to document. They’re already known prior to hiring them! (For example, don’t document how to open up Excel; or how to recharge a cordless drill. That is, unless you have some unique way of doing these things that improves the performance of the company!)  The other major insight that occurs is the context of the role within the procedure. Who are the other roles which they will interact with? How should the other people in each particular role respond to your actions?

Step 3: Train well. When you delegate you give documentation and context to a subordinate and allow them to take on that new responsibility into their existing role. When someone enters a new role, they have a whole series of interconnected processes and procedures they have likely not performed before. In order to download all the new procedures, in context, quickly, you need a system for injecting these skills quickly. I prefer to use the Matrix method of simply jacking in and learning Ju Jitsu in 3 seconds. But alas, that technology is not yet available to everyone. So, how do we inject knowledge of the interconnected maneuvers more quickly? Reading, writing, classroom and field tests.

Our new General Managers have begun teasing each other that “oh, you’re still new, he hasn’t even turned on the fire hose yet.” The first time I heard this joke I chuckled because I waited to release the catalog for him and he was only a week into viewing it. Just wait until the writing requirements step up further. What do I mean by that? We have long form, open-ended, time based surveys for onboarding all positions. People are expected to respond with simple yes/no in low level positions. As your responsibilities increase, so does your internal word count. You must read, think, and respond in an orderly fashion. Then, we take you to the classroom. Vendors, investment partners, outside business contacts, experienced employees, each take turns showing you their craft in excellence form, in a controlled environment, on location. Want to run a glue gun at one of our locations? You’re not allowed until vendor A, role Z has trained you (role A) in the shop T. (I use letters here to help you realize the details you must fill in, for every single role.

Writing it all down is hard. Execution is harder.

Execution Stage

Once you’ve got a robust system to regularly document to delegate, and train people when they enter new roles, you must hold them accountable. If you do not, the entire organization will fall into disarray. The monkeys will rule the zoo. (it’s easy for me to write this because I’m at the top of the org chart, I’m the zoo keeper. But, I’ve been a monkey, too –an opinionated, change-agent, working toward what I want, rather than what the leader of the organization wants.) How do you make sure the team executes? Scorecards, incentives and repetition.

Step 1: Develop scorecards for every role. What measurable outputs are required by this role? By what time frame? Connect these outputs to the documented processes and procedures of the organization. Then become the enforcer. Fire people that are substandard. If you want a team to execute the plan you have to enforce the plan. You get what you tolerate. If you tolerate lower productivity then call it like it is. People working at 50% of what you want but you’re not willing to fire them? Write down the current productivity level. Share it with them. Tell them you intend to “raise the standards.” Then, begin to raise them. Help people meet the new standards. If they fail to meet those standards then let them go. Train in new people using your new system. Rinse and repeat these steps and you likely outpace most competitors.

Step 2: Offer effective incentives. Every person has basic expenditures to satisfy. They rarely move backward substantially. For many business owners money is a strong incentive. As wealth increases its rarely the money itself that has the allure, but rather a sense of achievement or impact people seek. This is true down the org chart, too. People want to work enough to satisfy their target objectives and then, they often take a break, and back off. The fun part about leading a growing organization is you can help raise the roof for what is available for people. I personally have helped several people become multi-millionaires. This is more rewarding to me than me personally having more cash. What am I going to do with more cash? Well, actually, I do have several ideas… No, seriously, if you find a way to connect with people’s motivations you can tap into their natural drive to be the best version of themselves available. Complete this step successfully and you beat all your competitors.

Step 3: Repeat. Mikel and I are learning animals. I wrote earlier (thanks for reading this far) about jacking into the Matrix to learn a new skill. The two of us have a tragic flaw of sorts that is, we both want to move on to new things all too quickly. Once we’ve “got it” we tend to be easily excited about learning yet another new thing. It drives people nuts… including myself! “Insatiable curiosity” is the nice way of describing it. “Lack of discipline” is another way to describe it. But, alas, I’m all about manacle execution once a workable plan is proven. The difference for me personally, is I’ve always been able to delegate as soon as I knew the process well enough to teach it. Mikel would do likewise, but usually by moving onto another client. In today’s environment, this repetition is about reinforcing the training basics to prevent mission drift. At every major meeting I repeat the core values and our purpose –help others climb. This repetition of the basics is the first building block of the next thing I’m about to speak, which is often a repeat of a concept we’ve drilled on and trained on before… for managers, it’s things like “document to delegate.” For glass techs, I expect our managers to drill on proper glue gun operation. And how, if done well over time, we can be the place people go to climb fast.

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