Training ≠ Manufacturing

A factory in Faritabad, India, I visited in January 2014. This is not a training environment.

Recently I was at a customer site in the Midwest. These folks do…a lot of welding. They’re consistently one of the biggest 3 or 4 buyers of steel plate in the country. They buy so much plate that they don’t have to buy it in standard thicknesses like 1/2 inch or 3/8 inch; rather, they buy it in whatever size their engineers decide is best. One employee told me they can buy custom thicknesses like .433 inch cheaper than most companies can buy normal sizes like 1/2 inch. They buy a lot of plate, and then they do a lot of welding on it.

This site (one of dozens) is massive–easily the size of a couple of football fields. I was taken at one point to the “training area” at this plant. The training area felt like they had picked a random corner of the factory to stick it in.

It was loud. Not from the welding or the training that was happening, but from ambient noise.

It was poorly-lit. That is, there was more than enough light to see things happening around you, but nowhere near enough light for detail work, and welding training is most certainly detail work.

It was filthy. Not just in the sense that they needed to sweep up. More like there was just a lot of visual clutter around–old welding machines, spools of wire, work in progress, none of which were part of the welding training process.

Here’s the thing. Welding training is not welding. It’s not even manufacturing. It requires a different approach to do well.

The goal of a training center is to mold minds, not make widgets. The goal in a production environment is, primarily, efficiency; the main concerns are things like deposition rates and defect rates. The goal of a training center is to take untrained humans and turn them into (better-) trained humans. The goals are different, so the environments need to be different.

In a production environment, there shouldn’t be a lot going on besides production. As Peter Drucker put it, “A well-managed factory is boring. Nothing exciting happens in it because the crises have been anticipated and have been converted into routine.” The factory environment, then, doesn’t really need to foster communication beautifully. Communication isn’t the main priority; welding is. Yes, welders need to communicate, but not every second of the day, or even most seconds.

In a training environment, on the other hand, communication is everything. Training is communication. Communication moves the training process forward, and a lack of communication will hold it back.

So it’s imperative that a training area be quiet.

Similarly, it’s important for trainers and trainees to be able to see what they’re looking at. Details often matter in welding, so one might argue that good lighting is always necessary. But experienced welders can produce good work even under sub-optimal lighting conditions; this is in fact one way to define a welder as experienced. In my experience, inexperienced welders require good lighting to even do mediocre work.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that trainees should have to endure hardships identical to those they’ll experience on the job. I agree. In fact, the ideal training environment might expose trainees to hardships worse than those they’ll ultimately experience on the job. But, those hardships must be introduced gradually. Training is inherently stressful; adding hardships from the start only increases the dropout rate and makes the training take longer.

To sum up, let me contradict myself: in a sense, training actually is manufacturing, if we define “manufacturing” broadly. The goal is to produce something, even if that something is very different from a typical manufactured widget. As Peter Drucker said, we still need to anticipate crises and convert them to routine…it’s just that training involves a vastly different set of crises and routines. To be effective, training areas must reflect that.