Why Your Training Fails

Training programs are often like a gym membership. Expectations and enthusiasm are high in the beginning, but attention wanes and almost any other task becomes a higher priority. Training gets boiled down to a one-and-done new hire speech and a dusty standards manual. Ultimately, the lack of training success becomes a top to bottom irritant to all that never seems to result in an action. The result is a never-ending source of complaints such as, “I was never trained on that!” and “Why are we making these basic mistakes over and over again?” If any of this rings a bell, it’s because more training programs fail than flourish. Why? I propose it is because successful training is just a part of the larger goal of employee success, which translates into a successful company. There are basic steps that apply no matter the size or function of the company in question. This article will walk through the basic steps in a comprehensive employee success program.

Step One: Goals

Take the time to quantify what the goals are. It sounds easy, but that is not necessarily true. Setting appropriate goals is the single most important step toward success and the place where most companies go wrong. A good place to start is to ask everybody. Yeah, ask everybody. A couple of things will happen when the entire company is engaged. One, there will be a diverse set of goals from “I want to learn whatever specific task” to “Make the company more profitable.” When compiled, the feedback will reveal perceived issues and give focus to which goals are most important. Chances are, problems will be exposed that leadership hasn’t considered. The second, and more important, result of asking the entire company is that the mere question is an announcement of proactivity, an invitation to participate, and that inclusion that makes everyone a stakeholder in the success of the program. Whatever ideas surface, ensure all the goals developed support the overarching goal of employee success.

Depending on company size, the data may get a bit overwhelming. Use logic to group similar goals together as the same, just phrased differently. Use care to really understand what the writer meant, and do not assume. It is okay to contact the writer for clarification. This process should reduce the data by about 80 percent. At this point the remaining goals can be separated into three categories based on simple sequencing: Foundational goals, Growth goals and Prestige goals. Foundational goals must be completed before other goals can be obtained. They also represent items that there is no doubt can and should be done. Growth goals are a natural progression from foundational goals and represent above and beyond, time and money savings, or a process change. Prestige goals represent paradigm shifts and moonshot thinking. They take extraordinary effort and offer high payoffs. The growth and prestige goals provide a compass for the company’s long-term efforts that will also influence the foundational goals. Knowing the ultimate direction of the company, smarter decisions will be made on a daily basis.

Step Two: Actions

Goals will only be obtained by taking action. What actions to take must be agreed upon. An example of a foundational goal may be that drafters must be fast and accurate. In order to be fast, drafters should comply with standards. Therefore an actionable item is to ensure that there is a single source standards manual that is known and assessable to all drafters. To improve accuracy, a quality assurance program will be instituted. That is easy to say, but hard to do.

In the case of the standards manual, if it is developed by committee, consensus may only be a dream and the whole process can and will stagnate and die at this step. Taking action means finding a way forward in these situations. It could mean electing a leader, flipping a coin, or arbitration to power through disputes. It is meaningful to reassure team members that the goals are more important than the actions—i.e., don’t lose the war just to win a battle. In the case of implementing a quality assurance program to improve accuracy, this step is mandatory. It requires a clear understanding of expectations from all and consistent enforcement. No one wants to be known as the CAD Police, but image if there were no police in your town. The vast majority of people would continue to obey the law (standards), but a few will have no reason not to speed, steal, or do worse. Once some are emboldened to break the law, others will follow. Keeping with the analogy, bringing law enforcement to a town that hasn’t had it, well, be prepared and principled in your deployment.

Step Three: Training

People have to know, without question, what to do. Often, a standards manual is developed and the story ends. Knowing that different people have differing preferred learning styles and that our overarching goal is employee success, accommodating differing learning styles is a high-pay activity. For those who learn by reading, a well-written standards manual is a must. As a reference, it should be easy to navigate and follow the workflow it intends to document. No one has ever complained about too many images in a manual, and if there is a technical writer available, that person should be reviewing the manual for consistency and understandability.

Some prefer visual training, necessitating a video library. Larger firms may have the deep pockets to purchase a video training service, making this step slightly more straightforward, but smaller firms can be quickly overwhelmed by what it costs to purchase a service and what it takes to produce video content internally. Some good advice when it comes to standards manuals and video training is to stick to the high payoff activities that tie directly to the established goals. There are countless procedures that can be documented, but perhaps drawing setup should be documented first as it is an activity that not only happens daily, but also sets the stage for every standard that comes after. Also, recognize there are two categories of training: 1) company standards and procedures; and 2) software specific. It is easy enough to direct users to software-specific training videos online. With minimal maintenance, a YouTube channel could be created or a simple Word document with hyperlinks to company approved videos can be produced. No matter the size of the company, standards procedures videos unique to the firm are best produced in house. A quick search of the Internet will result in some good choices for free and affordable video capture tools.

For those who prefer interactive training, having a trainer or mentor is the way to go. Companies are often attracted to crowd sourcing training—often, assigning the role of mentor to whomever a new employee might be sitting next to. In an environment where everybody already interprets the standards the same this might work, but if consistency is a goal, the best way to ensure it is with a consistent trainer. It is much easier for a small firm to have a single source trainer than a large one. That being said I know of at least one international design firm that has a single trainer who travels the globe to ensure consistent messaging.

A final thought on training: do not operate under the impression that it is ever complete. Training should be a constant. To combat turnover, attrition, and complacency try theming each month of the year with a training topic such as “Basics,” “Tips and Tricks,” and “Scheduling.” Additionally, institute on-demand training where employees need only ask to get updated or advanced training. No one should ever feel that there is a barrier to training.


In 1993 R.I.M. Dunbar released a paper entitled, “Co-Evolution of Neocortex size, Group Size and Language in Humans.” In that paper Dunbar hypothesizes that there is a cognitive limit of 150 people that any one person can maintain a stable relationship with. Dunbar drew a correlation from the size of 36 primates’ neocortex and the size of their social groups to derive the equation that predicts 147.8 stable social groups in humans. The data is reinforced by census data on village and tribe sizes in many cultures.

Christopher Allen suggested in 2004 in his paper, “The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes,” that the Dunbar number is a single data point in the curve of functional group sizes. He indicated that the optimal small group size is between 5 and 9. Dunbar’s number and Christopher Allens’ group size should be kept in mind when tackling how and who to assign to the many support roles in an employee success program. Of the roles listed below, a single individual may be responsible for all of them at a very small company, or an ever expanding number of individuals may be required as the company size grows.


A trainer must be an outgoing person focused on the students’ understanding, not finishing the material. This takes determination, the ability to recognize when things aren’t sinking in, and the ability to switch tactics on the fly. Trainers have to be highly technical and passionate enough about employee success to follow up early and often after initial training to ensure that success.

Quality Assurance

Whoever reviews projects and drawings must be able to clearly communicate the conditions of the review, then be impeccably consistent in providing feedback.  Reviewers should be detailed, pragmatic, and diplomatic. Above all, reviews need to have a bit of a thick skin to endure the often bad way some will receive the feedback they must give.


BIM Manager, CAD Manager, or whatever title they get, the manager must motivate staff. That can come from their ability to see the big picture—not just at the company, but also how the company fits within a larger industry context overlaid with the changes and lack of changes from Autodesk. That visionary role must lead to a “how are we going to get there” navigator role, which requires exceptional communication skills. Ultimately the manager will end up being the decider and must also be able to deal with the fact that not everyone will be happy with their decisions.

With the goals, actions, training, and leadership roles defined, an understanding of the skills makeup and expectations of design staff should be understood. Traditionally, job descriptions fill this void. Companies with HR departments may have very regimented job descriptions that leave the common employee with clarity only on the fact that they should be able to lift 50 lbs., even though they never have had a 50 lb. mouse or keyboard to contend with. By contrast, small firms may not have formal job descriptions at all. In either event, leadership and employees should share an understanding of the expectations of the job. At a minimum, every job should have two levels. Level One can perform all the standard duties assigned, and Level Two, which is able to adapt to unusual circumstances independently and also provide leadership to Level One employees.

Anecdotal evidence suggests smooth running firms consist of 80 percent Level One drafter/designers who are capable of pulling the levers on demand in normal situations, and 15 percent Level Two independent thinking drafter/designers who actively seek to improve personal performance as well as company procedures. This leaves 5 percent with the odd combination of being technically adept, socially engaged, and a software Jedi. Members of this group not only see the big picture, but are skilled at manipulating the masses toward common goals. When this mix is off, it is palatable and affects every facet of production. Interestingly, companies naturally gravitate to this mix as a matter of human nature.

In the end, there are a billion possible points of failure for having a well-trained confident team. As the gym membership analogy in the opening paragraph suggests, there are just as many “cure all” training solutions out there as weight loss and fitness solutions. The truth is, eat right and exercise has always been the solution and employee success takes the same constant effort over a long period of time. You can’t wish it into existence, it is hard work and dedication, and in this case it also comes with a price tag. The highest levels in the company have to see a return on the investment to fund it. They will also have to have a strong confidence in the team and know that they can and will achieve the goals. This brings us to documenting efficiency every step of the way. Look for objective indicators of efficiency and monitor them through the process. They will indicate what is working and what is not. They will also validate to senior management that the company’s investment is paying off.

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