Training: Processes or Apprentices?

“It is only through the enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.” 

—Frederick Taylor

“The objective of education is not to fit students into predefined molds but to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate an ever-changing world.”

—Bryan Orr

Both of the quotes above come from the introduction of Bryan’s new book, Unconformed: An Unbound and Unbridled Path to Unstuck Growth. These quotes take two very different approaches to training and education. Path one is about methods, systems, pre-defined paths, and a general sense that humans should be made to fit into the machine world for the sake of efficiency. 

As Bryan discusses in his book, Frederick Taylor is considered to be the father of the modern factory management system. His principles drove higher outputs and efficiency across the board in many industries. I believe many of those values have bled into the way we train technicians. 

Path two, as described by Bryan, is more non-linear. Over the course of his book, he describes his approach to training and education. This particular section from the chapter called “Raising Autodidacts” captures a radically different mindset toward learning. Bryan defines an autodidact as “self-taught—in other words, a self-learner.” He goes on to say:

“You can support the autodidact that already exists in your children in a few ways. First, catch them doing something they’re interested in or having fun with. Then, guide them toward learning more about it.

For example, go to the kid making mud pies in your garden and say, ‘Hey I’ve always wondered where dirt comes from—like what’s it made out of? Do you know?’

The little scientist may stop mid-mud pie and shake their head in curiosity.

‘Hmm’ you say. ‘I wonder where we could find out?’

And BOOM! You’re off to the autodidact races as your child begins finding out whatever they can about dirt.

This technique goes way beyond mud pies. You can use it for anything they show an interest in. Encourage them to layer some knowledge upon the joy they’re experiencing doing whatever it may be: fishing, cooking, skipping rope, drawing, dancing or building with Legos, for instance. Give them opportunities to discover how much fun it is to dig deeper (mud pie reference intended).”

Unconformed, p.39

Frederick Taylor and Bryan Orr's approaches to education and training are oil and water. The Taylor approach is about giving only the necessary skills needed to get the job done. Sounds efficient, doesn’t it? The Autodidact approach is about instilling a love of learning, which may involve many rabbit trails and dead ends. Who has time for that in business?

The Joy of Learning

Maybe we can’t go full autodidact in our training of technicians. There is a certain level of practicality that has to be baked into how we train our technicians. We need to take someone who doesn’t know much about air conditioning and teach them a specific set of skills in a limited timeframe so that they can maintain and repair air conditioners. Instilling a love of learning might be a little beyond our scope. 

However, could we shape training in such a way that there is space for discovery and enjoyment rather than simply structuring training as a means to an end? It seems to me that the apprenticeship model provides the best chance of accomplishing this.

A few years ago, I was training a new technician. We were working on a system that was having nuisance low-pressure lockouts. We had been out once before for the same problem, and I was determined to check everything this time around. The person we were serving was a long-time customer, and we had installed the system. I wanted to test the low-pressure switch under “real world conditions” and figured it would be a great time to show my trainee how airflow affected refrigerant pressures.

I had explained the relationship between airflow and refrigerant pressures many times before to my co-worker. I’m a big believer in repetition because I remember trying to wrap my mind around certain concepts. Having concepts and ideas explained over and over gives you the chance to digest them. But it wasn’t until we did some troubleshooting on this particular unit that the lightbulb went off for my apprentice. 

We started up the system and began measuring refrigerant pressures and temperatures. My apprentice was outside, and I ran up into the attic, pulled out the 4-inch filter, stuck it in a plastic bag, and slid it back in. I had now completely blocked the airflow to the system. Then I ran back outside, and my trainee and I watched the refrigerant levels respond to what I had done. As the pressures dropped and the suction line began to freeze, a grin spread across my trainee’s face; all of the theory we had discussed became real to him.

I don’t think we ever figured out what was wrong with that unit (sorry, homeowner!), but that service call felt like a big win. I knew my coworker had just had a lightbulb moment and progressed his skills significantly. 

A Cog In A Wheel

Compare the example above with a process-based approach to HVAC training. A new employee comes in, and you need to get him into a truck doing maintenance as quickly as possible. You show him how to take apart a condenser, check a capacitor, clear a drain, install a surge protector, etc., but you don’t show him why he’s doing any of it. Let’s say you even sit him down in a classroom and throw some subcooling and superheat mumbo-jumbo at him. He tries to pay attention, but the ideas are so abstract he can barely keep his eyes open.

Then you stick him in a truck, and off he goes. He can do the work, but unless he has an intrinsic desire to understand, you have not given him the tools or curiosity to grow. He begins to wonder if the training he received was really more about your bottom line than the “personal growth” promised on the website.

The Big Picture

What do you want your business to be? Well, in order for a company to stay in business, it needs to turn a profit. So I’m not advocating that you let your technicians go outside and make mud pies for fun. What I do want to do is challenge all of us to step back and consider the bigger picture with a few questions that will reveal a lot about our company’s training:

  • Is your training culture developing future leaders? 
  • Do people in your company get excited about learning?
  • Are questions that challenge the status quo welcome or unwelcome?
  • Do you like the outcomes your training produces?

Any company worth its salt needs a robust group of leaders who model this type of learning. Can we develop leaders and create a cohesive company culture without extending these values to our newest trainees?

—Matt Bruner



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