As midsized companies scale, the number of teams doing similar work grows, but the way they do those jobs can differ significantly – with mixed results. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) become essential – some at the working layer (warehouse, packers, sales, etc.) and some at the organizing layer (foremen, managers, etc.). Without clear processes, consistent across the company, efficiency and quality plummet. But are written SOPs enough? As you’ll learn, no.
The old approach was to write up “The Manual,” try to get everyone to read it and hope each team leader makes their group follow the guidelines. That can work well enough at the very early stages of midsize, when management can keep a close eye on things. But when teams of people doing the same work move past three or four or are operating from different locations, discipline will slide and variances will increase. That’s when it’s time to take training seriously.
Create and offer training
There are two main approaches to systematizing training employees to company-specific SOPs. The first approach is to do much of the training on the job but supported by a learning management system (LMS). In this case, a library of short training segments are recorded by the manager, often unscripted, and test questions are added to ensure comprehension. These segments are viewed by the employee when they need them as they learn their job.
The other approach, and the one we’ll be detailing in this article, is more useful toward learning complex positions. It is creating a formal course and curriculum, including live classes and discussions. Such a course is best led by an internal expert who likes to teach, is experienced in the issues and can create an engaging course to cover them. Internal candidates or new hires who pass the class receive a certification and get to move to a new role or take on a new task.
“We set up a ‘Job Captain School’ to help fill a gap in a key mid-level role and it’s really brought people along,” says Dennis Heath, one of the founding principals at the global design firm MBH Architects, based in Alameda, CA. “After the course, they’ve done a better job working on their projects and we’ve been able to increase their responsibilities.”
MBH Architects has experienced significant growth since its founding in 1989. A full-service architectural firm based in Alameda, it boasts a range of glittering corporate clients. With an overall staff size nearing 200, it has offices in Denver, New York and Mumbai, and is in the process of opening a second office in Bengaluru, India.
Starting a training course
Here are steps to developing an internal training program at your company:
- Make a commitment. Leadership must create a budget and hours must be allocated for the class – including the teacher’s significant preparation time. Employees must be allowed to step away from their desks so they can devote real energy to learning. It only works if everyone commits.
- Uncover a Talented Teacher. The course must be led by a passionate teacher who is a master of the content and is excited about the role. It can’t be a snooze-fest with a boring teacher or just a breeze. It needs to be engaging and challenging. Management must find the right person to lead.
- Build a Rich Curriculum. The teacher should scour multiple sources for content, not just draw from experience or the existing manual. In many cases, great courses already exist through other organizations or are available online. Use what will work for you and fill in gaps or adapt components to match your company’s specific requirements.
- Get Current. Much is known about how adults learn – emphasizing relevance, engagement and feedback, among other approaches. Use these modern teaching methodologies and hire an expert training coach for support if needed. This could mean multi-media, testing, lecture and discussion, homework and more. Be sure to follow best practices.
- Start Small. Launch the training with a small group and keep the course simple and focused. Limit the number of students, keep the curriculum basic and make sure classes are short. Once the kernel of a program has been assessed to be successful and rewarding – then expand it incrementally.
- Keep It Voluntary. Students should opt-in eagerly. Don’t make the training mandatory, especially at first. High-potentials love to learn and positive feedback and results will entice others to join up. If people are not eager, they probably aren’t high potentials anyway, or there is some other problem.
Any new system needs to be monitored. It’s an investment of time, resources and expectations. The course proves itself by results: participation is active, “graduates” perform better and grow into new roles, and feedback is positive and demand for the training increases. With a good teacher, this should all be achievable. But if it’s not working, fix it or stop it.
O Captain! My Captain!
As its business expanded rapidly, MBH faced a shortage of staff essential to allow them to grow with confidence.
The level of detail in any design job can be overwhelming, and in the architectural world, “job captains” play a key role. They work between designers, who are drilling down on the plans, and project managers, who are typically straddling several jobs at once and interfacing with clients. Job captains ensure that design deliverables and construction documentation are produced on time and to standard, and they take care of administrative tasks and other regular maintenance to keep projects on track.
To solve the shortage of staff in this key role, in 2018 MBH decided to take one of their best project managers offline to create a course for job captains they call Frameworks. Kevin Albaugh had excellent experience at the firm, was good with people and had expressed an interest in teaching.
Albaugh developed the curriculum for the course and leads classes once a week. The intake is limited to six designers for each session so the groups can focus. Feedback has been very positive and the courses are oversubscribed. Designers who have been through the course take on increased responsibilities and many of them have grown into the role of job captain. When a course is finished, the company organizes an event to celebrate.
“We have a big ceremony when they complete Job Captain School. We try to make a big deal out it,” says company founder Heath.
Many course graduates have been spurred on to get licensed as architects, allowing them to grow further at the firm – a valuable contribution. At the same time, Heath acknowledges that the process has not necessarily contributed to retention. He notes that a number of graduates, having increased their skills in the field, have left the company to continue their career progression elsewhere.
Framework for Growth
Investing in people clearly pays off. Internal classes deliver precise learning that is immediately relevant to day-to-day work in complex positions. It deepens employees’ understanding of the purposes of agreed work practices and drives home the value of these skills and procedures to their own progress. This helps them feel ownership of SOPs and gives the best chance that procedures will be standardized and maintained at a high level to produce consistent results across a growing and far-flung company.
“We are now on our fourth group in the Job Captain School,” notes Heath. “It’s been so successful we are thinking of starting up a new school for project managers.”