Friday, August 09, 2013

The value of innovation and quality training

I want to talk today about building skills through training.  This particular post about training has a dual purpose.  It's first purpose is to address my position as one of the ASQ's "influential voices".  Each month the CEO of the American Society for Quality presents a key topic, and those of us who are featured voices are asked to respond.  As you know, I'm probably the cuckoo in the nest, since I focus on innovation rather than quality.  But this is a topic where I get a twofer:  I can write about the differences between quality training and innovation training.

The importance of training

As Paul points out, training is vital to good practice.  For quality folks, he presents a graphic that describes the percentage of firms offering quality training in categories (Six Sigma, Lean, auditing, etc) to their employees.  The numbers look impressive, but my experience tells me that while many programs are offered, there are far fewer takers.  Unfortunately, in tough times training is one of the first cost centers to get cut, and while internal training is often adequate, it can become very quickly stale, and interacting with new trainers and new colleagues is often half the benefit of training.

Even people with deep experience need to refresh their skills.  As we say in innovation circles, it's a journey not a destination.  That is, even people who have years of experience can learn something new to apply if they are willing to open up their minds.  Developing skills and extending or refining skills and knowledge is vital, especially as we are increasingly in a knowledge based economy.  Training is vital - in quality or in innovation, but the depth and type of training in these fields rapidly diverge.

Quality versus Innovation Training

The quality folks have a real "leg up" on innovation teams where training is concerned.  Most of the methods for quality (Lean, Six Sigma, TQM, etc) have been in practice for a long time and have a robust body of knowledge associated with them.  Further, since much of quality is based on repeatability and statistical control, there is real science behind much of the content.  Further, there are organizations which present themselves as "the" arbiter of what is Lean, or Six Sigma, although there are still significant differences.

Contrast that with innovation.  Innovation is still mostly a free-for-all, with dozens of different methods, styles and techniques, often hawked by the inventors of the technique.  Training is mostly offered by the developer of a tool or technique, so it is hard to judge the value and depth of the training or the knowledge imparted.  There really are very few "standards", so you can't compare techniques to each other or even training on one technique to another class on the same technique.

For these reasons innovation training is less formal and more difficult to compare.  When you compound these facts with the fact that many people don't believe innovation can be taught, it's difficult to convince internal training teams or purchasing managers to fund innovation training.  If these challenges weren't enough, many organizations don't have internal innovation training programs so the costs and risks rise as teams must seek outside support.

The fundamentals

Until an organization settles on its key processes and methods (for quality or for innovation) training is mostly a hit or miss opportunity.  When an organization settles definitively on a defined set of tools and processes, I think it's more effective to structure the training to that modified set of tools and processes.  In other words, cobble together your own training based on your knowledge of your processes and tools, and supplement with external sources to ensure you keep abreast of new tools and new perspectives.

Another factor that many in both camps miss:  there are thousands of books published about many of these techniques, and many of  the books are very good and can form the basis of a training program.  Many people actually teach themselves these skills at home off-hours, and that training has the best components - someone who is interested and passionate enough to search out tools, who trains themselves as they do their work.  Mastery can come when they train others.

Paul asks, do you pursue training on your own?  In his case he was talking about quality training, but I can assure you the best innovators in your company are building their own knowledge by reading all they can.  They can't afford to wait for HR to approve a training program, because the needs are simply too immediate.  I suspect the same is true for quality folks.  They are training themselves with the best books and content on the web they can find, because the courses that are offered come too late, and aren't fully configured to their needs.

The net takeaway for both quality and innovation is that training is vital, and skills and knowledge need to be constantly reinforced.  I think that training is easier to justify and more readily available, and more "trusted" in the quality space than in the innovation space, which simply makes innovation more difficult to sustain.

I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:02 AM


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