“Putting out fires.” “Cleaning up messes.” “Practicing damage control.” Everyone has his or her favorite euphemism for the all-too-familiar experience of having to salvage a project or task that didn’t get done right the first time around. Often, the culprit in these failed projects is an inexperienced co-worker who was not fully prepared to handle the project. The consequences take a heavy toll on productivity and are frustrating for everyone involved. Other projects are neglected, the overall quality of work suffers and no one reaches his or her full potential as a valuable contributor.
The solution to this problem is simple but powerful. To reduce the amount of rework for you and your organization, why not help your co-workers learn how to do the job right the first time?
Teach What You Know
If you’re a subject matter expert and people rely on you for questions, problem solving, troubleshooting, on-the-job training, quality control and standards maintenance, then you’re what I call a “silo mentor.” You have expertise in a particular silo of information and the team needs to tap your knowledge so everyone can get his or her work done. I’ll call all of those people who need your help your “apprentices.” You may or may not be their manager. In fact, your own manager may even be your apprentice. That happens all the time.
Now, pick one of your apprentices who is particularly responsible for the fix-it situations you’ve identified and let’s see what you can do to reduce the number of hours you spend cleaning up.
What Needs to be Done?
The first step is to define what your apprentice needs to know how to do and make a complete list of the skills. Be very specific so that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind what needs to be done. For instance, you might write down:
- Input a complete new file in the customer database.
- Answer the five most common customer questions.
- Update the customer Website using your team’s authoring tool.
- Compile a monthly report for the general manager.
- Analyze the data from three sources and suggest a solution.
Notice that each line item starts with a verb (so that you can say, “Go do that.”) And, each line item is a chunk of work that could be explained in roughly one to three hours (not too much or too little). Be very specific in outlining what your apprentice needs to know how to do. Never say “be familiar with” or “use.” You wouldn’t tell someone to “Go use the customer database.”
Don’t worry that making this list is an endless task. Most jobs, even the more complex positions, can be broken down into fewer than 100 skills. Once you have this list, you can start to compare the skills your apprentice needs to the skills he or she has. This should uncover some of the reasons you’re spending so much time in fix-it mode.
How Do You Know That They Know?
How do you know whether your apprentices have the skills needed to do the job? The most common way we find out is by giving them work and seeing if they can do it. This explains all of the rework you’re doing. You’re cleaning up messes made by people who weren’t prepared to do the work in the first place. Instead of assessing by giving tasks, why not add a quick set of questions into the mix before sending your apprentice off to do the work? Here are some examples of questions you could ask to assess knowledge:
- Could you explain the five steps (in the process of putting a customer in the database) and then tell me why each step is important?
- Could you explain the three most common mistakes that people make (inputting customers)?
- Could you explain how to troubleshoot the three most common problems (with the database)?
There are many more questions that you might choose to ask. It depends on what you think is important. Let’s say that you ask a version of each of these questions every single time you explain a new skill. If your apprentices can use their notes and memory to answer the question accurately, then you have some confidence that they’ll be successful when given the task. And, important, if they can’t answer the questions, you know that the risk of problems and rework is much, much higher.
Make a Plan
If you make a list of the skills and then make a list of the questions you want your apprentice to be able to answer, you now have the basis of the training you need to do to help them “pass the test.” You can prepare a little content to support each of the questions you’re going to ask. Sometimes you’ll pull that content from formal documentation, Websites, training materials and so forth. Often, there will be no current documentation to draw from, so you’ll need to jot a few notes yourself and/or help your apprentice take a few notes while you’re talking. If you share the assessment questions with your apprentice in advance, you’ll both be able to work toward answers together.
With these simple steps, you can reduce your fix-it role and improve the productivity of your whole team. Your apprentices will build the skills they need faster because you’re working together from a plan, and you can spend more time doing your job with less stress, less frustration and far less rework.
This article is based on information from Steve Trautman’s new book Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader’s Guide to Knowledge Transfer Using Peer Mentoring (Prentice Hall Professional, July 2006).