1. Johnson, Joyce A. PhD, RN-BC

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In my career, I have experienced and heard that my colleagues across the country also experience being asked to create and provide a class to help correct a performance problem where training or education was not the appropriate solution. In fact, early in my career, I was asked to create a program to help people be courteous. I tried to explain to the leader that education was not the answer, but although I conducted and shared an analysis of the problem, I was told to "just do it." I did not have a problem statement, an outcome, an education gap, or a workflow change. I did not know if they felt the issue involved one or two staff or everyone. And I did not know what specific behavior needed correction. What they wanted was the "spray and pray" method of education hoping that it would somehow make a difference. Teaching staff is not the answer to every performance problem. And even if it is one of the solutions, it is rarely the only solution needed to create change. On the basis of the analysis of the situation, there are a wide variety of potential interventions than can be employed, which will be more effective in addressing the identified problem. As nursing professional development (NPD) practitioners, part of our responsibility is to take a deeper look at identified performance problems through investigating actual and optimal performance via interview, observation, survey, and other methods; analyzing the problem for cause(s) and solution(s); and communicating with and influencing management/administration regarding the performance and its impact on the organization. NPD practitioners must partner with leaders to understand professional development, what it can offer, and what it cannot. NPD practitioners can help solve performance problems but not always through providing education. Frequently, the course of action for performance problems is to train, transfer, or terminate the employee. In some cases, one of these may be the appropriate solution. Education/training is a solution for a knowledge deficit, but not for performance issues that stem from other causes. You may need a process change or a job aid or to deal with an accountability issue. You need to address the problem and not the symptoms for the problem to heal. According to Mager, "The danger in leaping from apparent problem to apparent solution is that large amounts of time and money can be spent in throwing training at a problem that training cannot solve. You need to dig a little deeper. This is why a procedure like performance analysis is important to those who actually want to solve problems-rather than just talk about them" (CNY SHRM Panel, 2002, p. 1). Performance analysis has been defined by Rossett as a "process by which you partner with clients to identify and respond to problems and opportunities, and to study individuals and the organization to determine an appropriate cross-functional solution system" (CNY SHRM Panel, 2002, p. 1).


Many years ago, I was given a then new book by Robert Mager and Peter Pipe titled Analyzing Performance Problems (Mager & Pipe, 1984). They published an algorithm for analyzing performance problems and determining the appropriate solution for the cause of each of the identified problems. Through asking a series of questions, one can look more deeply into the problem before selecting a solution (Mager & Pipe, 1984). I frequently used that algorithm to explain why having staff attend a class would not solve an identified problem. Sometimes, the effort was successful and sometimes not. Some leaders think that, if we train the staff, they will remember the training and be compliant with the expectations. Although the book was published in 1984, it is still used today as the seminal contemporary work on this topic.


In analyzing performance problems, begin by looking at the gap between the current state and the optimal state, where intervention in the gap will solve the problem, and close the gap. There are many reasons why staff do not perform as expected. These include not knowing the expectations, not having adequate resources, not receiving any or appropriate feedback on performance, being penalized in some way for doing it right or being rewarded in some way for doing it wrong, or lacking the knowledge and skills needed to perform.


The first step is to describe the performance problem: what is the expected state and what is the current state. Once you have described the performance problem, you will want to ask several questions. The first, and key question, for NPD practitioners is "Is the performance problem caused by a skill or knowledge deficiency?" If the employee(s) can perform the skill (or answer questions correctly) if their life depended on it, then it is not a skill or knowledge deficiency. If the skill or knowledge set is totally new to the staff, providing education is an appropriate solution. If the skill is not used often, the appropriate solution might be review and more practice, or the job might be changed or simplified with a job aid. If the answer is no, it is not a skill deficiency; we need to continue asking questions to determine the appropriate solution. Is the desired performance punishing or nonperformance rewarding in some way? Does the performance really matter to the organization or the staff, or are there obstacles to performing? Is it a managerial issue? Does the staff know what is expected of them? Do they have the necessary resources? Do they receive feedback, positive or corrective, on their performance? In these cases, we would need to select the appropriate solution because education is not the answer to the problem (Mager & Pipe, 1984). The problem might be one of motivation, resources, processes, or environment-in essence, a management problem.


If we combine the Mager and Pipe algorithm with training traps identification from the Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning (Wick, Pollock, & Jefferson, 2010), we have the tools we need to work with administration and management on developing the most appropriate solution. The authors list five key training traps that we must avoid:


* Training as a cure-all;


* Having a program to have a program;


* Confusion between means and ends;


* Laudable intent; and


* Inadequate input (Wick et al., 2010, p. 48)



This is consistent with Mager and Pipe in stating that not every performance problem is amenable to training: managers' reaction to performance issues may be to provide training without actually analyzing the situation. Training only addresses lack of skills or knowledge, not other causes of performance issues. If people possess the requisite knowledge or skills and are not performing correctly, then it is not a training problem. According to Wick et al. (2010), between one tenth and one quarter of training programs will fail because the underlying causes of poor performance have not been identified or dealt with. This can represent a major cost to the organization with no results.


What is the role of the NPD practitioner when asked to provide a training program that will not solve the problem? First, you can convey that you can help solve the problem. You can guide leaders through the appropriate questions and help them arrive at appropriate solutions. Even if training is part of the solution, it is rarely all of the solution, and other processes must be put in place to ensure that the training will be used or implemented. This may include working with the leader to ensure implementation of the training and follow-up. If you feel that a leader wants to have a program only to have a program, you need to be able to ask why. What does he or she expect the program will do or accomplish for the organization? What is the rationale for having the program; what are the expected outcomes? Certainly, there are times when a leader may say he or she wants the program despite your guidance and you will comply, but asking the right questions will be helpful. If the focus seems to be on the activity itself (means) rather than outcomes (ends), the NPD practitioner needs to guide the discussion to outcomes and change the focus. Even programs with laudable intent need to be scrutinized for outcomes; what are the desired results? Inadequate input is another common pitfall. You should avoid relying on one source of information alone about the performance gap and its causes, but you should seek multiple input and feedback. In all cases, we need to focus on outcomes, systematic assessment of the need, and a systematic analysis of the situation to identify the causal factors that are impacting performance.


When you buy a product, you have certain expectations. It has been said that "people do not buy quarter-inch drills; they buy the expectation of quarter-inch holes" (Wick et al., 2010, p. 59). In the same way, "Management doesn't buy courses; they buy the expectation of improved performance" (Wick et al., 2010, p. 60), and that is what NPD practitioners must deliver.




CNY SHRM Panel. (2002). Performance analysis and needs assessment. Retrieved from[Context Link]


Mager R., Pipe P. (1984). Analyzing performance problems or you really oughta wanna (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Lake Publishing Company. [Context Link]


Wick C., Pollock R., Jefferson A. (2010). The six disciplines of breakthrough learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer. [Context Link]