How we developed a formal training program

How we developed a formal training program

Nolan, Kevin

Where should we begin? That was the question before us. Why not start with the basics and see where it leads? That was the discussion I was having with my employees a year ago.

Developing a training program was an idea that had been floating around Nolan Painting for many years. It was a monumental undertaking to implement such a program, and I was having a tough time communicating to everyone how important it was to our company. So we got started at the beginning. “This is how you paint a window. Wait….we’re already ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with prepping and priming a window.”

And so it went. We tried to break down our tasks into their simplest components. A craftsperson who has painted for a few years rolls his eyes. “But wait a minute,” I say. “Before you roll your eyes, think about how many windows we paint a year. (Thousands). Let’s see if this widget (window painting) can be perfected and taught to everyone. Everyone has a trick or technique they use when they paint windows. We’ll share the best practices, so we can get everyone on the same page when it comes to the procedures that make up our business.”

The first step we took was to incorporate the time for the training sessions into our weekly routine. We chose Thursday afternoon from 4:00 to 4:30. “Every Thursday?” exclaimed the guys. “That sounds like a lot of meetings.” I replied by mentioning my daughter’s dancing lessons every week, and my son’s soccer practice every Monday: This is our occupation; so surely it’s worth at least that much commitment. I explained that they would be paid for this training, so I would try very hard to make it relevant and worthwhile. I explained one more important thing: These sessions are not optional. Everyone must attend. An attendance sheet keeps track of the people at the meetings. This sheet later goes into a binder, along with all other training materials.

The Thursday night sessions have become part of our corporate culture – a culture that encourages teaching and learning and extends out into the field. We have foremen teaching painters and painters teaching apprentices. We have established a Golden Rule within Nolan Painting: Anyone who uses the words “rookie” or “helper” or any other belittling term to describe an apprentice is charged a dollar.

By polishing up everybody’s job descriptions, we have defined what tasks an apprentice should be able to do, what tasks a painter should be able to do, and what responsibilities a foreman has. An apprentice should be able and willing to learn. A painter should be able to paint a component without close supervision. A foreman is responsible to supervise the whole job. After making sure everyone was familiar with their roles, we devised a program to develop those skills necessary to achieve these defined objectives. The program creates a very concrete understanding between foremen and painters, with specific responsibilities delegated effectively. There are no gray areas.

Back to those windows. “Is there a better way to scrape them?” An old window was brought into the shop. We discussed ways to pull out the old glaze, sand without scratching the glass, and more. Later, the foreman has an actual session on the jobsite. The best learning takes place when an apprentice has a tool in his hand. We have found that the customer does not mind and is usually impressed.

We have found different ways to keep the guys in training. One afternoon we had a race. All the painters assembled downstairs, each armed with one old six-light sash. I offered $50 to the person who was the fastest and cleanest. I waited upstairs while everyone worked. When I came down, I found that there were four guys who had finished in about four minutes. They were all pretty clean, but I managed to pick a winner. We also had a Tricks of the Trade night. People who shared good ideas received $5. People with great ideas received $10. Some of the lesser ideas received $1. We audiotaped the session and it was a riot. We have also started to videotape many of the sessions.

These sessions are not all fun, although jokes and humor are thrown in to make them more enjoyable. We have done programs on primers, courtesy of our paint manufacturer. We have done interior and exterior setup and cleanup. Patching walls 101 and 102 included blowout patches and plaster repairs. Faux finishing classes showed us who had natural talent. Wallpaper stripping has many little tricks that can actually make it profitable if done properly. Caulking and crack filling are fundamental, but are they done the right way every time? Certainly, this stuff is not rocket science, but there are best practices for each situation. We strive to get everybody on the same page. The Thursday training courses are a huge step towards standardizing skills and fine-tuning accuracy.

Besides training programs, it’s good to develop programs to address specific needs. In late fall, as we moved into strictly interior, we saw that there were customer complaint problems developing. The apprentices needed to work on their people skills, while everyone had to increase their awareness of how to provide superior service. We had a Customer Service Month to work on these things, spending four entire weeks discussing the best ways to treat customers.

A lot of great ideas came from those sessions. We had a skit on expected customer service versus extraordinary customer service. That broke down some barriers and we were able to get some very subtle points across. We had roundtable discussions on the best way to introduce yourself and the best way to say goodbye at the end of the day. We stressed behavior psychology in improving communication. These sessions immediately produced results. We talked with more satisfied customers and heard no more complaints.

The first Thursday of each month is a safety meeting. We’ve done lessons on hazardous materials, respiratory protection, lead awareness, ladder safety, electrical safety, and many other dangers. I recently let go an employee, and a few weeks later, while working for another contractor, he was shot in the hand with paint from a spray gun. He told the hospital to call us, because he had been to an earlier training session and knew we would have an MSDS on the paint that had been injected into his hand. We faxed it over and he was fine.

Training is ongoing. Use the resources around you: your suppliers, other vendors, PDCA publications, trade magazines. Any article from PWC could be turned into a great training session. Go to conventions and get information and bring it back and develop a training class.

Make sure you get everybody involved. We have developed a safety committee and a training committee to help share the load. This provides opportunity for people to shine. Incidentally, I have learned most of this through PDCA. The role models and the committee structure in PDCA are the fuel for our programs. I’ve learned how to form a consensus, develop agendas, and organize meetings.

Training is expensive. However, I guarantee it will increase productivity, create a motivated work force, and build a team. After that, you must market it. Tell your customers about all your training. I bring it up in every sales presentation. We put it in our newsletter and our website. I am confident that areas will be caulked and cracks will be fixed because that is the standard we have set with our training. There is an attitude of confidence that radiates from everyone in the company. All sights are set on a common goal. The goal is found in our mission statement: “To Be the Best in the Business.”

“When you do it better then the rest, that makes you the best.” (That’s an actual quote from an apprentice). It doesn’t get any better than this.

PDCA Residential Committee

Copyright Finan Publishing Company, Inc. Sep/Oct 2000

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