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The Mythical Learning Wand

Years ago, a colleague with a wicked sense of humour brought me the best gift from Disneyland: a magic wand that sparkled and sang “bippity-boppity-bo” when you waved it in the air. In our jaded hands, it rapidly became the “Sacred Stick of Sarcasm” and was brought out whenever we got one of “those” requests.

You might be familiar with these types of projects. They usually involve someone, somewhere, trying to implement an asinine solution, and realising that they have no change management process in place, hop on over to L&D to glue it together on a wing and a prayer. Bonus points: they want an app.

Learning can do great things. Learning can do even more amazing things when it is partnered with other departments to deliver holistic and comprehensive change management initiatives. I love those. There are times, however, when no amount of learning intervention is going to yield desired outcomes.

Is it better to say no rather than invest in learning?

As an environmentally conscious person, I take public transit to work every day. I also cannot parallel park and I have the attention span of a gnat, so driving isn’t a viable option. This means that I rely on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to get me to and fro.

For those who have not been to Toronto, our transit is bad. I’ve traveled in India, I lived in Poland in the late 90s, and hands down, the TTC is the worst. There are a number of historical reasons, which are not relevant here. Basically, it is an aging system, prone to frequent service disruptions. It is also terrible at customer service. The latter is not a new trend. The TTC has been surly going on 40 years.

Cut to a bold, new CEO who is trying to modernise the system. In addition to carrying out much needed repairs and improving channels for rider feedback, he has decided to tackle the customer service issue. Currently, each station has a ticket collector who sits inside a Plexiglas booth and doles out tokens. Technically, they also provide directions and assistance, but it’s usually a grunt and a map since the microphones rarely work.

The new role of the ticket collectors is described as, “’multi-functional, highly skilled, and customer focused’ agents. Each CSA will be armed with a tablet computer loaded with tourist information and apps such as Google Translate, ready to attend to riders’ needs. When not helping customers, they will be tasked with inspecting stations, light cleaning work, and first-line maintenance”.

Oh yes, I can see the light at the end of this tunnel. And it is a Bombardier subway. In fact, it is a $2.5 million subway of five days of “world-class, experiential” training for about 400 agents and 60 supervisors.

Even with a robust post-training plan, ongoing coaching, and incentives, there is no way that even half of those agents are going to turn into bastions of customer service. If they even reach 25%, I will eat my Metropass.

A wise mentor once taught me a valuable lesson. I asked him why our building maintenance staff is so exceptionally friendly and eager to help. He showed me the “napkin test”. He walked into the atrium and casually dropped a napkin on the ground. The first person who passed it automatically picked it up. He dropped it a few more times and no matter the role or rank, the person who walked by picked up the napkin.

Yes, he was being a bit of a jerk but his closing point to me was, “all the courses in the world will not teach someone to do that when no one is watching”. He was right. Sure, we can teach employees the importance of taking responsibility for a clean office, but that does not necessarily translate back into a natural instinct to be proactive in every situation. Rather, the company hired for that trait, and created a positive environment to foster it.

Are there times when the chasms between motivation, skill, and expectations, are simply too great to conquer with any education? Yes. Yes, they are.

At the start of any major change initiative, a wise lesson would be to honestly look at the people on the team and have the transparent conversations to determine if the new direction is the right one for them. I’m not suggesting mass redundancies. If the transition is not a fit, spend less on trying to bash a square peg into a round hole through mandatory training. Instead, invest in helping employees find a role suited to their aspirations. The truth is, anyone not on the bus emotionally will eventually leave, or suck morale. Sure, you saved on packaging them out…but you wasted time, reputation, and L&D dollars.

Back to the TTC collectors: I am going to keep an eye out on this one. No, I do not think they are terrible people. They are simply dismal at customer service. The TTC would be wiser to mine their wider employee pool for natural customer service mindset, rather than expensive learning initiatives.

I miss my magic wand. Sadly, at a holiday party it was broken by some over-zealous waving and was damaged beyond repair. Perhaps this is fitting. L&D is not a cure all and it takes guts to say this. You might not be popular, but then again, fairy tales are not real