Thursday, September 15, 2011

Needs Assessment for Southwest Airlines

(This is a required Walden post)

For this post, we're asked to discuss what kinds of factors might play into a needs assessment for training design at Southwest Airlines. Southwest is a budget airline carrier whose reputation for fun, customer service, and "LUV" is a watchword throughout the airline industry. I have many professional colleagues who will only fly Southwest, and I have found it intriguing to see the ways that staid, straight-laced professionals wax rhapsodic about the kooky antics of their Southwest air stewards.

We're asked to reflect on these questions:

  • What stakeholders would you want to make sure to get buy-in from?
  • What questions would you ask (and to whom would you address them) during the organizational, person, and task analysis phases?
  • What documents or records might you ask to see?
  • What techniques would you employ (see Table 3.2 on page 108 of the Noe text), and why?

Southwest is an airline. That means most of its training will likely pertain to aviation, logistics, customer service, or management. Aviation is already a heavily-regulated field, and as a licensed pilot I can say that aviation is pretty well covered from a training perspective. That brings us to logistics, customer service, and management. These are quite different domains, and they're likely to have highly different problems, different people, different techniques for managing problems, and thus different needs for training. In the absence of further guidance, it's hard to describe where to start with needs analysis.

Drawing on Stolovitch & Keeps's ideas about performance improvement, I don't hold with the belief that training is an automatic necessity--so I'm uncomfortable with the idea that Southwest needs training just because someone says so. I'd like to focus on the business needs first: what's happening now, what is the goal state, and how do those two things differ? What needs to be happening differently? That's a critical first step in needs assessment.

There are a number of stakeholders who need to buy into the training development if it's going to be a success. At a minimum, we need management support (from both lower- and upper-level management). We need to know that the project will be implemented if it is successful. Other important stakeholders include: the people to be trained; the shareholders in the company (depending on what kind of training we're talking about, and how extensive the new training is); and relevant regulators (again depending on the type of training). It would also be important to include Southwest's internal evaluation team, assuming it has one, so we can build evaluation into the training from the very beginning.

Organizational questions:

  • What business goals are we trying to support? (Managers)
  • Are all the stakeholders on board? (All stakeholders)
  • What gaps in performance do we see? (All stakeholders)
  • What other solutions have been tried for fixing these gaps? (Managers)
  • Do we have subject matter experts to help with developing training? (All stakeholders)
  • What is the goal behavior? (Managers)
  • What resources are available for solving this problem? (Managers)
  • How soon does the problem need to be fixed? (Managers)
  • How shall we measure our success? (All stakeholders)
Person analysis:
  • What are the characteristics of the trainees? (All stakeholders)
  • What are the gaps in performance? (All stakeholders)
  • How important are those gaps, relative to each other? (Managers)
  • What assets and skills do the prospective trainees have? (All stakeholders)
  • What do the trainees see as important? (Workers)
  • What are the motivational aspects of this situation? (Workers and managers)
  • What previous training have the trainees undergone? (Workers and managers)
  • (without knowing which people we're doing needs assessment on, it's hard to come up with more specific questions)
Task analysis:
  • What standards for performance exist? (Managers)
  • How are those standards communicated and enforced? (Managers and workers)
  • Are there best practices for whatever we're training people to do? (Managers)
  • What are workers doing now? (Managers and workers)
  • What should workers be doing? (Managers)
  • Where do mistakes occur? (Managers and workers)
  • Why do mistakes occur? (Managers and workers)
  • How much tolerance for variation is there within the task requirements? (Managers and workers)
Data sources:

(Again, this is hard because I don't know what kind of training we're being asked to develop.) For behaviors, I would probably want to observe the poor behavior with an SME at my side to explain what was happening. Once I was grounded in the situation, I would want to see the pre-existing training materials, any written standards, information about how feedback is communicated to the workers, data about how often the undesirable behaviors happen and how much they cost the company, etc. I would be interested to see how other airlines train their workers, but I doubt that Southwest would be able to provide that information. 

Techniques used:

As I said, I would use some interviews, some documentation review, some observation, and some focus groups. Depending on the training needs, some of these might not be necessary, and other methods might be more cost-effective; but it's hard to know in the general case.

I have a strong personal bias in favor of doing a really good front-end analysis and needs assessment, to the point where I think it's worth spending a larger chunk of the total budget on analysis. Solving the right problem is important, and I would rather know for sure what's happening and what causes it before we go developing solutions. To be clear, I would also plan to run an iterative model that periodically re-evaluates the initial assumptions... but I think it's important to think clearly and critically at the beginning, too. 

Training that Supports Learning

(This is a required Walden post with an elevator speech about the value of training in a corporate environment).

Training is a tool for helping all our employees to perform their best, and it's a cost-effective way of making sure that our company is competitive today and stays that way tomorrow.

Training can be a lot of different things--people often think of it as just learning new information, but training can also help people to work better together. Aside from just giving people new knowledge, we can help them develop skills like working effectively in groups, communicating concisely and clearly, managing other workers effectively, giving and receiving appropriate feedback... the sky is the limit. If you're tired of sitting in long meetings, you might find it useful if we offered management some training on how to run meetings and keep
them short and on-task. Training might help managers to see why giving their workers adequate
time on breaks is critical for productivity, and it might help workers to feel more connected
to each other and to their work here.

Lots of people dislike training, and I think that's partly because they've never experienced
*good* training. Training, at its best, helps people. It helps them do things they care about
doing well, it teaches them how to do new things, and it opens their minds to new ideas that
matter. It's an important part of building for the future--our company's sustainability depends
on quickly training people to fill the shoes of employees who retire. Good training makes that
process much faster, which saves us money.

Anyone can "do" training, but like many other things, it improves with time and attention--and
that's why it's worth having a training department. Since we study training development, we can
build courses that are efficient, and that saves time for everyone. Our job is to make sure
every part of the company performs at a high level, which is important because it helps us all
stay competitive... and that's how *we* contribute to the company's bottom line.