“It is so refreshing to have somebody approach education rationally.”  — Adam Cooper

There probably isn’t anything as refreshing as a shower. Especially after hot, dirty work. Not even refreshments are as refreshing.

Yet, the English language is so twisted that we call the repetition of training that we’ve already had “refresher training,” something that almost no one finds refreshing. Instead, most people receiving refresher training find it a tedious waste of their time.  After all, refresher training is over material that they experience all the time. Why bother?

Why indeed?

Why Bother?

There is a tendency in any activity for there to be drift over time.  Errors accumulate.  For instance, Diggs describes “the error catastrophe theory of aging states that aging is the result of the accumulation of errors in cellular molecules that are essential for cellular function and reproduction that eventually reaches a catastrophic level that is incompatible with cellular survival.”

The same might be said for the accumulation of shortcuts and other modifications to the procedures that gradually compromise the safeguards built into the procedure. The primary purpose of refresher training isn’t to train personnel to do things they already know how to do, but to recalibrate them to the original intention.

An Incremental Approach to S**t

A graybearded engineer once told me a story, probably apocryphal, about an international food conglomerate that had acquired a national bakery with a sterling reputation for high quality products. Under the new ownership, the bakery that had taken what he called, “An Incremental Approach to S**t”.

Under pressure to reduce the cost of their goods, the company begin tinkering with their recipes, substituting less expensive ingredients for the original ingredients. Before the substitution could be approved, however, the new version was compared the existing recipe. Only when the comparison demonstrated no discernable difference was the substitution approved.

The first time they did this, the resulting product was imperceptibly worse. The second time they did this, comparing the new version to the now standard recipe, there was again no discernable difference, so they approved the new substitution. Again, the resulting product was only imperceptibly worse than current standard. Time and again, less expensive ingredients and production shortcuts were accepted only after being compared to the current standard.

Eventually, the incremental changes, while barely perceptible as single changes, accumulated to the point that the product, previously regarded as best-in-class, became ordinary and unremarkable, no longer worth the premium it had previously commanded.

How did this happen?

Instead of comparing the modified recipes to the original, which arguably would have caught the gradual deterioration of product quality, the comparisons were to a shifting standard.

The same can happen to the safety of our manufacturing processes. As shortcuts accumulate, the safeguards originally built into the procedures can be gradually compromised—an incremental approach to s**t. One of the primary purposes of refresher training is to recalibrate everyone to the original standard. This only happens, however, if the refresher training is used as an opportunity to compare how things are currently done to the original intention.

What If the Current Practice is Better, Safer?

The problem with that story is that it fails to acknowledge that sometimes change makes things better. It is one of the conceits of graybearded engineers that everything was better back in the day. That change can only make things worse. The fundamental premise of continuous improvement, however, is that anything can get better. But improvement only comes with change. Which means that instead of clinging to an originalist view of safety, we need to be open to the idea that people have made changes for good reason.

Changes need to be managed, of course. So refresher training can be an opportunity to not only recalibrate everyone to the one preferred way of doing things, but to explore how thing have changed since the last training and to determine which of those changes should be made official.

That can only happen if the refresher training is structured to discover those changes and potential improvements.  “That’s not how we really do it,” should not be treated as a confession. Instead, it should be treated as a disclosure of an opportunity.

Let’s Make Refresher Training Refreshing

Sure, refresher training should be like shower, rinsing away the dirt and grime that has accumulated since the last training. If you are responsible for giving refresher training, make sure it does that; if you are required to attend refresher training, give it an opportunity to do that.

That’s not enough, though. Don’t let refresher training simply be a trap to do things the way they have always been done. When there are better, safer ways to do things, refresher training can be a perfect opportunity to discover that. While this might happen through serendipity, it is so much better if this discovery is intentional.

Make refresher training an opportunity to refresh the training of personnel and the training itself.