Who Knows What Ineptitude Lies in the Hearts of Workers? Doing Shadow Training Right

Boxing Kangaroo2

By Phil La Duke

“That bear kicked my ass, but that was nothing compared from the beating I took from the kangaroo” —Randy Perry

I had about six topics that I wanted to bring up this week, but in last week’s post I threatened to take on shadow training, so for good or for ill here I sit whacked out of my head on caffeine (interesting side note, I just read that more people are addicted to caffeine than any other drink, of course my source for this is the internet so who the hell[1] knows if it’s true or not. I would have picked refined sugar or narcissism as the source of most addictions but what do I know?

The problem with a lot of shadow training is that it would be more effectively taught by an actual shadow. Companies expect that workers will learn the subtle intricacies of a job simply by watching someone who would rather be doing the job to which he or she has been recently reassigned as if the new employee is a duckling imprinting to the veteran employee. When I worked in a crumbling auto assembly plant (assembly plants were known in some auto plant circles as “slave plants”)  I received shadow training.  My supervisor, Leonard asked me if I had ever worked with air tools, when I said “no” he then asked if I had ever worked with power tools and I said, “yes, but not extensively”. “Good” he said, “if it’s a recliner this sheet (a ratty dot matrix print out) will have a T right here and you put on this part and drive one of these bolts here and here, and one of these bolts here.  If it’s not you put on one of these parts on and drive two of these bolts here and here.  Do the same thing on the other side. Got it?” he asked. “Not really,” I told him. Don’t worry if you get into trouble Randy will help you out.  Randy was a burly veteran who stood nearly a foot taller and outweighed me by a good 150lbs.  Randy was fueled by a dangerous energy of a type you only truly see in the kind of self-destructive adrenaline junkies, tempered by a drug cocktail consisting of copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and whatever his dealer had on hand.  Randy took an instant liking to me, which was good.  Despite his size and sometimes murderous drunken temper, Randy was good natured and when I would get into trouble he would bail me out. (As a complete aside, Randy loved to fight although owing to his tendency to get into fights only after he was so chemically altered that his blood could have required a safety datasheet he usually lost.  He once unsuccessfully boxed a kangaroo, wrestled a bear, and was eliminated from the first North American tough man contest by the man who would ultimately win it.  He would gleefully recount story after story of being beaten senseless in bar brawls.) So it ultimately it fell to Randy to teach me how to safely do my job, not exactly the ideal candidate it’s fair to say.

Shadow training doesn’t necessarily have to be crap. In fact, getting trained by actually doing the job under the tutelage of watchful veteran is arguably the best way to gain new skills, but the training has to be well designed, competently delivered, periodically reinforced, and professionally evaluated. To do that we need to:

  1. Clearly define and document the process. Okay defining a process sounds like a no brainer, but in far too many cases many of the tasks are left to “common sense”, not because people should be expected to know how to do a task, but because breaking down a task into steps can be challenging. A colleague and I are working on a “hazard book” for a client. One would think that two safety professionals could explain why certain conditions constitute a hazard, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty it gets tough. It becomes a bit like explaining something to a three year old who keeps asking why, after a while you get stumped and all you can say is “because”. But you can’t leave out steps because either you think people will “get it” or because you’re having trouble explaining the minutia.
    Defining a process is relatively easy in industry, but give it a try when you are dealing with tasks associated with jobs like accounting, sales, or customer service and you will be surprised at how quickly your skills seem to degrade.


  1. Validate the process. The shelf-life of a process is very short. There’s the way it is done on paper and the way it’s really done. This can be dangerous or even deadly. If there is a legitimate reason for changing how a task is really done than change the process and if not, coach the worker on why the process must be performed as documented.
  2. Develop a task list with a sign-off for both trainer AND learner.   A task list is different than Operator Work Instructions or Standard Work Instructions. A good task list will include safety information and contingency actions if things straw away from process. Perhaps more important is the learner sign-off. It’s one thing to have a veteran sign-off that the learner can do the job safely, and quite another for the learner to assert that he or she feels fully capable of doing the tasks safely while unsupervised.
  3. Augment the training with job aids. Each task should have a corresponding job aid that provides step-by-step instructions on how to safely complete a task. The veteran can then use the job aid to guide the training and to assess the learner’s competency. The learner for his or her part can refer back to the job aid to ensure he or she has not forgotten a key step or task.
  4. Reinforce the Training. Too often shadow training is treated as one and done, even in cases where the new worker spends a week or two with the veteran. A smart organization will conduct the same shadow training once or twice a week after the initial training for the first 90 days just to ensure that the new worker hasn’t drifted from the standard. Additionally, the newly trained worker will likely begin to have questions about the process and have the confidence to ask them.
  5. Evaluate the Training. Evaluating the training seems like a pointless step, but it’s actually one of the most important parts of the training process. By evaluating the training you will gain insight into the accuracy of your task lists and job aids, have a better understanding if the training actually succeeds in building skills, and if this training improves the safety of doing this job.

I understand that this is an awful lot of work and trying to do this for every job (particularly non-standard work) will be time consuming and labor intensive, so you will have to do it like you’re eating an elephant, one-bite at a time. I’ve found that it seems to be less work if you redo the shadow training as you introduce new jobs or hire new people, but that might just be me.

Of course there’s nothing forcing you to do shadow training correctly, many of you will still insist that the best way to ensure safety is to have someone watch someone work and point out there shortcomings; my way is better, but keep doing what makes you feel important, smart, or whatever it is that drives people to stick with doing stupid things.

[1] I recently got called unprofessional for using slang and curse words like “hell” in my posts, as if somehow that undermined the message and that anything I said from that point on could not be taken seriously.  If you are one of those people, let me just invite you to go to hell and rot there.


#boxking-kangaroo, #competency, #effectiveness-of-training, #phil-la-duke, #safety, #shadow-training, #worker-safety