Education

Shirt box training is alive and well and is living in England

Some things never change; in fact, some practices are so ingrained that they can be regarded as traditions. Shirt box training is not to be included in this category. Help your users work with their tools more intelligently.

Many years ago (or so it seems) I wrote a piece for TR that explained how I ended up working in the field.  (Sadly, the reason still exists. )

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The first time I saw a PC it was a bit of a novelty. It was an IBM twin five-inch floppy unit with no hard disk. We used it to maintain a list of lost or stolen bank books, and each morning we had to load the OS, load the list, and go through each item to see if it was still current, add in new details, and then print a copy for each counter position.

This wasn't terribly challenging, but remember, there was no GUI, no training, and back in those days few people had seen a PC in the workplace. The instructions for completing the task were written out as bullet points on a piece of cardboard from a shirt box. If you missed one, you were on your own.

I recently saw one of our paper-handling machines at a customer’s site. On the wall behind it was a familiar object: a cardboard stiffener from some shirt packaging with the procedures for using the machine listed on it. Behind it was another piece of cardboard showing the month-end procedures for supplying accounting data to the finance department.

These instructions are carefully written in single steps to allow anyone to complete the exercise, but they are lacking in any kind of trouble-shooting capability. Thus, if you stray from the set list or hit a button by mistake, it is often difficult to get back to where you need to be. A little knowledge of the equipment is all that is needed to use it more intelligently, and I am often called out to deal with a minor problem that could have been resolved with a small amount of knowledge.

Whenever this happens now, if I am able, I get the people involved to gather round and I run a small training session in the hope that next time it happens, I can avoid a visit. A training session allows me to see who are the potential power users who I can talk through future problems and who are the potential "fiddlers" who like to try changing settings and sometimes end up putting equipment out of action through curiosity. A simple thing like explaining the function of a particular button or menu can give enough understanding to the operator to allow him or her to correct the mistake, rather than having to wait for assistance.

There are two ways to end this practice. One would be to contact all the manufacturers of shirts in the world and get them to stop using cardboard in their packaging. The other would be to ensure that every person who is involved with the equipment is shown as much as needed to operate it safely and efficiently.

11 comments
Joe_R
Joe_R

Tape those little sticky-notes on the countertop next to the device. How to scan: Step 1. Step 2. etc. And you're right - someone misses one step, or something isn't just right, and they might have no idea what to do. That's why I prefer to teach and explain concepts, not steps.

thepraxislady
thepraxislady

Ditto, Joe. Giving the "whys" before the "hows" help people retain what they need to do vs. relying on steps taped to equipment. And if those taped instructions disappear? "What" follows... ;-]

CAH
CAH

I understand the idea behind this article, but I think it overlooks one important factor. Although this kind of mindless step-by-step instructions does not serve everyone well, there are populations for which this is the epitome of efficient "training." For whatever the reason, be it overworked employees, delicacy of the process involved, or just plain lack of native ability, sometimes keeping people confined to just doing exactly what the instructions say is the best way to avoid help calls and lost productivity.

rusty.tyson
rusty.tyson

In my most recent job in support of sales, marketing, end users and technical support staff of a major printing and copying firm, the shirt box technique was employed in a most elegant fashion. An important document that might have needed to be prepared about once a month, but was really prepared only about once a year, involved production of Pivot Tables through the use of Excel. The procedure was complicated enough that the developers had inserted an initial worksheet that included step by step "destructions" that likely had been collected from a host of shirt boxes, cigarette cartons and other assorted stationery. The obvious inferiority of that approach is that those procedures were write protected, the developers are long gone, and it is next to impossible to update the "destructions" for changes in database structure and technological improvements.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

Way back when working at a convenience store we saved and used the backs of cigarette cartons for the same purpose. We also used them as the spreadsheet for doing the books. We ALWAYS did the books on the cartons before entering the results on the "official" books. I like your idea of training everybody. But it won't work either. There have been multiple times where I work now that I have trained myself out of a particular job. To the point where we had several trained people. Then a couple of years later they are gone and I'm the "expert" again!? I still believe in training, but at times like that improving the documentation is a good idea too.

crowleye
crowleye

I try to document everything, and if possible make it so simple that any monkey could do it. Our wiki is just a fancy, easy to use, shirt cardboard. Of course sometimes you have to know about what you are doing if things are complicate or frequently change. But especially for things that only happen twice a year or so, detailed documents are such a help. Anyone who has walked thru it once should jot it down and save themselves or the next person the repeat pain.

a.barry
a.barry

Now you have multi-megabyte Word documents, most of the content being screen shots showing the screen after each step. For things like network config, software install, etc it's a great time-saver and people call the help desk only when something goes wrong. If it works for Lego, it must work for software. I've installed ClearCase (an unimaginably difficult install involving the installation of multiple pieces of other software and at least 4 reboots) based entirely on a picture book.

dmills
dmills

Even during the training sessions, people are taking notes - they will forget the details of the training, but the notes will persist. Better to control the content of the list (and add "reminders") than to think they are not going to be created and used!

user support
user support

Back in 1982 we used same type of IBM pc but were converting from manual inventory control to Ashton-Tate dbase II. A student was doing the programming for cheaper than a programmer and he made a simple menu of choices. To operate the pc however, there was a 3x5 card that was taped to the machine that had steps like turn on the monitor, turn on machine, load floppy diskette, type command at A prompt, etc. I still put out detailed documentation for users but in classes I keep subject matter to a minimum and try to keep it to best of thte best practices. Users have too much information overload in their own jobs to absorb what is being taught unless they are going to use the knowledge repeatly to become a new good habit.

thepraxislady
thepraxislady

Hmmm. Interesting perspective... Somewhat of a narrow viewpoint of your fellow man, Eh? Have not seen anything written here about considering ones audiences' learning style (text, audio, visual and hands-on) in the way people learn best when planning to improve performance and skill set training? Shirt boxes (been there did that) in reality have evolved into today's job aids and desk instructions, not training that can be measured, unless you consider succeeding or not in installing poorly designed software installation process? Been there too! In the many years I have had the pleasure of working with engineers at all level, a common trend surfaces. They do not like to write about what they do or did or created. When they do, it is poorly written with, no not poor grammar, but cryptic jargon, gaps where they failed to include key information learner/user would need but have no clue on how to ask, and the best of all, arrogance. Anyone working as a contractor for the DOD, is more than aware of the capability maturity model integrated (CMMI) at minimum, level 3. The process came to be with funding in the 80's to save from having to start a project from scratch each time the DOD changed contractors. I believe second level requirement states repeatable processes are documented. Training materials should be the same without an act of congress intervening. If the shirt box still works for some, keep it. If other methods used to enlighten people to do their job better, great, but if not, throw it out. Do not torment others with the insanity. Recall what Einstein said about Insanity, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. You can appreciate the responsibility behind training others should not be taken lightly, especially when you are in the student's seat. Good training costs, no doubt. Companies do not want to pay for it, which is why many of us do it on our own. Anytime budgets are cut, training functions within the org is the first to go, considered maintenance ya? know. Yet, organizations wonder why their staff is not responsive to new and improved anything. Who is going to train them, disgruntled peers using index cards? a No thanks.

AtCollege
AtCollege

It is so true to only teach the best of the best. When I started training, I wanted to show everything with the result that people retained much less.