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Coca-Cola Learns from Its Training Mistakes

August 1, 1993
Few, if any, companies that embark on a quality journey know exactly how to reach their destinations. Sure, they have some idea about what customer service means and how to attain it. More often than not, however, organizations charge headlong down one path only to realize that another path might have been more efficient.

It's practically a given in the pursuit of TQM that mistakes are going to be made. These mistakes can include ineffective quality communication, a compensation structure that rewards the wrong behavior, or, as happened at Coca-Cola USA in Atlanta, a training program that fails to provide any useful new information.

Coca-Cola USA launched its quality effort four years ago with a massive top-down training effort, in which all 1,300 workers learned about the tools of continuous quality improvement. Covered were such techniques as problem solving, statistical-process control and process management. As Ken Levine, division manager of continuous improvement, explains, training came in "a burst of awareness" for employees.

What was the problem? Three years later, the majority of employees had forgotten the tools they had learned because they never had had an opportunity to use those tools.

Today, the company is in the midst of redesigning its training effort to provide employees with training as they need it. Levine explains, "Rather than training all associates in the beginning of a TQM initiative to understand a myriad of tools they may never use, it's useful to train teams as they form. Using this just-in-time training approach, real problems can be used to illustrate tools and techniques. This will accelerate the ability of teams to begin to solve problems and improve processes."

As teams form, Coca-Cola now will provide training in meeting-management skills to team members. This includes:

  • Training to improve listening skills
  • Brainstorming
  • Consensus decision making and agenda setting
  • Training to help members establish their mission and determine individual roles and responsibilities.

The focus on meeting the skills goals is important, Levine explains, because "you have to improve the quality of team meetings before members can think about using quality tools."

Once teams are up and running, the company will provide training in quality tools as it becomes necessary, while requiring employees to bring real-life issues to the training sessions. In a course on problem solving, for example, the organization will require team members to solve an actual team problem.

Just-in-time training can work especially well in a TQM environment that hosts a diversity of teams. Why? Because the training needed for a cross-functional team of salaried workers, for example, is different from the training needed for a naturally occurring work team on the shop floor.

"I believe that just-in-time training will become a model for training in the future. We no longer can afford to send employees to three-day classes that may or may not have anything to do with the real issues that they're dealing with, and hope that they can apply what they've learned after the fact," Levine says. To be effective, companies must provide training when it's needed and how it's needed.

Personnel Journal, August 1993, Vol. 72, No.8, p. 48H.