Old Habits Die Hard – Better Them Than You!

Old Habits Die Hard - Better Them Than You! is an article that touches on changing the mind set of experienced operators who may have bad habits.

They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but as it is with all so-called axioms of this nature, there are always exceptions. Old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes them longer. The same is true of training experienced equipment operators who may have received little or no formal training at the beginning of their careers. They are not particularly enthusiastic about taking any training and are extremely doubtful whether any trainer can show or tell them anything useful.

The challenges involved with training experienced adults range far and wide from utter indifference to downright hostility. Most adults pride themselves on their ability to do things right without being told and may feel somewhat threatened and/or insulted by the fact that they must take any training at all. Worse yet, going back to the ‘dog’ analogy, if the trainer is a young pup walking into a pack of old hounds there is often a profound lack of respect from the trainees toward the trainer, who can quickly find him/herself the incarnate equivalent of a dog’s breakfast – not a pretty sight!

The fact of the matter is, even experienced operators can learn something new and improve their operational skills if they are willing to. The trainer can facilitate the process by being patient, respectful and resourceful; and some of the greatest resources to utilize are trainees (and their experiences) themselves.

A trainer can turn things around by drawing from the experiences of the people in the room and getting them involved by asking for thoughts and opinions, not just the answers to quizzes. By avoiding public criticism and being willing to accept a wider range of behavior from trainees, a trainer can lead a spirited training session without threatening anyone’s self esteem. Of course, trainers must earn the respect of the trainees as well by being knowledgeable, prepared/organized and confident. But what about breaking those deeply ingrained operational bad habits? It’s tough but it can be done through a systematic approach that involves recognizing and reacting to the four basic stages of the learning cycle, which are:

1 – Unconscious Incompetence – This isn’t as bad as it sounds, it is simply the stage where the trainee is doing things incorrectly but doesn’t realize it; they don’t know what they don’t know. This is usually the level that experienced trainees with no previous training come in at. They are doing things wrong but it’s the only way they have ever known. Along comes a trainer that makes them aware of other ways which leads to:

2 – Conscious Incompetence – It still sounds terrible but it’s a little better in that although trainees at this stage may still be doing things wrong, they are now aware of the fact that it is wrong; they know what they don’t know. This is the stage where the deep manifestation of bad habits can be observed, however practicing the right things is key to the formation of good habits so correct, regular practice is vital at this stage. In time, the trainees advance to:

3 – Conscious Competence – OK, the trainee is finally at the stage where the word ‘incompetence’ is not part of the title, but they’re not there yet! They know what they know. This is truly the transitional stage whereby trainees may feel hindered by the fact that they must consciously think about operational procedures and may become alarmed by the fact that they are not able to do things as quickly as they once did. This stage requires commitment from managers and supervisors as well, they must not to allow a temporary dip in the production graph to be the catalyst in abandoning the process. In fact, everyone’s feet must be held to the fire if adherence to the new ways is expected as many trainees at this stage are well outside of their comfort zone. If undesirable safety behavior is tolerated by those in charge, operators will slide back into their old ways – stay the course! Production levels will return to normal with the additional benefits realized through safe operating procedures as the trainees reach the final level:

4 – Unconscious Competence – At last, the Promised Land. Operators are now in exactly the opposite behavioral mode as when they came in. They now do things right without even thinking about it, just as they once did things wrong without thinking about it, or even realizing it. Finally – They don’t know what they know.

Of course, this is not the end of the road from an overall safety perspective. Workers must be motivated to continue to do things correctly and refreshed or even (dare I say) disciplined when they do not. Bad habits will form wherever they are allowed to so diligent enforcement of safety policy and procedure is vital The day will never arrive when you can let your guard down with respect to safety concerns, the moment you do you will usually take one square on the nose and that’s a bad habit to energetically avoid as it often involves caskets and lawyers.

Rob Vetter
Director of Training
IVES Training Group

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