Taming the Whirlwind

By Paul Smith

A haphazard on-the-job training program for project managers is standardized and condensed.

The Waldinger Corporation is a full-service mechanical, electrical, and sheet metal contractor for commercial and governmental construction projects. Regardless of the size or complexity of a project, each one has a knowledgeable project manager (PM) who oversees the completion of everything from on-site work to formal documentation.

People who do this job are responsible for a staggering amount of details that cannot be solely taught in a classroom. Without question, the best way for someone to master the role is learning in the field under the supervision of an experienced PM.

However, obvious as that approach might sound, it also can lead to highly inconsistent results. The learner's experience depends significantly on the amount of effort experienced PMs devote to their mentor role.

Opportunity

Historically, while some senior PMs would take their mentor roles seriously and provide their trainees with guided practice and subsequent evaluations, others merely saw the learner as an assistant who could do their unwanted tasks or mundane paperwork. And even among those who took being a mentor seriously, different people felt that it was important to emphasize different knowledge areas during the training.

With such an inconsistent approach, it took up to seven years for someone hired directly out of college (with an engineering degree) to master all the skills needed to serve as the PM for a multimillion-dollar construction project.

Solution

To establish greater uniformity in on-the-job experiences for PM learners, Waldinger decided to incorporate them as a structured aspect of a comprehensive learning framework.

One of the most important parts of the framework involved standardizing on-the-job training by creating a tool that identified all the needed skills for the PM role and tracked the learner's progress in attaining them. The tool added a layer of accountability that served as the fulcrum for the rest of our professional development planning program.

Process

Constructing the program was a long and involved process, and gathering enough input to list all the skills of a competent PM took the most time. Because we used feedback from more than 40 contributors at different stages in their careers, we had to sort through a great deal of personal preference and opinions. Ultimately, that gave us enough information to create a structured on-the-job training (SOJT) tracking tool that encompassed 16 different categories of job knowledge. Each category contained six to 10 subheadings that each listed two to 12 measurable competencies. That made it quite expansive (it spanned more than 30 pages), but the attention to detail made it easy for mentors to evaluate their learners in the field.

Preparing the SOJT tracking tool first was crucial because we planned to organize the rest of our development program around it. The learners would pursue mentor endorsements for a majority of the 16 skill areas before earning consideration for full-fledged PM roles, and they couldn't check something off their list just by watching someone else do it. They would have to demonstrate consistent proficiency to a mentor for each task.

We used the SOJT tracking tool to guide everything from learners' development planning discussions to their job assignments. Mentors no longer needed to try to figure out what to expect from new PM learners—they could simply reference the tool to find out what learners already knew and what they had yet to experience. Likewise, leaders could use the tool to assign learners to projects that would offer exposure to new tasks.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the program was that it put learners in the driver's seat. They had to keep track of their own SOJT, and they had to initiate the request for endorsement from a mentor when they felt they had demonstrated proficiency in something. That meant that learners knew which skills they still needed to attain, and that they had a voice in advancing their knowledge.

Results and lessons learned

Ultimately, this project created a uniform process for on-the-job training and shortened the amount of time it took to prepare a competent PM. While there was a small amount of pain in adjusting to the uniform list of skills, most employees adopted the program swiftly and recognized its benefits. Once the mentors came to understand that this process took a great deal of pressure off of them in determining what to have new learners do, they embraced the program readily.

Learners praised the program for both the sense of ownership it gave them and the clear vision it laid out for their development. Some prospective new hires even chose a PM job with us over a position with higher pay at a competitor because of the comprehensive SOJT program we offered.

At this stage, the only complaints we've received are from seasoned professionals, some serving as mentors now, who say they wish something similar had existed when they started in the industry. We can live with that.

After launching the program, we identified three main takeaways:

Quality takes time. While developing an SOJT program is worth the investment, it takes a lot of time to do it correctly. It took us nearly two full years to develop the program; however, subsequent variations for other areas of our company take less time now that we have an established pattern.

Engagement is crucial to success. Involving as many players as possible, from every level, in the design of a SOJT program will dramatically help its development in two ways. First, the final product will be richer and more reliable with ideas from a variety of viewpoints. Second, each person who contributes now has "skin in the game" and is more likely to promote the initiative when it rolls out.

SOJT tracking tools are not just checklists. After you begin the process of documenting needed skills and knowledge, don't turn it into an ordered checklist of tasks. That is not what a successful tracking tool looks like. It should capture the skills a learner needs to demonstrate competency in, not be a series of steps to check off.