Why Training Doesn’t Work … And What We’d Better Do About It

For more than a quarter century I have been in the business of operating successful restaurants and training and educating restaurant associates on the fine art of improving performance, profits and productivity. I started with Norman Brinker at Steak and Ale and Chili’s, went on to operate 6 successful high volume theme restaurants in Denver, wrote an international best-selling book about training and have advised 117 of the Top 200 restaurant companies on how to improve service and sales training. But recently it hit me: training just doesn’t work…..

One good definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results.

For more than a quarter century I have been in the business of operating successful restaurants and training and educating restaurant associates on the fine art of improving performance, profits and productivity. I started with Norman Brinker at Steak and Ale and Chili’s, went on to operate 6 successful high volume theme restaurants in Denver, wrote an international best-selling book about training and have advised 117 of the Top 200 restaurant companies on how to improve service and sales training.

But recently it hit me: training just doesn’t work.

There are, of course, massive industry associations and suspect smaller companies that peddle server and manager “training” as the sole antidote to lower margins, stiffer competition and indifferent service. Not coincidentally, these same companies offer a complete line of “training” videos, “training” books and “training” services. But are they really affecting any change in our industry? Let’s look at the facts. A lotta lip service has been given to employee training as an effective retention tool. Nice. So, has it worked? Well, the fact is we still work in an industry that sluices through its labor pool quicker than Mexican tap water through a Tijuana tourist. What keeps good people with us? Development, yes. Leadership, yes. Training? No. Animals are “trained”. People prefer development. The notion that you can “train” someone to act just like an “ideal” someone else is not only arrogant, but futile.

Most trainees in the hospitality arena resist or resent training because they believe that they’re already “trained”. And, in fact, they’re right. Most, if not all of all them believe they already have the requisite skills to do their job reasonably well. But then we schedule them for “training” and immediately the resentment barriers are raised and, as restaurateur Mike Amos says, “the walls have ears.”

So, what do we do about it? The problem lies in how most of the industry perceives the goal of “training”. I have a rather radical perspective. The most critical step of adult education is not to learn, but rather, to unlearn. It doesn’t make any difference what new skills you’re trying to teach if you don’t first use the education process to help the trainee unlearn the old behavior that’s getting in the way of learning something new and, more importantly, using the new behavior to improve performance. Then after “unlearning”, the new skills must be placed in context to the Big Picture by making the learners “partners in the P&L”. In other words, why am I doing this, and how does it matter?

Example: you want to teach your servers to hand table tents listing your appetizers to every guest when they first greet the table. Simple, right? So you gather the staff together, maybe show a video, tell them what to do, and then demonstrate the wrong and right way to use a table tent.

So, did you train them? Yep. Are they using table tents now? Nope. Why? Because we failed to focus the education on what they first had to unlearn: the behavior of greeting a table with “Ready to order?” instead of handing the guest the table tent as they recommended their favorite apps.

Always give the new behavior context. For instance, any discussion of the importance of using table tents to sell more appetizers had better be preceded with a lively education on how the price of an entrée barely covers the operation’s fixed daily operating costs. “We must sell an entrée to generate gross sales. We must sell an appetizer or dessert to generate gross profit.”

Does this mean you can’t change behavior? No. Absolutely, you can. But you don’t just slap a “training veneer” over old habits and expect the new behavior to shine through. Unlearn first, detail the new behavior, present it in context to the P&L, then learn and practice the new skill. Develop, don’t “train”.

All that being said, what are the Key Learnings relative to my belief that training doesn’t work? Good question, and I’m glad I asked it:

  1. Don’t educate everyone the same way

    Different people learn differently. Some prefer visuals, others prefer hearing it, still others prefer learning kinesthetically (touching, handling). The ideal education involves a combination all three. Your house key doesn’t start your car does it? Different strokes for different folks.

  2. Eye appeal precedes mind appeal

    Are your “training” manuals vibrant, exciting, reflective of the “fun place” you’re promising they’ll work in? Make sure your training manuals look more like USA Today than the Wall Street Journal in terms of layout, text and graphics.

  3. Use the K.F.D. principle when teaching adults

    This means beginning with ask themselves three key questions: What do I want my audience to know about the subject matter? Then, how do I want them to feel about it? (Excited? Dissatisfied the end in mind. Before any presentation or “training” session, the leader should with current conditions?) Last, what do I want them to do as a result of what they’ve learned? In other words, what behavior has changed? How will we measure it? How will we know if they “got” it?

  4. Synergize the “trainee” with the training process

    Design the content with relevance, deliver the content with passion, define the content in terms of behavior. Excite the learner about the education process, demonstrate the importance of “unlearning” as a pre-requisite to learning.

  5. What is rewarding gets done

    Keep it fresh, keep it focused, keep it fun. Be sure to practice the 3 R’s with every associate: Respect, Recognition, Rewards.

  6. Get rid of the word “training” from your organization

    Start developing your people.

Look. I know that education is not a “sexy” topic in our industry like marketing or promotion. But every profit-building activity in a restaurant is predicated first on the assumption that your people can execute the service, sales, marketing, cost control and safety issues that determine your success or failure. And now how well will they execute? As much or as little as you train—er–develop them to.

Invest in unlearning before you learn, give each new behavior a context relative to the big picture and follow my suggestions detailed above and you’ll see significantly better margins and higher market share. Those that insist on doing what they always did may see their profitability shrink as small as the period that ends this sentence.