As a consultant, one of the most requested solutions I receive from leaders is training. The question usually goes something like this: “My team’s productivity has been slipping for months. We’re down two people, and requests for work have slowed as well. I’m not sure why the team can’t keep up. I’d like to conduct a team-building activity and a course on customer service to help improve performance.”

After hearing the request, I politely push back. Training isn’t always the best solution. It is, however, the quickest solution when you want something that’s easy to approve and simple to schedule. Whether the training is developed in house or is outsourced, it’s a tangible solution that leaders hold on to like security blankets.

I’m not proposing to completely snatch the security blanket. I am, however, going to present a systems approach to improving performance. There are two reasons for this approach: First, training is a costly investment that’s rarely measured for effectiveness or ROI. Second, training is never a stand-alone solution.

When is training the right solution? I’m glad you asked. Leverage training as a solution when knowledge or skill gaps exist.

Going back to the leader’s request for team-building and customer service training, note that she’s concerned with productivity and used the word “slipping.” This tells me that at one time, the team was performing well or, at the very least, meeting standards. It also tells me that the team knows how to do the work. In that case, her people will greet a solution like customer service training with much resistance.

If you cannot target specific skills or knowledge that are lacking or missing, leverage alternatives to training. If you’ve pinpointed a gap, only provide training for the performers who need it. Think about all the times you were required to complete training and thought, “Why am I here? I know this stuff already!”

What do you do when knowledge or skill gaps don’t exist, but performance is subpar? In short, connect with your people. Investigate and find out why their productivity has slipped. Conduct this quick four-question analysis to better understand your performance problems:

  1. What is the problem? What am I seeing that tells me a problem exists? In our example, the answer is low productivity.
  2. Where does the problem occur (team, individual, region, department)? Is it restricted to one area? Is there an area (or person) where the problem doesn’t exist? In our example, the problem exists on a team within a department.
  3. When is it a problem? When does or did it happen? How frequently does it happen? How long has it been a problem? In our example, the problem has been happening for months (you should have a definite number).
  4. Who are the individuals or teams in question? What specifically are they doing wrong? Do they ever do it right? If yes, when? Who does it best? Our example doesn’t go into this level of detail. However, with this question, you should learn if a skill or knowledge gap exists. If the answer is no, use alternate learning methods, such as coaching, mentors or more frequent performance feedback.

After answering these questions, you’ll have a pretty clear picture of the most viable solutions to help your team (or individual) improve performance. I encourage you to work through the questions before signing your team up for training. With the average training expenditure per employee hovering around $1,200, you want to make sure the cost has a return for you and the organization.

Note that knowledge does not always lead to a change in behavior. You know that eating healthily and regular exercise reduce the risk of health problems, but do you exercise and fill your office drawer with heart-healthy snacks? Knowledge alone does not result in desired behavior changes.

Explore your performance problem, and allow the answers to guide you to the best solution. In my work, I’ve found the most common solutions fall into the following categories:

  • Resetting or clarifying expectations
  • Creating a system for more timely feedback on performance
  • Examining and/or updating the tools and resources available to performers