At WCCO Belting, a decade of exponential growth pushed employee training to the bottom of the priority list. We are a global manufacturer of rubber belting products for the agricultural and light industrial industries, and until a few years ago, all available resources were directed at gaining market share. Our on-the-job learning resulted in a company rich with tribal knowledge but lacking in formal training and professional development.

In 2014, our leadership team refocused on training and development. Based in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a small town with a nearly zero-percent unemployment rate, employee productivity and retention are critical to our continued success, and training plays an important role in both. In fact, in 2012, we had up to 75-percent employee turnover, but since implementing a training program, our turnover rates have dropped – and held steady – at less than 3 percent. We attribute much of this improvement to the fact that training provides a deeper understanding of how an individual’s role impacts the business as a whole, which leads to greater job satisfaction.

Training has paid off in its impact on productivity, too. Since the launch of a formal training program, we have developed over 50 training courses, and our company now produces 20 percent more output with 20 percent fewer employees. Along the way, we’ve learned some valuable lessons about what works, what doesn’t work, and how to engage employees – and keep them engaged – in training.

Listen, Listen, Listen.

Typically, people in the training department can be found standing in front of the room doing the talking, but we have found that listening is actually the most important part of our job. The employees who are performing day-to-day tasks are the people who know where gaps exist in processes and where to allocate additional training support. Create ways for employees to submit training ideas, and then use that input to help plan your training programs.

At WCCO Belting, for example, a supervisor asked if we could create a course to teach employees how to use the different measuring tools on our production floor. We gauged interest from employees and had 52 people sign up to attend this course. Prior to the supervisor’s suggestion, we didn’t even know a training class on this topic would be helpful – let alone so popular.

Keep Class Size Small.

One-on-one training is important, but group activities are equally beneficial. Team learning has become a favorite part of our training program. This class style encourages collaborative learning and facilitates relationships among colleagues by encouraging participants to brainstorm and work as a team.

With more interactive courses, it’s important to keep class size small. We’ve set a minimum of three and maximum of 15 participants per class, which strikes the right balance between having enough people for meaningful interaction and allowing some personal attention. It’s also important to vary class sizes depending on topic. For example, we cap our blueprint training at eight people because of the content and individual support needed.

Beta-Test for Better Classes.

We have found that it is important to give our training classes a test run before opening them up to the broader employee base. To help fine-tune what works best and how learners receive information, we do a beta test of all new courses. Implement beta classes with supervisors and specific employees, seek as much feedback as you can from those participants, and use it to fine-tune the content and delivery before launching the class. This approach helps work out the kinks and provides an opportunity for feedback from the employees who attend the test class to make it even better.

Teach in a Variety of Ways to Impact All Learners.

People like learning in different ways, so it is important to provide learning opportunities for all learners. Some people prefer to learn by watching, some by listening and some by doing. Make sure your course styles are varied and accommodate every learner. For example, watch a video that explains how to do a task, and then provide opportunities for hands-on practice immediately afterward. In addition to meeting the needs of different learning preferences, opportunities for hands-on learning also keep people engaged.

Keep Communication Consistent.

One lesson we learned from training both production and non-production (administrative) staff is that the vocabulary used on the manufacturing floor is often different than the vocabulary used in the front office. This difference was causing miscommunication within the teams. Once we realized that different departments were using different words to mean the same thing, we created a course to help everyone speak the same language. This training helped close a communication gap that we previously didn’t even know existed and helps everyone work together much more efficiently.

An educational, consistent and fruitful training and development program is invaluable. As we have learned first-hand, good training pays for itself. As trainers, we need to do the best job we can for our employees; our courses make people better at their jobs, which is ultimately better for us all.