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Four Actions to Cultivate a Learning Environment

“If you’re not learning, I must not be teaching,” is what a patient foreman said to me long ago. At the time, I was a young apprentice trying to keep up with the rest of the crew but kept making small mistakes which were costing us time. When my leader held himself accountable, he had to rethink the instructions he provided me and approach it from another angle. I didn’t fully understand the task at hand, and he owned that. After a brief pause to be aimed in the right direction, I fixed my mistakes, caught up with the crew and moved on to the next task.

Throughout the rest of the project, each time he provided direction to the crew, the foreman would take an extra moment to ask a few questions to make sure the task was truly understood, not just for me but for everyone on the crew.

In an apprenticeship program, much of the learning takes place on the job site. It’s the critical responsibility of the crew to collectively teach the less experienced. When you understand the work, you need to teach it. The magic of this is that it can happen at every level of the job site—apprentices teaching apprentices, a journeyworker teaching a foreman, foremen teaching apprentices and every other combination— but the responsibility falls on the project’s leadership to encourage and foster an environment for learning.

Here are four actions you can start doing on your project today to create such an environment:

  1. Plan For Learning – Lay out tasks, schedule work and build teams that are naturally conducive to learning. Pairing the seasoned employees with the unexperienced is one of the best strategies. Got that ‘A-Team’ that always works together, never makes mistakes and is so in sync that they can do most of their work without needing to communicate? Well, it’s likely that the team is no longer feeling challenged, and their surgical-like workflow could use some mild disruption by including somebody needing exposure to those tasks.
  2. Teach How to Think, Not What to Think – If the task is simple, repeatable and has zero chance of variation, then yes, show them exactly what to do. However, variation, the unexpected and other factors make some simple tasks wildly different each time they are performed. When you lay out the work, think out loud and show your thought process on how you’d like to see it completed in that situation. It shows how you came to your conclusions, what you considered as obstacles and what pitfalls to avoid. Then let the team think through their work and develop strategies to complete it. Otherwise you can expect to have your crew come to a complete stop every time something minor and unexpected arises.
  3. Be a Model of Patience – When the crew runs into a snag, acknowledge the challenge. Even if you’ve seen this problem a thousand times and know precisely how to overcome it, pause and let them see how you think it through rather than just call out the conclusion. Example: “That’s a tough situation. I’m glad you stopped work to approach this carefully, well done. Fortunately, I’ve seen this before and I think I have a plan we can try.” When the plan works, cheer them on and praise their troubleshooting skills. Next time they hesitate about taking an action, they’ll likely mimic what you have modeled to them previously: a planful, productive and safe approach.
  4. Show Success – When laying out a plan, it’s so important to have visuals to literally show what success looks like. Pictures, videos or sketches are a fantastic way to show what a finished product should look like and are part of managing expectations. “When you’re done, I’d like it to look like this. Before we start, let’s figure out how we’re going to get there.” While the planning and work continues, they have a vision of success in their mind to aim for and can use that to bring it to reality.

At Faith Technologies and FTI, we’re thankful for our talent development team implementing our ground-up growth strategy with apprentices in our classrooms. But when it comes to continued learning for them and all team members, there’s no better strategy than building a culture of learning on each job site, every day. Our field leaders are cultivating that environment for learning, one lesson at a time. How can you implement these steps on your job site today?