The Hands-Free Whopper of Cognition

Does the hands-free Whopper work? Even if it does, should we use it?

Sometimes just watching an idea in action teaches us more than we could learn from reading books or in a classroom. The marketers of trade shows and of the state fair midway understand the power of demonstration. A demonstration at the New York State Fair in the 1970s motivated my mother to spend several hundred dollars to buy the complete line of Cutco knives. The lack of a clean demonstration motivated me to stop an IT department initiative to purchase a slotting solution from a specific software vendor, and a successful demonstration by another vendor convinced my leaders to push back against the IT solution.

Demonstration speaks with greater power than the spoken or written word. Demonstration is necessary, but it can be insufficient to bridge the cognitive gap. Demonstration can motivate a decision and can help people recognize a cognitive gap. But observing a demonstration is nothing compared to actually doing the job.

The only form of instruction with more power to overcome the cognitive gap than demonstration is the act of participation. Actually doing a task provides stress, challenge, and immediate feedback.

To illustrate the power of hands-on instruction, let's watch this clip from the Family Dollar episode of "Undercover Boss," in which former Family Dollar COO, Mike Bloom, finds out how hard it is to operate one of the end-rider pallet trucks in the distribution center. In the clip, the training supervisor "fires" Bloom because Bloom can't demonstrate safe operation of the pallet jack. We don't know from the clip how much training the superviser gave Bloom, or for how long the supervisor observed him before deciding that he was incapable of safe operations.

What did the supervisor rely on to make his decision about Bloom’s ability to operate safely? Yes, he may have relied on some formal training or some written guidelines, but the supervisor ultimately relied on his own experience, his cognitive understanding of the requirements of the place, and his experience training other prospective operators. Something that the supervisor saw (or did not see) in Bloom’s behavior and performance convinced him that more training or practice would not solve Bloom’s problem controlling the machine. The supervisor made a judgment call, using his experience within a constructed framework of safety to pull the plug on making any more effort to train Bloom. Could Bloom have mastered the operations of the end-control pallet truck with enough practice? Perhaps. But the supervisor used additional criteria to make his decision:  what cost and risk to the company would it take for Bloom to become proficient? Using this criteria, the supervisor made a Return on Investment (ROI) decision to fire Bloom.

Lessons Learned?

We learn from a combination of formal instruction, demonstration, and experience. Formal instruction informs us about the subject in the abstract. Demonstration shows us the subject in the physical. Experience proves to us the subject in the practical. The proof is in the pudding, in the results, and as such, the depth and breadth of the experience is the centerpiece of the learning process. Completing a task correctly once doesn't make you proficient. Proficiency is the result of repetition, of repeated performance of a task under continuously changing conditions.

Let’s compare the performance of different high-level athletes. Compare the challenges of a world-class sprinter and the challenges of a world-class hockey player. Which athlete must deal with a greater set of variables that can affect their performance? The sprinter contends with different track conditions, weather (wind, rain, and heat), their own physical condition, and the field of competitors. The hockey player contends with their physical condition, the location of the puck, the positions of the other team members, and the positions of the other players in a dynamic and fluid setting.

Who is working in an environment of greater complexity?

What is common to both athletes is the discipline of physical conditioning and practice. The sprinter runs every day, works weights, and then runs practice races. The hockey player runs every day, works weights, and practices with the team on the ice. They become proficient though practice, and through repeated performance on the track or on the ice under continuously changing conditions.

Proficiency comes from repeated performance with a feedback mechanism. All serious athletes have a coach, someone who watches the performance, measures the performance, and then provides the athlete with constructive criticism. This feedback loop is an important component in building proficiency. The feedback loop is part of the lesson learning process. Without feedback, we don’t have any way to know if we are doing the work right or wrong, or if it is even having an effect.

We are the worst observers of our own performance. We may be able to time ourselves, or we may be able to keep score ourselves, but we can’t see our own golf swing or how we launch to the basket, or hear how we sound when we answer the customer’s telephone call. While visual or audio recording technology can help, we must stop our performance to look at the video or listen to the audio. It is hard to use technology alone to improve our performance. Live coaching feedback works faster, bringing someone to proficiency more quickly.

In the video of Bloom, did the supervisor really coach the new employee? It is hard to tell from the limited time of the edited video. Still, I suspect the coaching could have been better. What do you think?

Hello! My name is Dave Schneider, I'm founder of WATP. Do you struggle to click with your people? I know how hard it is, and how to make it easier. I'd love to discuss with you how to make your training stick.
Give me a call anytime at 877-674-7495

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