Skip navigation

Anew school of thought: Rethinking the old training model means educated employees, better business

The autocratic design of the modern classroom, with the teacher in front lecturing dutiful pupils aligned in symmetrical rows, traces its roots back to 14th century Heidelberg, Germany.

That same format was adopted throughout Europe and then presented to America’s 19th century factory barons, who resented losing their cheap child labor to education reform. The industrialists reluctantly agreed only after reformers sold them on the fact that the “teaching” would actually be training, readying these young huddled masses for future roles as factory workers.

The classroom hierarchy and layout was carefully designed both to foster obedience and to mimic a factory organizational chart. Note the layout: “foreman,” or teacher, up front and dutiful “workers,” or students, seated in neat rows of box-shaped desks.

Educators sealed the deal by promising that school would be relegated exclusively to the colder months, thereby freeing the kids up to labor during crunch time, the planting and harvest season.

Today’s U.S. educational system follows an identical structure. Business and the military imitated the public-school system, and the “modern” training hierarchy was born.

Now for the bigger question: Is this 500-year-old format really the most effective way to educate and “train” the post-modern Nintendo Generation of foodservice employees?

Maybe it’s time to train the trainer and let the learners lead. Here are a few strategies:

Training starts during hiring. Once a pool of applicants qualify as a cultural fit for your team, the focus should be to seek individuals who have the right attitudes toward learning and development. Look for people who are open to and who enjoy learning.

Factoring this into the hiring process will save you time and differentiate you from the competition by building a better, stronger, smarter team.

You are what you cumulatively know. Every 90 days, scrutinize and assess knowledge gaps and talent gaps across your teams. Hire and develop to fill the gaps.

Teach the team how to “read.” Train your teams on commonly overlooked basic skills, such as how to read a paycheck, a simple P&L or even wine labels.

Training is not development. Training is sharing new skills or concepts via a live or electronic facilitator.

Development is applying and then improving on the new skills back on the job with a guide or mentor. A trainer can light the fire, and the manager keeps the flame fanned. Every supervisor is constantly training employees by their own actions.

Training is not learning. All trainers teach, but not all trainers are teachers. Just because you’ve taught it, doesn’t mean that anyone has “caught” it. The majority of foodservice training today overlooks or underemphasizes the critical skills that matter most, such as problem-solving, conflict resolution, creativity, group dynamics, instilling values, team-building and situational leadership.

Your core content was not designed by credentialed educators. The truth is that 99.9 percent of foodservice training manuals and curriculum has been written, formatted and rewritten by former servers, bartenders, hosts, managers or concept founders. They may have excelled at their jobs, but most had no formal education on how brains work or adults learn. An owner or franchisor’s primary motivation relative to training is to cover compliance issues. Why? Because that’s what you test and then keep in their file to minimize the risk of future litigation.

This cover-your-butt training is bookended or interspersed with bits on culture, mission, service and values and pronounced a “manual.”

But is it designed and delivered in a way that trainees can best absorb, process and implement it?

Measure what matters. Benchmarking your training program’s design and results solely against yourself is not enough because you end up improving only against your company’s past instead of the competition.

Study and assess your competitor’s training programs, progress and results as well as your own. The only accurate measurements of whether or not learning has occurred are action, results and changed behavior back on the job.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Understanding operations is a critical attribute of an effective foodservice trainer, but it’s not the most important one. Can your trainers also apply the principles of cognitive science, adult learning styles and situational leadership to their classes? Are they familiar with how the adult brain processes, stores and applies new information and concepts?

Have they studied the recent research and applied learning methods that the insurance, automotive, airline, medical and retail industries have implemented with their employees to jump-start learning and execution over the last three years? If not, why not?

Nurture and develop your Brand Apostles. One thing we really stink at in this industry is training the trainer. Most companies budget considerable time and money each year to improve and maintain the assets of an $800,000 building but fail to invest a penny in the most appreciating asset of all: The Training Team.

Dynamic orientation supported by ongoing annual development programs for our industry’s trainers is both anemic and embarrassing.

Seek talent outside, too. In the last 10 years many foodservice companies have seen fit to recruit and hire seasoned and credentialed professionals from other industries to staff key vice president roles in both human resources and finance. And their expertise has helped transform our industry.

This strategy has traditionally been overlooked because of the mistaken notion that a restaurant is far too complex for a training professional from another industry to “get.” Well, in 2009 I would rather have a training director who knows everything about inspiring and motivating people to learn faster and think smarter than someone who knows everything about how a restaurant runs but little about how people learn.

To have the greatest impact, training must be considered a verb, not a noun, and engaged as a philosophy, not a department.

Jim Sullivan’s monthly free e-newsletter of industry best practices, podcasts and product catalog is available at

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.