Management November Training

Training Has A Half-Life

EP Editorial Staff | March 21, 2012


Like radioisotopes, training decays over time.

By Sam McNair, P.E., CMRP, Life Cycle Engineering

As a consultant to industry, I like to remind my clients of this important fact: When planning for their operations, they need to remember that training has a “half-life.” The length of this half-life: a mere two to three years.

Proven in the real world
A large chemical plant initiative to address operator and craft training issues directly impacting asset reliability provided me some interesting data in support of the half-life theory. As part of this initiative, RCFA on failures was performed, allowing for establishment of a baseline number of failures that had been the direct result of a lack of proper training. With the large representative sample of failures this generated (hundreds), it took awhile to convince people that a real problem existed.

Subsequently, the plant embarked on some very focused, high-quality training for both operators and craft personnel—training that included a required demonstration of proficiency at the end. With each group, the effects were dramatic.

It wasn’t cheap to provide good training—about $60k to train and certify 22 millwrights, and roughly the same to train and certify about 180 operators and their supervisors in a more limited scope of tasks. The actual payback in both cases was about three months. The team knew this because we continued to perform RCFA and post-maintenance testing.

Over time, gains that had been made seemed to be slipping away. After 2 1/2 years, they had dropped by 50%. Following some refresher training, the gains jumped back up—to the original level. (We jokingly referred to refresher training as “fighting against the dark forces of evil and entropy.”)

In our quest to find other data points that validated this experience, the following came to light:

  • The mandatory operator procedure re-training required by OSHA for designated hazardous industries required feedback from operators and supervisors regarding the correct frequency of refresher training. It had been oscillating back and forth between two and three years for a long time.
  • Private pilots are required to perform a review and demonstrate basic proficiency every two years. Requirements for instrument flying are even more demanding—mandating certain proficiency demonstrated or recency of experience every six months. (You can’t tolerate a 50% reduction of proficiency and get away with it in instrument flying, but you can survive in normal private-pilot operations.)
  • Airline-transport pilots working for major airlines are also required to do an extensive refresher every six months due to the complexity and high residual level of performance required on demand at any moment.
  • The military retrains constantly because the consequences of poor performance are intolerable. The military has appreciable turnover, which means its training is very expensive and a large part of its overall budget.

The real lesson here
Companies often won’t train personnel for fear of losing expensively trained resources. That’s a valid concern, but foolhardy. Reflecting on the subject as it applied to his operations, Henry Ford may have made the best case ever for training: “…far better to have well-trained employees and lose some of them than have poorly trained employees and keep all of them.”

If you train to obtain a measurable improvement in performance, unless you provide for refresher training in about a two-year time frame, you will measurably lose half or more of what you gained through the initial training. If you want to retain the gains, you must plan for ongoing refresher training. Remember that you have turnover—and that new people coming in need to get proper training, too.

Over and over, at site after site, when we, as consultants, ask why a certain known best practice is no longer in place, we hear these words: “We used to do that, but somehow we got away from doing it.” Don’t let this happen to your organization. Train effectively in the first place and retrain periodically for retention. MT

Sam McNair is a senior consultant with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). A Professional Engineer and Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, he has more than 34 years of experience in discrete manufacturing, chemical process industries, mining, machine processes, automation, aviation, construction and utilities. At LCE, McNair specializes in reliability engineering with a focus on the integration of maintenance and manufacturing functions. Email:





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