Produce: Train, Train, Train

What aspect of most produce departments is not given enough time or resources, yet can have the greatest impact on your crew's efficiency and positive attitude? If you guessed training, you are correct.

At almost every seminar or workshop I present or crew meeting I attend, I hear produce crew members and managers lament over the lack of time allowed for good training and the lack of consistent materials available to new employees. Yet statistics show it is less expensive to train correctly and keep current employees than to continually train new people.

At a seminar Walden Swanson and I presented last spring we discussed this topic with a group of produce managers, in conjunction with the topic of making department numbers real and understanding how each piece of the produce puzzle affects your financial success. Here are some of things we agreed would create a stronger staff through training:

1. Allow enough time to understand and learn the job. Many people are trained for a couple of shifts and then thrown into the frying pan, so to speak. The more uninterrupted, hands-on time you allow the manager or trainer to have with the trainee, the better the lessons, even if this means adding extra hours to your labor budget. If training is done consistently your sales per labor hour will increase. Spend the time now and reap the rewards later.

2. Design a written program. Decide how you want things done and document them. This will create consistent training. If you have a few strong crew members that you want to help in the training process, write a description for each job and shift. This will clarify your expectations for new folks and solidify the current crew. It also takes some of the training burden from the manager's shoulders and allows others to grow into ownership of the department. Remember, be specific and clear, but not too complicated. Ask yourself why you do what you do before you write down the proper technique. You will be surprised to find that some practices have been passed down without rhyme or reason.

3. Tell 'em, show 'em, ask 'em when training. Remember to tell them what they need to know and why -- not just to sweep the floor when finished, but that we sweep the floor after every job to maintain department cleanliness and also so crew members can work more efficiently and safely. Don't assume that what is obvious to you is obvious to them. Ask them to repeat back to you how and why the job is done a certain way. If you just ask, "Do you understand?" most of the time you will get an automatic "Yes!" If you ask, "What did you hear me say?" this allows them to tell you in their words, and that will in turn help you hear how you relay information.

Show them very specifically what each job entails, and then have them show you. Do the job together so there is no question as to whether they know how to do each task. Come review time, you both will know that there is no room for not doing the job correctly.

4. Know the rules before you break them. I have often observed a trainer saying "This is the way you are supposed to do it, but I do it this way." Whether or not you have found a way that works better for you, don't confuse the trainee with ideas inconsistent with what has been decided is proper technique. Most short cuts come from understanding of the process. As in building a house, start with a strong foundation.

5. The shadow knows. Are you the best at customer service in your store? Are you the person others go to when someone is not sure of policy? How do you teach that? One good way is shadowing. After spending a morning in training, the new person looks as if he/she is on information overload. That is the perfect opportunity to let them observe first hand how you deal with a special order, handle a difficult customer, or just practice good time management or work ethic. Actions speak louder than words, and these impressions can last a lifetime.

Here are some other suggestions for help in this area: Recognize that most people want to do well, and allow that to happen. Give realistic time limits and hold staff accountable. Encourage and praise their good qualities; too often we only tell people what they didn't do well. Positive reinforcement can go a long way. Allow for mistakes; this is how they can learn what works and what doesn't (assuming that someone isn't going to be physically harmed by his or her actions).

Lastly, show your human side and don't be afraid to let trainees hear that you don't know something or that someone else in the department is better at a particular task than you. This allows them to feel comfortable and to realize that each of the crew plays an essential role in the success of the department.

Some resources: Carolee Colter of the Community Consulting Group has a good outline for produce departments: (206) 723-4040 or [email protected]. Another good resource is the Basic Retail Operations Training for Natural Foods Cooperatives program: contact the University of Wisconsin at (608)262-4535. I am also available as a resource for any of your department questions.

See other articles from this issue: #090 September - October - 2000