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Following a Map, Learning or Training?


Learning is a process about trying things to see what happens. It’s a process of experience. The learning is in the realization there may be  other actions that produce more desirable results. Testing the alternative actions is part of a learning process.

Experience is understanding results, the cause and effect, of both correct and incorrect actions. The testing does not have to be physical. Einstein and many other great thinkers run “tests” mentally. But most people gain experience from real world tangible actions.

Teachers are folks who know from their personal experience, what actions work and what dangerous actions need to be avoided. Teachers need to point out safe directions but allow students to discover consequences from their own correct and incorrect actions.

A good teacher never demands constant first-time perfection from students.


Training is different than learning. It is a set of “rules of procedure” that result in consistent results. A role of a trainer is different than a teacher.

A trainer demands a strict process be followed to produce an expected result. People are trained in procedures as immediate results are more important than developing skills and knowledge as a learning process. Training in CPR process for example.

So, one “learns” a procedure through varied experience, but trains others the “process” to eliminate learning from mistakes.

I am not saying training is wrong. It is the way to produce consistent good results. A factory assembly line runs on a fixed and well-defined process (procedure) as it produces the highest level of consistent quality product. The process has no unidentified variables. All errors are eliminated.

Training or Learning

I found myself working in a construction business where corporate non-construction upper management decided field (customer site) construction could be micro-managed as a rigid assembly line like training process.

A quality process (ISO 19011:2002) intended for assembly line operations was adapted to environmental systems field construction. Through much modification (a learning process) we were able to loosely adapt the ISO assembly line manufacturing process to field construction. Our construction work became ISO Certified.

Learning proper field project management through experience gave way to training field project managers. Just create a ridged set of ISO rules and any young greenhorn college engineering graduate can manage million-dollar field construction projects. No time for mistakes and learning, just follow the perfect set of rules. I became one of the “training instructors”. Later I also became a mentor to many field engineers.

I also spent many years training our sub-contractors across the country to behave and produce consistent standard installation results on all projects.  The result was a “common standards” certification training and testing system I designed and personally executed. From this personal involvement with a great many subcontractors, I learned the best practice and eventually produced “train the trainer” materials so other corporate managers could continue the “standards certification” in their own regions.

Customer Satisfaction

Another prime driving force was the high-visibility corporate program called “customer satisfaction” If every construction step or process could be mapped and quantified, a perfect product could be produced. The customer will be completely satisfied and all surveys will be nothing but nines and tens.

The corporation spent over three years trying to produce a computer automated map of every field installation process and timeline progress step in the life of the construction project. It took millions of dollars to discover, no two field projects run the same. Total construction project automation was an impossible task.

The failed attempt was in trying to turn a highly variable learned process acquired through years of practical experience into a package-able (no errors) training product anyone could follow.

Developing Skills

Construction Management is a skill, rather than a procedure. My spouse is a piano music teacher. All her students make mistakes. All learn to play the notes. The skilled ones play the music. There is a very big difference.

Project management does have rules and procedures. They are plotted into a project plan or timeline. It looks very much like a rigid process but almost never is. Every outside (from the factory assembly line) project is a custom built, almost unique product, and is not a standard tangible shape and form mass produced consumer product item. Not ice-cream on a stick.

Supply chain product availability, labor issues, weather conditions, customer site environment, and a dozen other variables make every project unique. Construction site management is a circus-act juggling performance. Skill comes from constant  practice, not just a training session. Some decision actions are determined by unpredictable events. Say, responding to the circus tiger escaping from its cage… No rule says which direction to run, or to run at all,

At Last, The Map

I compare the construction management project plan similar to a road map. A plan (map) that shows the start point and the destination. But the route traveled is seldom a direct line between the two points. The map keeps one from getting lost and the destination in mind, but the actual roads traveled are highly dependent on prevailing road and other conditions.

Professional pilots manage commercial airline flight. Filing flight plans is ultra critical. It’s the human decision ability (due to experience) that is critical to manage the unexpected. Years of experience combined with adequate event training is the best combination for pilots as well as construction site managers to change the plan to match the conditions along the route.

I am a private pilot so watch with interest, popular TV programs concerning aircraft accidents. Commercial aviation flight is a highly automated process, but the pilot is still in command. Automation helps prevent some pilot error, but sometimes the automation can fail with the same tragic results as human error. Especially when the pilot becomes overdependent or complacent with an automated process (of flight control).

Manual control is called “flying by the seat of your pants” and it applies to construction site project managers as well. Follow the rules but don’t hesitate to take manual control.

I support automation when it is a tool that I can choose to use. I don’t support automation when the intent is to replace human learning and judgements built upon a lifetime of experience.

Training is a fast track to performing a well-defined procedure. Automation can make any action, well… automatic. However, learning is a human process prone to making mistakes. Testing the limits. Necessary for making improvements or responding to new situations not in the process flow chart or the pilots check list.

Modern industry is trying to create artificial intelligence and computer learning. There is a vision in that. But real-world will always need human decisions and human learning.

We humans are not perfect. Making mistakes is human nature. Teachers and mentors can and should permit mistakes that are not critical. Human judgement should not become an automated corporate controlled process to produce the highest return on investment and high customer satisfaction. How we handle mistakes is more important than absolute prevention.

Now retired, I can reflect in hindsight how the corporate management became micro focused on automated process. Depending on displayable metrics for quality control, customer satisfaction, and short-term control. Reducing people-to-people (Senior/Junior) site management teams. Less team learning how to manage construction through experience and exposure. A pilot without a co-pilot in training.

I was seeing many of our projects with only the co-pilot at the controls.

Head counts reduced, expensive human judgement replaced by automated process, sustained profits maintained for shareholders. Perhaps the steps necessary to keep the doors open. I do not know. My time was well spent, and it was time (5 years ago) for me to pause and take my leave. The handwriting was appearing  on the wall.

I am still constantly learning and making mistakes. I love the freedom of retirement. I do what I want and can pause (as here) to reflect on past experience. No regrets. Old lessons can be re-taught by experience again. It’s just the way life keeps going on… and sometimes seeing errors repeating from the past.

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