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August 4, 2016
About Pepper

Understanding the science behind best practices and lessons learned

Best practices and lessons learned are two topics our industry wants to talk about. At Pepper, we have specific processes in place to learn from each other so we don't repeat the mistakes of others and so we incorporate what went well into the next project. This month we're going to share some of our best practices and why they work. First, I thought it would be insightful to interview Director of Training Carol Dougherty to shed some light on how we learn, retain and apply information. 

Q.  How do people learn?

There are three types, or styles, of learners:

  • Auditory (verbal). They need to hear it and will tell you, "I want to talk it through," or "I hear what you're saying." That's your verbal cue.
  • Visual (see/read). They say, "I need to see it to believe it," or "I see what you mean."
  • Kinesthetic (doing). They take notes and interact with what they're learning.
Three learning styles

Over 40 years ago Malcolm Knowles identified six adult learning theory assumptions that are still very true.

  1. We have a need to know why.
  2. We enter with a self-concept.
  3. We bring a wealth of experience.
  4. We have a readiness to learn those things that help us cope.
  5. We devote energy to those things that will help us.
  6. We are responsive to internal motivators.

Adults are different than kids. Kids tend to be more externally motivated; whereas, adults are more internally motivated. Adults ask, "What's in it for me?" As we get older, we want to be responsible for what we're learning. We bring a wealth of experience with us, and it's helpful to link the new to what we already know. There is a readiness to learn what will help us now, so it's important that the information is relevant and timely – to break it up and relate it to the real world.

Q.  Have you found this to be true of people in our industry?

Classes are typically split equally in thirds among the three types of learners, but some groups have strong preferences. I've noticed in our industry there is a higher population who are kinesthetic, or highly visual, or a combination. They go into this industry because they want to build stuff. They're doers by nature and want to learn by doing. Our people need to be able to take it and tie it to information they already know. Writing it down and putting it in a file somewhere doesn't connect with them. That's why our app [iPhone App and Google Play] is so effective. It gives people the ability to access and absorb information where they need it, in the field, to make them more effective in their jobs.

Q.  Why are best practices and lessons learned important?

Best practices and lessons learned help us do a better job, particularly with clients we've worked with over the long-term. With owners, we can't afford to make mistakes. If we can learn from what's been done in the past, we'll be more likely to gain repeat business.

Another real challenge that our entire industry is facing is demographics. Baby boomers are retiring at an enormous rate. Our older and more seasoned veterans are retiring, and we risk losing a wealth of knowledge. Generation Xers are next in line to lead, but that demographic is half the size so there aren't a lot of people coming up to fill the gaps. Companies are having to look at Generation Y (Millennials) to come up earlier, and they haven't had time to learn from experience, so we have to find other ways of sharing the seasoned knowledge with the up and coming leaders.

Q.  How can we make sure that learning gets applied?

That's the piece we're most challenged with. First, we have to make it safe for people to ask questions. Then, we have to provide the people to answer their questions. Lessons learned, or "tribal knowledge", is what we know within the organization as a whole. We treat learning as a team effort and surround new, smart people (who have good skills but not the right experience) with seasoned people with that inherent knowledge – to help guide, make smart decisions and avoid making mistakes.

Gathering the lessons learned can be a challenge too. At Pepper, we're starting to ask, "What would we do differently?" People connect more with this question. They can think about what went well but would have been even better if… We tend to get more information out of a review session like that.

Q. How does that knowledge get incorporated into our training?

It's not me teaching but people who are viewed as good at that activity by others in the company. We look across our locations and who can help others learn. They don't have to be perfect; they just have to be willing to share what they've learned.

We start with real projects and real information as case studies and build activities into our training. We work with our trainers to share their experiences. It's better than a database because it hits on all types of learning. A database is static, and people have to look for it. If it's someone who needs to learn by doing or talking, a database doesn't work for them.

The most effective tools and training have the following characteristics that help learners understand and know how to apply the information: 

  • Short and sweet
  • Connects what they're doing to the bigger picture
  • Starts with real  and relevant content - working with trainers who understand the topics
  • Addresses adult learning principals
  • For systems training, learners are "doing" at the same time
  • Provides resources they can take away and use (like the Pepper app)

Q. What do you think about mentoring?

Personally, I think mentoring programs are awesome. They're really effective but hard because of the time commitment. In our industry, we're seeing mentoring become two-way, across generations. Seasoned staff members teach the real-world knowledge and younger employees help with technology. It takes the right person on both sides to make it work… It's something we could improve in the industry. Some companies do it and do it well, but there are far fewer as an industry than there should be…

Q. How can we expand our reach and impact our industry?

We have a lot of competitive folks... It's the nature of the industry. We have to be willing to share our knowledge with others – partners, subcontractors and others. We think that if we help them, then it benefits our competitors (not just us, but our competitors think that too). There's a real resistance to some of that sharing. But if we can make architects, engineers and subcontractors better, then we get better and our owners get better buildings. We may have won a client for life. The better we make our subs, the better the owners will feel about their experience working with us.

Q. Where do you think we (as an industry) still need to improve?

The mentality up to now is that people should have x hours of training a year. But is that what they need? When we command: "Thou shalt go"… When they show up, they're thinking about something else and not really learning anything.

The approach we're taking now at Pepper is to require skills training for certain positions and then open up the training to all with a "sales pitch" of why they should go. It goes back to answering the question, "What's in it for me?" If they come because they think they can use it, they're receptive. People who sign up, show up. Then, if they get value out of the training, they will talk about it – and classes start filling up because of word of mouth.

Lean also has some interesting applications; it has great potential… It's not just about cookie-cutter buildings but how to be more efficient. The reality is that as an industry we need to become more resourceful because there are fewer skilled trades – so the people doing the work need to be more productive. How do we maximize what we get? Lean can help us with that; it creates a very interesting shift of thought.

Stay tuned

As I think about Carol's responses to my questions, it's a perfect introduction to our next series of posts. Some of our best practices were born out of missteps; others out of ingenuity. Both are opportunities.

As Carol pointed out, learning still comes down to what we need, when we need it so that it sinks in and gets applied. It's not really learning until we're out the door and on the jobsite applying it – doing something different because of what we've learned.

If you have a question or topic you'd like to see addressed, let us know. We'd like to hear from you.

Carol Dougherty, Director of Training
Carol Dougherty

Carol joined Pepper in 2015 as the director of training. She has 25+ years of professional experience in a variety of industries and organizations. She started her career as a process engineer in manufacturing facilities, working her way up into supervision where she supervised people in multiple factories both domestically and internationally. To pursue her passion to help others learn to do their jobs better, she moved into training and development at Perini Building Company in Las Vegas. Since then, she has focused on technical, project management and leadership training. In 2015, Carol co-authored a book, with 15 other leaders from around the world, titled: Energize Your Leadership [Learn More].  She is a member of Association for Talent Development. Carol holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Oklahoma and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Iowa.


About the Author


Scot PepperPresident, Pepper Construction Company

As president, Scot is responsible for setting Pepper Construction Company's mission and vision and allocating the resources required to achieve its goals. Scot provides strategic oversight and support for every area of the company, making sure Pepper Illinois’ teams have the right opportunities and tools in place to excel. Since  joining the company in 1989, Scot has served in a variety of roles including overseeing Illinois operations, safety, marketing and Integrated Construction Services. 

Scot serves the community on the boards of the Metropolitan Planning Council and Harper College Educational Foundation.