Learning from the White Elephant

One of the more charming features of the holiday season is the White Elephant gift exchange. The idea is simple: wrap up something you don’t want and exchange it for something that someone else doesn’t want. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as friends and colleagues gift each other with thing they’d be ashamed to put out at a yard sale. I think I still have a set of cowboy-themed mustard and ketchup dispensers somewhere that I received in such an exchange a few years ago. Still, folks seem to enjoy these exchanges, perhaps because they’re inherently unpredictable.

And unpredictability can be fun, don’t get me wrong. But it shouldn’t be a hallmark of our training.

Some years ago I had a client who operated a small chain of retail stores. When I visited the stores to do some research for a training project, I saw that every store had its own ways of doing things. Each had its own preferred way to greet customers, sell products, and deal with returns. Now, a certain amount of flexibility is a good thing, but there’s a limit. Individual differences between operating units should not go so far as to become differences in policy. But that’s what happened in this case, and customers were having very different experiences, depending on which store they visited.

How did this happen? Easy: from a practice of letting the store managers control nearly all the training that happened in their stores. Over time, individual differences morphed into policy differences. Soon the result was not so much a chain of well-run stores but a set of very different stores that shared a common name.

The answer was simple: set up a common training curriculum for new employees. We also put together a refresher-style course for current employees to put some common standards into place. Those white elephant gifts can be fun, but you don’t want that same lack of predictability to affect your business.


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