Why “Shadowing” Isn’t an Effective Training Program and What to Do Instead

Written by
Eric Burton

Job shadowing might be the most straightforward, low-cost approach to new employee training. It implies that we believe our best employees can transfer their knowledge and acquired skills to new employees. 

But does shadowing work? From what we’ve seen, expecting new employees to master work skills from the sidelines actually costs companies more than it saves. 

Here’s why we never recommend shadowing as a viable training program for new employees—plus, what method we do recommend.

What Is Job Shadowing? 

Shadowing is a type of on-the-job training where new employees learn by observing. Typically, supervisors pair new employees with more experienced “trainers” and the trainee watches and listens as the trainer goes about their tasks. How in-depth trainers go on the concepts they teach (or whether they “teach” at all) is usually up to their discretion.

What’s the draw for manufacturers to use the shadowing method?

One advantage is that trainers get to continue doing their job, which keeps production moving along uninterrupted.

However, shadowing doesn’t come with any opportunities for trainees to practice and repeat in a non-hostile, low-stakes environment. 

That’s an issue because practice and repetition are both key to mastering tactile skills on the manufacturing floor. And when employees don’t master skills, it puts companies at risk for increased accidents, employee frustration, culture creep, and higher turnover. 

Let’s get into the particulars of how shadowing falls short.

Why Shadowing Fails in the Best of Cases 

Why doesn’t shadowing work, even with rockstar trainers? 

Passive Learning Is Low-Quality Learning 

Shadowing is mostly watching and listening. This learning style is known as passive learning. 

Passive learning can be useful for capturing the larger picture, i.e., the culture, values, and relationships inside the organization. But passive learning is a woefully suboptimal structure for transferring hard skills. In order to succeed, manufacturers need practical, on-the-ground knowledge as quickly as possible. Shadowing provides limited interactions with the processes or chances for practice. 

To put passive learning in the context of transferring hard skills, imagine learning how to ride a bike by watching someone else do it. You’re going to miss out on most of the experiences you need to be successful. To be proficient, you need practice riding the bike yourself.

Likewise, in manufacturing, shadowing can provide a theoretical understanding of floor tasks, but doesn’t fully engage the learner. Without hands-on repetition, you run the risk of spotty retention and only a broad-strokes understanding of vital company processes. 

Knowledge Falls Through the Cracks

Another weakness of job shadowing is that even the best trainers can never transfer all of their implicit knowledge to the learner. Experienced employees have a wealth of situational context about the job that informs how they approach both the day-to-day grind and anything out of the ordinary.

For example, when trainees observe experienced trainers, there’s little differentiation between what’s a necessary behavior and what is purely preferential. For example, trainers may assume that remembering to turn off machinery when not in use is obvious, but to the learner, it really isn’t. 

Likewise, important tasks that the trainer once completed with great care and fastidiousness might appear more trivial to the new employee if their importance isn’t explicitly stated. 

When tacit knowledge falls through the cracks, the trainee misses nuances that can make or break the success of the job.

Milk Before Meat 

Seasoned employees often learn the tricks of the trade—how to do things quicker or more effectively than standard procedure. But what works for an experienced employee might not work well for a new employee. 

Sure, it ought to make sense to pair a new employee with your most experienced one. However, shadowing an employee who has developed more streamlined processes can prove to be overwhelming and even discouraging, not to mention dangerous. 

For example, what an experienced employee can do one-handed while simultaneously filling out reports, might necessitate multiple explanations and repetitions in a low-stakes environment for the learner to perform successfully.Further, new employees need clear, standardized protocols that emphasize safety and consistency. 

Shadowing an experienced employee simply doesn’t allow for the in-depth, low-stakes training necessary to guarantee mastery and minimize accidents. 

“How We Really Do Things Here” Syndrome 

Shadowing would be less hazardous if informal systems didn’t have a tendency to dominate formal systems. 

For example, you might have a formal, written reporting system for issues on your floor. But an informal system emerges where workers verbally communicate issues directly to their supervisor. The less-structured system is the one that your new employees will likely adopt within a job-shadowing structure. 

Informal systems, also known as “How We Really Do Things Here” Syndrome, are perilous because manufacturing relies so heavily on meticulous, repeatable processes to achieve consistent results. In effect, shadowing gives you a culture that says, “There’s no one right way to do this—do it the way you think is best.”

Unlike experimental technology or service-based industries, this can spell disaster for manufacturers’ quality assurance—not to mention safety. 

Deviating from Process Tempers Progress 

In manufacturing, quality and outcomes are directly related to process. Process is the life-blood of manufacturing and drives vital markers like quality and safety. And it’s vital that leaders continually update and improve processes in order to remain both competitive and compliant with new safety standards.

However, leaders can’t improve processes until they have process adherence. In other words, you can’t make changes until everyone on the team is already following the established procedures and protocols.

Shadowing compromises process adherence because trainers don’t always teach the standard process, if they “teach” at all. During training, processes are often polluted, abbreviated, or removed altogether. Even if you have a trainer who is outperforming the standard process, their success is rarely repeatable. 

Deviations from process essentially disconnect the steering wheel of leadership from the steering column of influence. Leaders can’t drive change, because the team isn’t working together in a predictable way. 

How to Train New Employees Without Shadowing

The good news is that the most reliable way to train new employees has been around since the 1940s. And it still works. 

Training Within Industry is the gold standard for onboarding within the manufacturing sector.

The United States developed Training Within Industry (TWI) to meet the sudden demand for manufacturing during WWII. Manufacturers used this method to train thousands of low-skilled laborers to operate complex machinery with minimal error or accident. 

Here’s what TWI looks like and how to apply it.

TWI Job Instruction—The Opposite of Job Shadowing

Training Within Industry is a system of hands-on learning, coaching, and practice for workers and supervisors. The process is trainer-led with little to zero reliance on operational documentation (e.g., e-trainings, manuals, checklists, posters).

A Change in Mindset 

While job shadowing holds the new employee responsible for their own learning, TWI Job Instruction puts the onus for learning the supervisor. 

The mantra behind Job Instruction is, If the learner hasn’t learned, then the instructor hasn’t taught

In a nutshell, the trainer is expected to

  1. Break down every part of the job process into separate training sessions, 
  2. Prepare the new employee to learn, 
  3. Teach the process and assess mastery before the new employee ever does any real work.

This method takes more preparation at the outset, but ultimately saves companies time and resources while reducing frustration, incidents, and costly employee turnover.

What Does Training Within Industry Look Like? 

STEP 1: PREPARE THE LEARNER

Before any training begins, the experienced employee breaks up the job into 1–2 minute chunks of “work time.” In other words, the trainer designs instruction around a very small part of the operation so they can conduct in-depth training on that single part. If possible, instruction happens in the actual work environment.

If the manufacturing environment is hostile or work materials limited, the trainer might create “test systems” for the purpose of training. Each chunk of the process takes a dedicated 15–30 minute training session. (That’s 15–30 minutes of instruction for every 1–2 minutes of work time.) 

The trainer will plan out a schedule to complete all of the training required. Training sessions are kept brief to optimize retention and prevent burnout. 

STEP 2: PRESENT THE OPERATION

When a training session begins, the trainer demonstrates the process several times. 

With each progressive demonstration, trainers add context, gradually building the trainee’s understanding of the entire operation. Foundational to TWI instruction is explaining the “why” behind every step of the process to ensure that the trainee understands the stakes and consequences associated with each.

This presentation step aims to provide a visual and practical understanding of the task, helping the learner absorb the nuances and intricacies involved.

STEP 3: PUT THE LEARNER IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT

After observing the process, it’s time for the learner to take the reins. 

In this step, the trainee actively participates in performing the demonstrated tasks under the guidance of the experienced employee. This hands-on experience allows the trainee to apply what they’ve learned, reinforcing their understanding and building confidence in executing the job independently.

Step 3 also provides the learner with immediate feedback on performance, allowing errors and omissions to be identified early in the training process. The trainer also addresses any questions or concerns, and ensures that the trainee has a clear understanding of the entire operation. 

STEP 4: FOLLOW UP

Training doesn’t end with hands-on experience. 

The trainer also gives the trainee explicit instructions about where to direct questions or concerns. 

This step may also involve additional practice sessions or targeted reinforcement of specific skills. The goal is to support the trainee’s continued growth and proficiency in the given task, fostering a culture of continuous improvement within the manufacturing environment.

Barriers to Executing Job Instruction 

TWI Job Instruction is a timeless, sure-fire system for transferring manufacturing skills to new employees and strengthening your processes across teams. 

However, when team leads roll up their sleeves and decide they want to improve their training methods, they tend to encounter some common hurdles. 

Well, anticipation is the antidote to surprise. Let’s break down some of the barriers to executing TWI Job Instruction. 

1. Time, Energy, and Cost

Implementing TWI Job Instruction demands an upfront commitment of time, energy, and resources compared to the simpler approach of job shadowing. However, the initial investment pays off in reduced errors, enhanced mastery, and improved efficiency over the long run.

Overcoming this barrier results in a workforce that is not only better trained but also more proficient, reducing costly errors and improving overall productivity.

2. Decentralization 

The biggest hurdle for some companies is that TWI requires them to go beyond centralized learning materials and documentation and acknowledge that the best documents are still no substitute for a qualified, hands-on trainer. 

Also, successfully adopting TWI Job Instruction requires companies to empower trainers to have input on the content of their training documentation (the Job Breakdown Sheet, or JBS). This means our training documents become living reflections of the real way the work is done, and not a centrally managed document that is updated and recorded with little input from those who actually do the work.

This shift is important because it cultivates a more hands-on and engaged training approach, where the responsibility for teaching falls largely on the team leads and supervisors. The outcome? Employees who feel invested in, safe, and confident in their roles. 

3. Resistance to Change

Any shift in training methodology can face resistance, especially when there is an established practice like job shadowing. Overcoming this barrier requires effective communication, highlighting the advantages of TWI Job Instruction, and addressing concerns with a well-managed implementation plan.

Embracing change results in a more efficient and impactful training program, leading to a workforce that is better prepared and adaptable in a rapidly evolving manufacturing landscape.

Put TWI Job Instruction into Action Today

Ready to transform your manufacturing training program and propel your workforce to new heights? Embrace the proven effectiveness of Training Within Industry (TWI) Job Instruction. 

Here’s how you can take action today:

  1. Educate Your Team: Share insights about the benefits of TWI Job Instruction with your leadership team and colleagues. Increase awareness and understanding to pave the way for a smoother transition.
  1. Invest in Supervisor Training: Empower your supervisors with the necessary skills to lead effective TWI Job Instruction sessions. Get the right support with iMpact Utah’s Continuous Manufacturing Improvement.
  1. Pilot the Approach: Start small by piloting TWI Job Instruction in a specific department or for a particular set of skills. Evaluate the results and gather feedback to fine-tune the approach for broader implementation.
  1. Cultivate a Training Culture: Foster a culture that values continuous learning and skill development. Encourage employees at all levels to actively participate in training programs and share their expertise.
  1. Measure the Impact: Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the impact of TWI Job Instruction on error reduction, employee proficiency, and overall productivity. Use the data to showcase the success of the new training approach.

Key Takeaways:

  • Job shadowing relies on passive observation which limits critical hands-on practice.
  • The poor transfer of critical nuances and contexts to shadowing hinders student success in the long-term.
  • Shadowing tends to propagate informal systems, compromising adherence to standard processes.
  • Shadowing may ultimately increase risk of accidents, employee frustration, and turnover.
  • TWI Job Instruction minimizes errors, enhances mastery, and improves overall efficiency.
  • The mantra of TWI Job Instruction: If the learner hasn’t learned, then the instructor hasn’t taught.

Ready to Standardize Your Training Process?

Work with team that has helped hundreds of businesses create a repeatable training process that gives managers and new hires they structure, clarity, and confidence required to succeed in their roles.

Contact us to get in touch with the regional director that serves manufacturers in your area. We help Utah manufacturing businesses multiply performance and profits through consulting and training services focused on operations, leadership, technology, sales, and marketing.

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