Mentoring to improve productivity (the right way!)

Mon, 06/30/2008 - 8:30pm
Tom Gorman, vice president of field operations at Charter Communications, and Don Gall, CTO of Pangrac & Associates

Case studies and practical tips for creating a program.

Mentoring is a type of training that, formally or informally, helps to insure that the knowledge and values that make a company successful have continuity over the long haul. This is by no means a new concept, and is in use today by many well-known and prosperous companies including Microsoft, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Southwest Airlines, and State Farm Insurance. The successful mentoring programs that these companies use have varying degrees of formality, depending on their culture. The one very important ingredient that is found in all of them is a commitment on the part of the management to support the program. Later on in this article, we talk about some of the ways that Charter Communications has recognized mentoring as a useful tool for success.

The cable industry has traditionally used a form of mentoring to train its employees. After a brief initial indoctrination on company policy, the new employee is asked to accompany an experienced employee around until they understand the job well enough to go out on their own. This concept works very well in some cases, but is fraught with pitfalls, and too many times the new employee is cut loose on his/her own with only the bare mechanics of how to do the job. To make matters worse, after some “time in grade” this new employee then becomes the teacher!

Most people try their very best to do a good job, and many people trained this way eventually become very productive employees. The problem is that employees and customers often fall through the cracks during this process. The results of this type of training are very often similar to the parlor game where a sentence is whispered from one guest to the next to see what comes out at the end of the line. Employees will perpetuate practices that are short-term fixes but which could be disastrous for the long-term health of the network. Pangrac & Associates has had the privilege over the years of working with many of the people that maintain the cable network. While most of them want to do the right thing and work very hard, they are not given enough of the right information to be truly efficient. A good portion of their troubleshooting techniques is based on “cause and effect.”

A true mentoring program, on the other hand, starts with having very well-qualified individuals work directly with a small group (typically two to four). A format that works well is to start out first thing each morning with a short classroom topic, followed by actual field work to directly apply the learning. Usually, the organization is asked for their toughest problems. This not only causes the students to think, but it has the added benefit of fixing problems that improve network performance. Another important part of the training is to give the students tools that allow them to pass the knowledge on to their fellow employees. We have found this method to be much more immediately effective than a full-time classroom or self-directed courses.

One of the first things that a technician should be taught is that the network is a chain of elements, and each element impacts the network’s performance. What they are doing is managing the elements to give the customer the best experience that the network can provide. The lesson here is that knowing what to expect at each point in the chain will help them to be more efficient.

A good example of why this is important occurred during a past mentoring session. When asked for a hard problem, we were shown a large screen TV where the customer had an on-going problem with grainy pictures (off-air pictures were better). The tech got out his HP analyzer, and showed us RF levels above 3 dBmV and a CNR measurement of 54 dBc, and told us there could not be a system problem. Since we had earlier measured the CNR at the output of the hub serving this area at 52.3 dBc, it was a given that his reading was inaccurate. The technician had been taught that if his reading was better than 47 dBc at the customer’s house, it was “good.” If he had had a better understanding of how the network functioned, he would have known the measurement was too good and have dug a little deeper.

The other advantage of mentoring is that it can be uniquely tailored to the individual. Each person is a unique blend of backgrounds and comes with a different knowledge base. Also, sometimes on-the-job training and personal experiences have embedded wrong or misguided practices that need to be unlearned. A short list of some of the concepts that we routinely see missing in field and headend technicians are shown in Figure 1.

When the cable industry first adopted HFC, eliminated long cascades of amplifiers, and went to 750/860 MHz bandwidths that were typically only partially filled, operators enjoyed an enormously forgiving operating window. Over the last five years, the unused bandwidth has been shrinking dramatically, which means that the network must be tuned much closer to specifications to deliver acceptable services to each customer. A good mentoring program can be an essential tool to make sure that this happens.

Mentoring can be jumpstarted by bringing in talent to help identify internal mentoring personnel, teach them some of the techniques needed to be effective, and help fill in the gaps where knowledge is missing. Pangrac & Associates has done this for several companies over the years.

Tom Gorman has made the following comments about the state of mentoring inside Charter Communications Inc.

At Charter, as there has been much transition over the years, mentoring fell by the wayside. Why? Wartime promotions! Rampant growth, management and supervisory structure changes, people leaving, new people coming, and lots of activity all contributed to the loss of a mentoring culture.

Recognizing the loss of such a powerful means to grow better technicians and leaders, we have started on a very informal process to take advantage of mentoring opportunities. Mentoring, after all, can be set up to be a formal process, but much of it happens informally. Figure 2 lists some of the methods we use.

On the formal side, what we want to do is to set up a formal mentoring plan. This may be soliciting from your team the names of those who want to be mentored and matching them with those who would like to be a mentor.

Training a person to be a mentor means giving them the tools to do it. A mentor is defined as a “trusted counselor or guide.” Building trust is critical. This may take time. Investing time is necessary for a good mentoring relationship. We want to be a team of trustworthy leaders, who will take the time to invest in our employees.

How do you get started? Figure 3 delineates critical steps to take.

There are several companies that can help with the startup process, and value add to the initial expertise needed to plant the seed. This can be a good move because it can give you a fresh outside perspective on your internal practices, as well as add a knowledge base that you are either missing, or have too buried to participate in the process. If you are patient and support the mentoring process properly, it will become embedded in your corporate culture and it will become self-perpetuating.

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