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An Effective Tool For Productivity Improvement

Brice Alvord

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One of the more difficult aspects of developing a competency based training program for improving productivity is to determine what should go into the program. Without a structured approach decided upon ahead of time, an effective program will be impossible. The best tool I have found for accomplishing this is a Task Analysis.

A task analysis is a systematic breakdown of a task into its elements, specifically including a detailed task description of both manual and mental activities, task and element durations, task frequency, task allocation, task complexity, environmental conditions, necessary clothing and equipment, and any other unique factors involved in or required for one or more humans to perform a given task.

Instructional designers perform a task analysis in order to:

  • Determine the instructional goals and objectives;
  • Define and describe in detail the tasks and sub-tasks that the student will perform;
  • Specify the knowledge type (declarative, structural, and procedural knowledge) that characterize a job or task;
  • Select learning outcomes that are appropriate for instructional development;
  • Prioritize and sequence tasks;
  • Determine instructional activities and strategies that foster learning;
  • Select appropriate media and learning environments;
  • Construct performance assessments and evaluation

There are different formats to use based on the type of learning outcome. The following are the most prevalent:

  • Procedural Task Analysis (for procedural skills)
  • Hierarchical or Prerequisite Analysis (for intellectual skills)
  • Information processing analysis (for procedural and cognitive tasks)

Unlike learning a concept or a principle, procedures are strictly defined so that each step is clear and unambiguous to the learner. Procedures can be simple, whereby the learner follows one set of steps in a sequential fashion. However, procedures can also be complex, with many decision points that the learner must make. Regardless of the complexity of the procedure, a procedural analysis breaks down the mental and/or physical steps that the learner must go through so that the task can be successfully achieved. The steps that make up a task are arranged linearly and sequentially, illustrating where the learner begins and ends. Oftentimes, the steps throughout the task, from start to finish, as well as any decisions that the learner must make are arranged in a flowchart, but they can also be done in an outline form. See examples below.

Examples of learning outcomes that are procedural in nature are:

  • Balancing a checkbook,
  • Changing a tire,
  • Formatting a disk,
  • Bathing a dog

Tasks that are based on procedures are the easiest for conducting a task analysis. Generally, application of procedures involves these steps:

  1. Determine whether a particular procedure is applicable
  2. Recall the steps of the procedure
  3. Apply the steps in order, with decision steps if required
  4. Confirm that the end result is reasonable.

What criteria should I use to evaluate my procedural analysis?

  • Completeness (thoroughness); all steps present; complex procedures broken down
  • All steps stated in performance terms (using verbs)
  • Appropriateness of procedural analysis for representing task
  • Validity & accuracy: how well does analysis correspond to actual task
  • Appropriate use of flowchart or representation used; directional flow obvious and consistent

For detailed information on how to conduct a task analysis, I suggest you check out the American Society for Training and Development website. There are literally hundreds of books on the topic. The intent of this article is not to tell you how to do it, rather, that it is a necessary tool for improving productivity.

Brice Alvord has over thirty years experience as an internal and external performance improvement consultant. He holds a BA in Sociology/Psychology from Central Washington University and an MBA degree from City University of Seattle. He is the author of over two dozen books on continuous improvement and training.

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