Natural Foods Store Uses ‘Organic’ Training Approach

Whenever I’m in Portland, Oregon, my favorite place to shop is a natural foods chain called New Seasons Market. The produce is fresh. The selection is great. But what really sets them apart from every other grocery store is their top-notch customer service.

At New Seasons, there’s always an employee nearby to cheerfully answer a question or help me find an item, whether they’re behind the counter, in the aisle or at the cash register.

And it’s not just at one store. It’s at all nine of them. New Seasons employs 1,700 people. Having run operations for decades myself, I know you don’t get such consistent high performance by accident. What’s their secret? I wondered. Could it have anything to do with training?

In a recent phone call, New Seasons HR Director Charla Hayden and Recruiting Manager Bill Tolbert shared the company’s training philosophy with me. I was pleased to discover that many aspects of their employee development follow Lean Knowledge Transfer principles.

People-Oriented Business? People-Oriented Training.

Bill said that New Seasons specifically looks to hire people with an innate desire to help others. “We look for candidates more interested in genuine human interactions than in an ‘items per hour’ ratio,” he said.

Therefore, training delivery at New Seasons reinforces human-to-human interaction. “There’s no e-learning or videos,” Charla said. “The vast majority of our training is done by our more seasoned employees as a dialogue. Their in-store experience lends credibility. They can speak persuasively about how to do things our way because they do it themselves.”

Let Them Learn by Walking Around. Then Teach Some More.

At New Seasons, you won’t see new hires crammed into three days of New Employee Training that’s so common today. After their Day One Orientation, New Seasons newbies are pretty much set free in their departments. “New Seasons’ training is like a Waldorf School experience. There’s no codified way for people to learn most jobs. People are told to look around, figure it out and ask for help when they need it,” said Charla.

Whoa. Figure it Out Themselves? What If it’s Complicated?

“Our Wellness department has the most complex product mix,” Charla said. “New employees are given time to look around and get to know the products, ask questions, go online, read literature and shadow experienced employees. From a training perspective, we’ve created an environment where an employee’s learning style is accommodated because they learn their own way, at their own pace and in an order that makes sense to them.”

About a month after a new employee starts, they attend a short training event that the company playfully calls ‘Disorientation’. Conducted by New Seasons executives Brian Rohter and Lisa Sedlar, Disorientation allows new employees to learn more about New Seasons’ values and how to be successful.

A consistent message is that it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’ and to ask for help. “We tell employees that explicitly,” Charla said. “We believe that if someone at the company needs your help, you drop what you’re doing and give it. We treat our coworkers like we treat our customers.”

What I like about this approach is that, rather than stuff a lot of information into someone’s head on Day 1 when they have no frame of reference, New Seasons gives them a month of experience to see the company values and methods in action and absorb them from their peers.

Matching the ‘Organic Rhythm’ of the Store

We’ve covered onboarding the newbies. What about training for more experienced employees?

Ongoing training at New Seasons happens at the store in short sessions. No one has to drive anywhere, or commit a long time period. It’s all designed to fit into the pace of the store’s work day.

“We train to the employee’s needs, not to the trainer’s. And we only teach what people can learn and immediately apply. Our test is that it has to be of value to them,” Charla said.

Bill said that class sizes are small, ten to 12 people, regardless of the topic. “We want to make sure people got the information they need and have a chance to give us feedback. In larger groups, people get lost,” he said.

Lessons from the Grocery Aisle

What can we learn from New Seasons? Three things.

  1. How you deliver training should reinforce your values and business model. Is customer service key to your success? Face-to-face methods like mentoring might be best. Yes, everyone’s jumping on the e-learning bandwagon today, but before you do, ask yourself ‘How does sitting at a computer taking in information align with the value our employees deliver?’ There are plenty of situations where e-learning is the right choice. Just make sure it’s your situation.
  2. Training should align with the environment. Learning by walking around at a grocery store is great. But at a copper mine? Not on your life! Too dangerous; more structure would be needed. Walking around ‘virtually’ in a simulation would be a great alternative. Whenever possible, let the work environment organically teach employees as much as it can and at their pace.
  3. Training and learning should be a part of the natural rhythm of your company’s work day. Don’t let training stick out like a sore thumb and disturb your business. If you have night shifts, train at night. If your company’s work pace is irregular, then training should fit into these periods of inactivity. Here’s a simple rule: If people are complaining about training, you’re doing it wrong.

New Seasons has developed a training approach that is completely organic to their needs and delivers great results with no wasted effort. (The very essence of Lean Knowledge Transfer.) Can you say the same for your company’s training and development?

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