OJT Training: Theory Influencing Practice

(Note: This is a paper I turned in for my class on consulting and training.)


OJT Training: Theory Influencing Practice

Jonathan R. Lightfoot

Gonzaga University



OJT Training: Theory Influencing Practice

Three source documents are being used to analyze the theory and practice of On-the-Job-Training. The oldest is a 1996 article from a manufacturing magazine, Water Engineering & Management, about the use of OJT vs. classroom training classes in factories. The next is a Train the Trainer handbook copyrighted in 1999 and used for several years at to educate first line managers and supervisors on how to best train new hires in their operational responsibilities. The final document is a 2013 study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management on the effectiveness of OJT and PDCA training.

Each of the three materials will be reviewed in chronological order, and then compared and contrasted with each other to see what the disparate perspectives can yield when brought together. The author of this paper was trained in the second document’s methods in the early 2000s, and is writing this paper to place his education and experience in context of the greater field of study. By reviewing the materials chronologically, the training materials can be placed in an appropriate context, and then evaluated to see where current theory can be used to approve or amend it to be more effective.

On-the-Job Training

Smith and Kules (1996) did a practical article for plant managers on when and how to apply on-the-job-training to their plants, and how to know when classroom or OJT training made more sense.

Their leading point was that good OJT training is not the “sink or swim” method, where an activity is demonstrated once, quickly, to the trainee, and then they are left alone and expected to be competent. Instead, evaluation is done to understand what the trainee knows before training, and training is done to ensure the trainer is trained. This structure teaches the trainee problem solving skills. The trainee learns more information about the why of the process, and is thus more open to ask questions of the trainer. The trainer/trainee relationship is also one of more respect than the sink or swim method.

Smith and Kules gave guidelines for deciding between classroom and OJT training. Note, these are considering factory/plant training, but their recommendations can be applied elsewhere. One factor should be cost per person. What can affect those costs? The expense and availability of capital equipment, experience of employees and number of employees needing similar training. Another factor to consider is the experience of the employee(s). Less experienced employees usually do better in classroom training first before OJT.

Tools and Techniques of OJT Training

The materials in this OJT training book by Instructional Design Associates (1999) concentrate on creating the best trainer for OJT training. It is high on principles and concepts. There are the characteristics of successful OJT training:

1)         Structured

2)         Timely

3)         Accountability

4)         Premeditated

5)         Consistent

6)         Human

Then there is the 4-step training model, as detailed in the below table:




Trainer   Student
Prepare Leaner Put student at ease, get student interested in materials Motivation
Present the job Tell, show and illustrate the task Understanding
Try out performance Have student practice the task, correct errors Participation
Transition to job Put student on own, tell where to get help, check frequently Application


That is balanced by an analysis of trainer/trainee styles. Again, another table:

Trainer: Tour Guide

Student: Gadfly

Trainer: Balanced

Student: Thinker

Trainer: Administrator

Student: Rock

Trainer: Engine

Student: Engine


The key is to work through the 4-step training model while recognizing the student’s training style and aligning the material and the trainer with that style to achieve the end training result. A trainer needs to recognize the student’s quadrant on the style table, and move the student to the place of greatest learning.

The PDCA Cycle and OJT Training

Matsuo and Nakahara (2013) put the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle and On-the-Job-Training (OJT) through a research study to compare their effectiveness in fostering the organizational learning process.

They defined the organizational learning process as:

  • Acquisition of knowledge by individuals or groups
  • Sharing and interpreting knowledge within groups and organizations
  • Incorporation of knowledge into organized routines
  • Elimination of anachronistic routines

To determine effectiveness, they put forth four hypotheses:

  • OJT – Direct supervision is positively correlated with workplace learning
  • OJT – Empowerment is positively correlated with workplace learning
  • PDCA – Positively correlated with workplace learning
  • Reflective Communication is positively correlated with workplace learning

They used learning outcome survey data from a Japanese firm to make their analysis. What they discovered is that the first hypothesis was false, but the other three were true. The general conclusions were that quality management based on the PDCA cycle can markedly improve development by promoting problem solving and stimulating experiential learning. In contrast, the effectiveness of OJT depends on its style.

They did note that the results might be affected by the culture of the Japanese firm, and need to be expanded to other cultural settings to confirm a more general conclusion.

Historical Progression

The article by Smith and Kules (1996) can be seen as a first step discussion of the effectiveness of OJT vs. classroom training, and the need for conscious structure to OJT training, instead of the “sink or swim” method. The training materials experienced by this author (Instructional Design Associates 1999) were designed where the assumption of OJT was already in place. The focus of these materials was on preparing the trainer with the skills necessary to assess the status of the trainee and adapt and direct training to make the most effective use of where the trainee is to learn the materials for the job. Neither of these sources had any assessment phase to validate the accuracy of their assumptions. The research study (Matsuo and Nakahara, 2013) added this level of complexity to the information available on the OJT process.

Analysis and Reflection

The experiences of the author of this paper with OJT started prior to his participation in the training class on how to be an OJT trainer. That is the usual progression: someone who has been a de facto trainer is sent to a class to learn all the right theories and practices to do what they have already been doing. The OJT trainer usually doesn’t have any relief from the other duties of their workday. Training the other employee is an addition to the already busy workload. This creates the temptation is to do the “sink-or-swim” method mentioned in the Smith and Kules article. The Train the Trainer class is the encouragement to put more thought into the process.

Being a trained OJT trainer creates a mindset that should make the trainer mindful of the training process, both of the trainee and the information to be learned. What the Train the Trainer course expected is a fairly structured concept of what information needs to be learned, in what context and time frame, by the trainee. In practical experience, many of the training events are one-off and ad-hoc events that fit into the total knowledge of the trainee. There isn’t a scheduled course of instruction that gets worked through. The initial crunch of essential information is learned at the beginning, and then the intensity of the relationship tapers off, and the trainer becomes more of a resource than a focused trainer.

The Train the Trainer materials give a mental mindset, but doesn’t give a real strategy for the perpetual training cycle. That is where the insights from the research study come in.

The research study, with its focus on PDCA and OJT visualizes the training process as a perpetual, recursive function. PDCA in particular, with its plan-do-check-act cycle, visualizes training intentionally and perpetually. The study also gave a caution for OJT training: The wrong style can actually be counterproductive to the learning of knowledge.

The training materials encourage supervision of the student, until the appropriate time for putting them on their own. The PDCA study suggests that the empowerment of putting the trainee on their own (but not in a sink-or-swim manner) sooner is more productive than a prolonged period of supervision. Longer supervision is actually counterproductive. Earlier episodes of independence, properly coached, can stimulate problem solving in the trainee and increase experiential learning.

A side result of this process is something I have experienced multiple times as an OJT trainer. I call it “the right mistake”. This “right mistake” is an important part of the OJT learning process. Rather than train the trainee on everything they could possibly need to know, rather than show them all the steps and possible logical branching tree options available, you concentrate on the core information needed now, along with the how and why information. Then the trainee is allowed to proceed and experience their learning. Sooner or later they are going to come to a point where their knowledge, and training, tells them what the correct answer is going to be, but it isn’t; what they try is wrong. Then they come to the trainer to understand what happened. And my response is: “you made the right mistake”.

What they did shows they understand what they have been taught, and are applying it correctly.  Yet no explanation can ever be complete, or show the whole picture; no training can cover everything. Letting them work out their understanding until they run into something where it doesn’t work, is an important part of the learning process. Equally important is assuring them that their “failure” is a sign of success in their understanding. Thus, the concept of the “right mistake”, and the need to look beyond what you know when you make the “right mistake”.

(The wrong mistake, of course, would be one where they didn’t follow what they already knew correctly, and requires a different remediation; review of what they should already understand until they fully internalize it.)

The one part of the that I haven’t seen focused on from the research study is step four of the organizational learning process: Elimination of anachronistic routines. That is something that should be focused on in future papers.


While a small sample, statistically, of the literature, the three articles selected show a certain progress in the way On-the-Job-Training has been viewed over the past two decades. The starting point is taking a serious view of OJT as more than just a quick show-tell sink-or-swim session. This led to training materials for the OJT trainer. Just being experienced in how to do the task is not enough to be able to train it: one needs experience in how to connect with the trainee to convey understanding. Yet the results of this train-the-trainer experience was also mixed. Further analysis, the research study, shows that style in OJT is critical to the amount of knowledge learned.

When using this to analyze my personal training experiences, I see that those occasions where I felt inclined to greater supervision were actually the most counterproductive, requiring further intervention on my part. Following the empowerment model is what actually led to my own “eureka” moment about the “right mistake” as an excellent teaching tool and measurement of trainee progress. While some tasks had obvious “right mistake” points, others tend to be more individual, yet the “right mistake” moment itself is always recognizable as an achievement of learning by the trainee to be celebrated and encouraged. Empowering a trainee to learn from failures in a precious form of empowerment.



Instructional Design Associates (1999). Training employees: Tools and techniques of OJT training. Training manual.

Matsuo, M., Nakahara, J. (2013). The effects of the PDCA cycle and OJT training on workplace learning, The International Journal of Human Resource Management. Pages 195-207, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 2013

Smith, M., Kules, J. (1996). On-The-Job Training: Harder Than It Looks. Water Engineering & Management 143; 12; ABI/INFORM Trade & Industry


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