Inspecting a fire shelter

Example of a fire shelter
Example of a deployed fire shelter

Flowcharts, along with their decision-table siblings, guide a person through choices, evaluations, or decisions. As an example of a flowchart, I’m using inspection guidelines for a personal fire shelter. The guidelines come from the USDA Forest Service website (specifically, Fire Shelter Inspection Guide and Rebag Direction).

A fire shelter is a last-ditch, personal-protection device, meant to radiate heat away from a firefighter who’s been trapped by a fire. The shelter’s pup-tent shape encloses air for the fighter to breath as the fire passes over.

The photo on the right is taken from page 16 of The New Generation Fire Shelter, a 2003 publication. Although the text doesn’t say so explicitly, a portion of the shelter appears to have been cut away so you can see how the firefighter lies within it after it’s deployed. (There are hand straps to hold the shelter down.)

Firefighters receive a fire shelter as part of their equipment, and one of their responsibilities is to inspect it regularly. That’s what the guidelines are for.

A fire shelter in its bag
A fire shelter in its bag

The second photo shows what a fire shelter looks like in its bag. Firefighters leave the bag closed until they have to deploy it, which explains the need to inspect the bag regularly.

There’s more to the guide than appears below; I’m just highlighting its flowchart. Which is a good excuse for me to point out that most job aids are combinations of techniques–for example, step-by-step instructions (a cookbook) combined with decision guidance (like a flowchart).

Who uses this job aid?

A Forest Service firefighter or a person with similar responsibilities. While you could use this to help inspect any fire shelter, the language in the guide implies that you’re inspecting your own.

What’s the task being guided?

Determining whether a fire shelter has any defects that would render it unsafe.

Notice the number of decisions involved:

  • Is there moisture in the bag?
  • What’s the status of the bag itself?
  • Are there holes? How many, and what size?
  • Does it have a label with a red R?
  • Does it have a yellow rebag label?

I want to emphasize, because of the nature of the task, that the full guide has a number of photo examples (e.g., this is what a label with a red R looks like).

From the Fire Shelter Inspection Guide

(See full guide at the U.S. Forest Service site)

(Based on Job aid: inspecting a fire shelter
originally published on Dave’s Whiteboard.)

Layout for a cell at Alcatraz

Reference job aid is a term I use for any job aid that collects or lays out information so that someone can look up a meaning, decode an example, or perform other kinds of work with facts.

The image below and its accompanying table of callouts are taken from the Institution Rules and Regulations for the former United States penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, California.    As the regulations make clear, an inmate was entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.  Anything else was a privilege and could be revoked.

Who used this job aid?

My guess is: guards, to explain to inmates how their cells were to be organized, and to make certain that cells conformed to the rules.  Also, possibly, the inmates themselves, though I have a suspicion it would be more to justify some claim:  “Hey, I’m allowed to have up to twelve books.”

What was the task it supported?

Most likely, it was a reference for what can someone have in his cell?  What is he not allowed to have?  (In the latter case, if an item is not pictured here, it’s not permitted.  This is one way to for you to be certain that Robert Stroud, despite the title of a movie, never kept birds while at Alcatraz.

Apparently as a title The Birdman of Leavenworth didn’t sound as dramatic.

(Click to enlarge)

(Based on Job aid: reference for cell layout
published on Dave’s Whiteboard.) 

PHP cheat sheet

Dave Child, a web developer in the UK, is a a creator and an advocate of cheat sheets — his term for quick reference guides.  He’s also the founder of Cheatography, a site which helps people create and share on-the-job guides like the PHP Cheat Sheet (link is to a PDF version).

Image links to http://www.cheatography.com/davechild/cheat-sheets/php/pdf/

Who uses this job aid?

PHP is “a general-purpose server-side scripting language” used to produce dynamic web pages. The person using this cheat sheet is most likely competent in working with PHP.  Not that a neophyte can’t benefit at all, but such a person probably lacks a good deal of helpful context.

What’s the task it supports?

This is an example of what I call a reference job aid.  It doesn’t guide a specific task, the way the fire-shelter inspection guide does. Instead, it organizes certain information in a way that’s helpful in a number of different but related situations: often a quick look at the job aid is sufficient. You aren’t sure of the code if you want a long month name (“September”) versus a short one (Sep).  Or you want to check the syntax of a regular expression function.  So you go to the cheat sheet.

(Tangent: In my experience, organizations that frown on terms like “cheat sheet” aren’t usually strongholds of effective on-the-job support.  All the more so if the people doing actual work refer to their quick reference materials as cheat sheets–and wouldn’t dream of letting someone take them away.)

One challenge in creating a reference job aid is deciding what information to include (and what to deliberately leave out) and how to organize it. The PHP cheat sheet uses boxes and subtitles as an organizing principle. Here’s Dave Child’s own description of how he came up with the first version:

I wrote the first one waaaaay back in 2005 because I was visiting the PHP manual so often for the same information. I’d started printing pages from the manual and jotting notes down all over my desk, and eventually decided this was just silly and organised all the notes into one page. The layout wasn’t really planned at that point.

This is the way a lot of job aids begin, especially ones for reference: people note the things that are helpful to them, but that they don’t seem to remember.  If you’re looking to support the performance of others, spend some time trying to find out what’s on homebrew job aids.  They may not have the best design; they may even include errors or misconceptions. But they invariably highlight information that the person (a) sees as important and (b) has trouble keeping in memory.

(Based on Job aid: the PHP Cheat Sheet
posed at Dave’s Whiteboard on June 13, 2012)

Learning with job aids (via Cathy Moore)

There’s this:

Blended learning
“Stir the mixture well / Lest it prove inferior…”

And there’s this:

Blended learning and job aids
“…then put half a drop / Into Lake Superior.”

Even conceding that many of the “blended learning” hits are from formal education (schools, academia), it’s a little depressing that only 3% of them mention job aids. I personally doubt it’s because everyone uses job aids. It’s almost as if developers, yearning to produce ever-more-engrossing courses, are blind to this kind of performance support.

This is closely related to what Cathy Moore says in the opening minute of the following clip:

And here, at 4%… is what is possibly the least expensive and most effective approach [for blended learning]: on-the-job training tasks. Apparently we are still stuck in the mindset that training is a course.

The clip actually covers a lot of territory in six minutes, including realistic tasks, application, relevant examples, and so on, but I want to focus here on the aspect of figuring out how not to train — or, more accurately, how to not train. Cathy demonstrates the use of “a mega job aid” to enable on-the-job learning. This is her term for combining a job aid (which stores information or guidance so you don’t have to remember it) with instruction (which tells you how to apply what’s in the job aid to a specific task).

I asked Cathy for some comments about job aids.

“Before designing formal training, consider whether a job aid is all you need.”

Here, she’s asking what makes you think you need formal training for X?  Is there another way to help people accomplish the desired result?

“If you decide training is necessary, make sure the job aids are top-notch, and consider having the ‘course’ teach people how to use the job aids.”

It’s not a job aid if you don’t use it while you’re performing the task. So if you build a job aid but find that people need to practice using it, that practice should be like on-the-job use.  They’re not going to be doing the real-world task from within the LMS (unless, poor devils, their real-work job is managing the LMS). Embalming a job aid inside a course is like disabling an elevator in hopes that people will learn how to get from the 3rd to the 9th floor without “cheating.”

“Don’t duplicate the job aid info in the course.”

  Part of the decision about whether to build a job aid involves the nature of the task. Among the considerations:

How likely is it that the task will change?

The likelier it is that the task will change (and thus that the steps for accomplishing it will change), the more sense it makes to build a job aid — and the less sense it makes to duplicate the job aid inside a formal course.

Instead, as part of your formal training, use the same job aid people will use on the job. And figure out how to make updates easily available.

No matter what learning management ideology claims, there are only three kinds of people who return to an online course for reference information:

  • People who work for the vendor.
  • Actors appearing in the vendor’s materials.
  • People on the job who are really bored or really desperate.

Because she involves herself with what people actually do on the job, Cathy has some inexpensive yet highly effective ideas about where to get started:

To evaluate and improve job aids, physically visit learners’ work stations and look around. What support materials have people created for themselves? Often someone on the job has already created a good job aid and you just need to “borrow” it.

Even if it’s a less-than-ideal job aid, the fact that someone’s created it and is using it suggests both that the task is important and that people feel the need for support as they’re carrying out the task. That’s one heck of a head start, and you haven’t had to create a single “at the end of this training program” statement.

(Based on Learning: blended, or blinded?
posed at Dave’s Whiteboard on June 28, 2012)