Overcoming the Three-Day Washout Effect

Billions are spent every year on corporate training programs, yet, most of what is learned never transforms into changed behavior on the job.

Creating a Quantum Organization - Training Magazine

Regardless of the content of any corporate training programs, unless certain follow-up activities are conducted explicitly and effectively, many members will surely experience what I call, The Three-Day Washout Effect: Three days after having learned a new behavior or skill in a relatively safe workshop, it’s as if that workshop never took place. Upon returning to work, it’s back to business as usual as members hear the battle cry: “Get back to work!”

Billions of dollars are spent every year on corporate training programs, yet, all or most of what is learned in off-site classrooms or workshop settings never finds its way into changed behavior and attitudes on the job — where it counts. To overcome the threat of the “three-day washout effect,” we must address this classic transfer-of-learning problem. Otherwise, the considerable investment will be entirely wasted.

Assigning a Process Observer at Every Group Meeting

I developed the Process Observer Form to help workgroups improve their behavior and results. Here is a listing of the ten fundamental principles that every work unit must follow in the organization:

Ten Key Principles For Effective Group Process

  1. Planning vs. Doing
  2. Assumption Testing
  3. Decomposing the Task
  4. Task Leadership
  5. Group Maintenance
  6. Process vs. Content
  7. Listening vs. Speaking
  8. Supportive Communication
  9. Conflict Modes
  10. Leadership Styles

At the beginning of each meeting, everyone should understand the objectives of the meeting. Members should plan and prioritize their agenda items before discussing any subject. They should agree to address essential issues first and less critical issues last. Members also should plan how each agenda item will be approached and whether it can be subdivided into several manageable pieces so that a project’s complexity does not immobilize them—spending time planning before proceeding saves time later. As soon as a plan is developed, the assumptions underlying all subsequent discussions should be illuminated to minimize the likelihood of committing severe errors in problem management and reduce the occurrence of circular, repetitive, and superficial talks.

The more talkative members should make a concerted effort to bring the less talkative members into every discussion to ensure that all perspectives are heard, and available information can be used. This is particularly meaningful if any international members feel shy or hesitant to speak since the host language is not their native tongue; they might still be trying to figure out the cultural norms and customs of the host country. Even more, group members should regularly assess whether their cultural norms continue to support new, bizarre, and provocative ideas. All communications should be courteous – respecting every person’s ego and treating everyone with dignity. Only one member in a meeting should be speaking at one moment; everyone else should be listening. Instead of a competitive spirit (fighting to talk the most and trying to win the final argument), a collaborative spirit must be applied to complex problems to make full use of everyone’s knowledge for the best group outcome. Occasionally, members should take a break from the discussion on content and inquire about the process: How are we doing as a group? Are we applying the ten fundamental principles and all the skills we learned in the wholly integrated program? If not, what should we be doing differently?

When it comes to ensuring that members will apply these fundamental principles and improve their group process on the job, it’s essential to appoint one member as a Process Observer (PO) at the start of every group meeting. This PO monitors how well the ten principles guide the group’s discussions. Using a Process Observer Form, the PO summarizes what did and did not go well at the end of each session. A plan is then formulated regarding what to do differently during the next meeting.

Every time the group meets, a different member is appointed PO. Every member should have the opportunity to develop their observation skills and practice giving effective feedback. Eventually, establishing a PO will no longer be necessary; the responsibility will have become shared among all members.

Further Overcoming the Three-Day Washout Effect

A second solution to counteract the three-day washout effect is requiring all groups to discuss what they have been doing differently — in the workplace — since the training program began.

Setting aside a few hours every month, the members write down (A) what they DID do differently and (B) what they did NOT do differently since the training program began.

Next, one member is assigned as the Process Observer (PO) for the meeting, and the group discussion proceeds: Members read their responses and ask them to provide feedback regarding what they observed about each person’s behavior and attitudes, specifically: (A) Which claims about changed behavior do others confirm have taken place. (B) Which claims do others contradict since they have NOT been witnessed? Members might provide this feedback: “Maybe you intended to do that differently, or wanted to do that differently, and thought about doing that differently, but we haven’t observed your claimed changes in the workplace. Members are asked to write what claimed the behavioral change was confirmed and what was contradicted, including suggestions on how to demonstrate the desired behavior (and attitudes) in the workplace. Everyone then writes down EXACTLY what they plan to do differently to overcome the three-day washout effect.

After each group member has presented their claims of how they have changed their behavior, received feedback about what was confirmed or contradicted, and has committed to writing to doing things differently, that can be easily observed and confirmed, the workgroup schedules the next round of Progress Reports about one month later. In the last 10 to 15 minutes of the current meeting, the PO shared their feedback about how well the group applied the ten fundamental principles of group process, and they discussed what needs to be done better next time.

About a month later, the group again meets to proceed with the next round of Progress Reports. Another group member is assigned as the PO. Each member shares the specific feedback from the last Progress Report and reads aloud what they wrote down to do differently so their desired change would be more observable.

It’s so important to appreciate the tremendous social pressure that’s now being placed on all group members to CHANGE BEHAVIOR in the workplace: After a few months of using the Process Observer coupled with the Progress Reports, one hears these kinds of statements: “There is so much pressure to change — from our peers, from our managers, from the trainers, and ourselves. I had no idea my colleagues would take me to task if I didn’t apply the key principles of this program in every group meeting in a demonstrable way. I now know why it’s so difficult to change behavior and why all our previous attempts had little chance of succeeding with real behavioral change on the job: We had falsely ASSUMED that all members would instantly change their behavior without any feedback, guidance, or social pressure from anyone else.”

Ralph H. Kilmann Ph.D.
Ralph H. Kilmann, Ph.D., is authority on systems change as CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics, and author of more than twenty books including Creating a Quantum Organization. He has years of experience teaching a wide variety of university and management training courses on conflict management and change management, all of which are now available as recorded online courses on his website.