Saturday, 9 November 2013

Learning by Example

According to Google, there are around 32,000 web pages on “Sitting by Nellie”.

This is the approach to teaching someone a new task, where they sit down with a more experienced person and watch how the task is done. We have all done this at some time in our lives – perhaps some of you learnt to drive this way? – and this is how many of us learnt to cook.

I am sure this can be useful in companies, for example when a new member of staff joins, as long as the weaknesses of the approach are recognised and handled.

The worst case, which I have seen only too often, is where the company has a complex computer system which is understood by only one member of staff. For various reasons this person suddenly decides (or is told) to leave, and a new person is elected to take over and become the expert.


The appointee sits down with the true expert for half a day or at most a day, which is all the time that can be spared for the handover.

The experienced person then leaves, before the new person fully understands the complexity of their role or even all the tasks they must do.

The result is chaos. Not all jobs are done, not all are understood, not all are completed. Management fail to benefit from information they got in the past. Crucial steps are missed.

There is, in truth, no way that a manager can expect the new person to be as competent as the “expert” after a few hours! How many hours driving practice did you need?


Unfortunately this is what I have seen happen in several companies. In one instance an experienced member of staff was made redundant and it took six months for the department to catch up on the resulting loss of knowledge.

In another case, a crucial process was missed out of the training and only spotted eight months later! (Oh, by the way Joan, where is the month-end report we used to get?)

Because the manager does not fully understand the job they underestimate what is required – and may not listen when they are told otherwise.

Sitting by Nellie can be a great way of cheaply and effectively training new staff if an experienced person is able to monitor the on-going quality of the work being done. Or as a way of covering holidays, given that the expert will come back after their break and can fill in any gaps. It is then in their own interest to ensure that the training is done to an acceptable quality.


In fact it is crucial in a business not to allow one person to become so expert that they cannot be replaced. All procedures should be fully documented, and then checked by someone else actually doing the job (for example when the expert is on holiday) so the gaps can be identified.

(In one of my customers a senior manager was the only person who could carry out the weekly run when the secretary was on holiday... Not good practice!)

So use Sitting by Nellie as good economics, but make sure Nellie sticks around to check up on how the training went!
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