In the very first issue of IndustryWeek, Jan. 5, 1970, we reported that industry spends millions of dollars on training each year, and that companies had better start spending more, or spend more wisely, because the effort hadn't been effective. The crisis then was centered on the obsolescence of human talent, and the need to upgrade human capital as rapidly as companies were upgrading technology, machinery and management methods. Fast-forward 34 years. The picture hasn't changed. What company isn't under the gun to continually update employee skills? According to IndustryWeek research, U.S. manufacturers typically spend upwards of 2% of labor costs per year on training. If each of the 14.3 million manufacturing workers in the United States receives 20 hours of training per year, at $13 per hour, the labor cost alone of all of that training exceeds $3.7 billion. Yet, operational improvement initiatives can be the worst waste of resources. Every new management scheme, whether it originates at the corporate office or the factory, kicks off with a training campaign designed to indoctrinate every employee in the "new" way of doing things. These efforts quickly become a rote exercise that doesn't provide any knowledge of lasting value to employees and fails to have a long-term impact on performance. The legal profession has given manufacturing executives a worst-practice example of ineffective training. You show up at a conference room at the allotted time. You listen to the hired expert talk about the issues, watch a video or two. After two hours you sign a piece of paper stating that, yes, you received sexual harassment prevention and awareness training. Presto! You're a new, more "sensitive" manager. Should you ever go astray, someone will pull out your personnel file, "Look. She was trained. She should have known better." Real employee development, the foundation for any sustainable culture change, combines classroom sessions with on-the-job practice and ongoing reinforcement. At some of the best manufacturing operations I've ever visited, training is continuous, it's driven by the operational strategy, and it's delivered by peers. Knowledge development is built into the fabric of how these organizations operate. Unlike many companies, where employee training and development is the first budget item to get the ax during a sales downturn, such activities are maintained because they can be directly linked to behavioral changes and activities that drive business results. This intermingling of knowledge development and operational improvement is at the heart of successful Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing programs. It's one factor that can make a three-to-five-day problem-solving session -- what some manufacturers call a "kaizen blitz" or "kaizen event" -- so effective. These sessions remove people from their day-to-day responsibilities and typically begin with an introduction or refresher course covering some of the techniques that can be used to identify and eliminate wasteful, non-value-adding activity. Over the following days these tools are applied to reduce inventory, cut out wasted movement or improve material flow within a particular problem area. Even beginning Green- or Yellow-belt Six Sigma training requires employees to do more than sit through a bunch of training modules. They must take the analytical and statistical tools that they learn and apply them to a problem on the shop floor, or in the office. Six Sigma black belt and master black belt certification programs introduce more advanced techniques that allow people to tackle more difficult projects with higher potential returns, further cementing the loop between the tools, their application, and business results. Thus the focus becomes not calculating productivity lost to training hours, but adding up the benefits. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.