Iron Mountain Inc. is growing fast. Since the mid-1990s the Boston-based storage and information management firm has acquired more than 250 competitors, and is still buying companies. But training for its 7,000 couriers, records center specialists and other front-line employees was inconsistent, and in some cases, nonexistent.
It was a significant concern. The stakes for misplacing or losing customer documents containing sensitive personal customer information rose substantially as more states enacted data breach disclosure laws. The company had to update its chain of custody security process and work flow rules. But whether or not front-line employees adopted the augmented standards companywide was anyone’s guess, said Stacy Henry, director of learning for Iron Mountain’s North American operations.
Iron Mountain introduced new training initiatives, but most fizzled and died. Henry, who joined the company in 2010, said the problem lay with the teachers. Historically, training was left up to local supervisors across the company, but many of them had never been on a truck to pick up customer documents, scan documents or place customer files on warehouse shelves. As such, while supervisors were familiar with process work flow, many didn’t have a clue how to best perform those jobs.
Henry’s team devised a new strategy: instead of supervisors, let credentialed front-line employees teach new hires, and the Sentinel Certified Coach peer training program was born. These coaches would be the guardians of the guiding principles at Iron Mountain. “The peer coaching model has been so well-received by the front-line population because it’s less intimidating for them to learn from somebody who does their same job every day,” Henry said.
After the Sentinel program was implemented, scanning errors declined from about 15,000 to 20,000 a week in December 2011 to about 3,000 in July 2013. Henry said the latter number “is completely acceptable given the sheer volume of scans our company does on a daily basis.”
The training switch offered additional benefits. Employee turnover fell from 40 percent in 2010 to roughly 15 percent in 2011 and 2012. At press time, 2013 numbers were not yet available, but they were trending just under 13 percent. And in 2011, Iron Mountain saved about $4.5 million in workers’ compensation claims from 2010. Claims costs went down another $2.5 million in 2012, and as of September 2013, costs were down another $1.7 million.
“Prior to Sentinel and the peer coaching model, there weren’t any standardized training programs or methods,” Henry said. “Turnover was high because without the proper training, process and work flow errors occurred. This put pressure on new employees to do a very important job without the proper training, so many people left.”
The Birth of a Sentinel
The Sentinel program was first rolled out in the company’s transportation service line, as its more than 3,000 couriers not only had the most direct customer contact, but the service line also represented the highest risk in the chain of custody when it came to incident rates, including safety, preventable incidents, process failures and inadvertent disclosures of sensitive documents.
In early 2010, Henry and her team, along with the transportation line’s leaders and other company subject-matter experts, analyzed training programs at other logistics-driven companies, such as UPS and FedEx Corp., and developed a blended program of 23 e-learning and 30 on-the-job-training modules. These were implemented on 250 computer terminals in the field, and a certified coach training program was launched at a 9,170-square-foot centralized facility in Atlanta.
In September 2010, the team invited couriers to apply for coach training, and 500 applicants underwent 30-minute panel interviews by Henry, their immediate supervisors, local transportation managers and a human resources representative. The selected candidates were then trained at the Atlanta facility, which mirrored Iron Mountain’s operation sites, and housed classrooms equipped with e-learning stations, simulators and video conferencing capability that can link instantly to any similarly equipped company location.
“The other reason peer coaching is so well received is because we don’t just select the go-to guy or gal as the coach,” Henry said. “Because of the formalized process, there is no way that supervisors could just pick their favorite employee. It is a very fair and equitable process.”
As part of the Sentinel “Train the Coach” certification process, coaches undergo a four-day workshop that includes topics such as adult learning theory, how to coach, train and administer learning to others, communication skills and a variety of other skills.
With the modules and certified coaches in place, Henry and her team rolled out a standardized curriculum. New hires spend one part of the day learning job fundamentals via e-learning modules, such as proper lift gate operation for company vehicles. For the second part of the day, new hires go out on the road for on-the-job training with a coach.
The length of the Sentinel program varies by service line. For transportation new hires, for example, the cycle continues for 10 days. Then coaches test new hires on the fundamentals and discuss with the supervisor or manager whether the employee is ready.
“With Sentinel peer coaching, employees have a mentor, a partner showing them the ropes,” Henry said. “Employees are not allowed to work independently or with any customer data until they have been qualified by the Sentinel coach. This establishes a safe working and training environment.”
In the peer coaching model, the coach’s main responsibility focuses on courier or record center specialist operations. Sentinel coaches balance that responsibility with new employee training and supporting the organization with monthly, quarterly or annual training. Coaches report directly to operations and field supervisors. They also have dedicated learning program managers on Henry’s team, who solicit their ideas for how to enhance the program.
John “JT” Tomovcsik joined Iron Mountain in 1986 as a courier and worked his way through many areas to eventually become executive vice president and general manager. He said while training was informal when he started, there were ‘go-to’ people, or peers employees could count on to teach them in a meaningful way. “It is helpful to have somebody close to you as an expert, who has pride in the work they do like our peer coaches have,” he said.
Carter McNamara, CEO for Authenticity Consulting LLC in Minneapolis, said organizations typically achieve the most effective results when they employ a systemically planned approach to peer learning.
“They just can’t put people in a group and expect something magical to happen. It doesn’t always happen that way,” McNamara said. “First answer the question, ‘We’re using peer methods so that blank’ — filled in by a behavior that you want to see them doing. Peer learning also needs to be structured.”
He also said organizations need to define what they mean by “peer,” which should mean anyone who needs to come together as equals in learning. “If everybody is learning the same topic or skill, such as how to avoid burnout, you might want them to be on the same level.”
A Bumpy Road on the Mountain
Iron Mountain did encounter several challenges during the implementation of its Sentinel program. Henry’s team conducted three rounds of WebEx conference sessions with regional and market leaders to sustain excitement during the program’s initial launch. They received feedback from some of the coaches saying their immediate supervisors weren’t providing them adequate time to perform both their coaching duties and their regular responsibilities.
To address this, the team added a fourth round of WebEx sessions for immediate supervisors, discussing how to schedule the coaches to allow them enough time to serve customers while training new hires and addressing supervisors’ questions and concerns. “By adding this step, we were able to better prepare the supervisors for the support they needed to provide the coaches when they returned from class,” Henry said.
After rollout, the learning team also learned it would need to move quicker to implement the program for other service lines, such as the records centers and document shredding plants. The team adjusted its design and delivery schedule and added resources for coach certification sessions, cutting development time by 50 percent.
The team developed the Sentinel program for the records centers in third quarter 2012 and completed rollout by second quarter 2013. For the shredding plants, program development began second quarter 2013 and rollout was completed in early December. Iron Mountain rolled out the program to its data management service line in February.
At press time, Iron Mountain had deployed nearly 800 total computer terminals in various North American operations locations for the Sentinel program, 117 e-learning modules, 140 on-the-job training modules and had nearly 500 certified coaches.
The company is also starting a rollout for its South American, European, Asian and Australian markets. “We’re in this for the long haul and committed to providing the highest levels of service for our customers,” Tomovcsik said.
Henry said for her the greatest satisfaction is that the company is investing “in the folks who deliver our service at the front-line levels, the guys and gals who are doing the work every day and are often the face of Iron Mountain for our customers. A lot of companies start peer coaching at salaried levels, but we’re investing in front-line hourly employees, and that’s something to be really proud about.”
Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.