The Lean approach to process improvement is based on identifying and dealing with various types of waste. Traditionally, Lean lists seven types of waste, including defects, overproduction, excessive transport of goods, unnecessary motion of staff, confusion due to poor communication, waiting, and build-up of inventories. An eighth waste has been added to this list more recently, to wit the ‘waste of human talent.’ To my mind, this is the hardest to understand fully and address successfully. In this post, I will try to touch on a couple of salient aspects of this instance of waste.
Under-utilization and over-utilization of staff
Human talent can be wasted in a myriad different ways. An employee can be underutilized, for example. This can occur by tasking them in ways such that the work to be performed is below their capacity to deliver. The tasks can be menial and too easy, too few in volume, or both. If a person is creative, it stands to reason they will be brimming with ideas as to how to do things better and improve their work environment. Not listening to these ideas, by discouraging staff participation in decision making and undervaluing their potential contribution to the well-being of an organization is another example of waste of talent. This is based on a mistaken value judgment of the person’s worth by management, much as under-tasking someone is based on an erroneous assessment of skills. In both instances, the person is being underestimated.
Poor judgment can manifest itself through sheer lack of intelligence in failing to perceive and recognize intelligence in others, or by the unspoken fear that the ideas of others may undermine our own perceived value to our superiors on the corporate ladder. The latter can lead to intimidation and ostracizing of the most creative and outspoken among the staff, and eventually to them leaving This virtually guarantees that the organization will be mired in silent mediocrity for longer than it needs to be. Quite naturally, it is the organizations that are less capable of successfully integrating new and mostly enthusiastic staff into their workplace and corporate strategy that most often make use of external consultants.
An all too common approach to hiring consultants is in ‘crisis rescue mode’ and deserves its own post, but here a paragraph will have to do. Consultants should be hired to perform a time-limited, clearly scoped out task that the organization lacks the specific skills for, or perhaps the time. Unfortunately, consultants are just as often called in as some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing fixers, with an open-ended horizon, which is not the best use of the organization’s money. This can occur out of a mistrust in the capabilities of in-house resources — a negative attitude often not supported by evidence, and another instance of wasted human talent. A naive belief by management in the superior know-how of outsiders may also be at play. Insidiously, management may feel less threatened by outsiders who are highly paid, and will therefore be quite diplomatic in their assessment of the organization’s faults, no matter how egregious, especially if hoping for repeat work. These consultants also will eventually leave, having issued recommendations which management may well feel they are free not to disclose beyond a small inner circle and are also able to selectively adopt, something that might not be as easy to get around if the analysis had come from a broad cross-section of in-house staff.
Under-utilization is not the only way to waste human talent. Over-utilization, by which I mean either dropping people into situations which are clearly beyond their skill-set to solve or via overwork over an extended time-frame, can lead to similar outcomes, including capable staff leaving. In this instance, the oft-tried last minute tactic of increasing compensation may not be enough to balance the excessive workload, because people value other things beyond money, including family time. Lifelong careers and old-fashioned loyalty to employers are also changing as a result of widespread managerial cost-cutting of benefits. In other words, staff are increasingly viewed — and view themselves — as temporary and ‘disposable,’ rather than permanent and vital to enterprise growth, with all that implies. In this atmosphere of lowered job security, the ensuing high employee rotation leads to higher costs in having to locate, train, and integrate new staff, which goes directly to the bottom line in negative fashion. It is not a stretch to say that unrecognized and put upon staff will fail to creatively address the other types of waste mentioned, begetting continuous mediocrity rather than the grail of continuous improvement.
Retaining human talent
My point in this post is that management is most often at fault in this instance of waste, through lack of intelligence in properly assessing either the person’s skills or their core values, or in failing to support their best minds consistently and unstintingly over their career. While wastes such as overproduction or waiting are generally not perceived as a personal threat to anyone and can be fixed with everyone benefiting, addressing the waste of human talent cuts to the core of human emotions. It also requires that executives and managers genuinely care about their employees and that they are so secure in themselves that the presence of someone creative and/or more knowledgeable within striking distance is seen as an opportunity to be positively influenced by them. Sadly, this is often taken as a chance to intimidate capable staff through denial, the abuse of authority, and other ways of gaming the system, as described for ill-conceived ‘substitute consulting.’
When companies say that people are their most valuable asset — and which company does not like to say that these days — they need to understand and truly commit to supporting superior hires in their work well after they have been brought on board. This cannot be done absent an intellectually honest review of management talent and ethics, and needs to recognize that ‘yes men’ and managers who fear change despite their protestations to the contrary are really putting their personal agenda above that of the group, and sounding the death knell for the organization they purport to serve by stifling creativity and renewal at all levels.
Much like nature’s re-greening through the succession of seasons, a thriving company goes through many stages of growth and renewal, whereas a dysfunctional culture which fails its human talent is mired in the corporate intellectual and moral equivalent of a permanent winter.