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CTDO Magazine

Think Lean

Improve both the effectiveness and efficiency of your workforce with lean learning.

Why do some organizational change efforts and talent development programs fail? The reasons cited often include changes in company direction, lack of stickiness or traction of programs, and widespread disinterest. Surprisingly, these themes are common across most industries surveyed, and there's a good reason for that: Talent development deals with people, and in the realm of human behavior, the constant is the people, not the type of industry within which the people work.

Interestingly, almost all the top reasons for talent development challenges are directly influenced by re-evaluating the end goals of the talent development function. Think about this: If your company were losing market share and told shareholders that changes in consumer preferences and apathy among employees were reasons for declining revenue in the previous year, your company would lose value immediately. And for good reason—that's an unacceptable pair of excuses. So, how are a company's changing objectives or declines in employee morale acceptable reasons for talent development challenges?

They're not.

It comes down to an improper appraisal of what the talent development needs are that would specifically support the business's objectives.

Re-evaluate how work is done

What does lean learning mean?

Oftentimes the responses I hear are that lean must mean re-engineering the workforce, trimming head count, or cutting corners to achieve some business imperative. In fact, though, talent development using lean approaches is far from any of those conjectures.

Lean refers to approaches initially implemented in Toyota's automobile manufacturing and named by John Krafcik in a 1988 MIT Sloan Management Review article ("Triumph of the Lean Production System"). Certainly, some of the principles of lean come from the 1800s and earlier, but the systematization of lean to repeatable methods was a post-World War II series of approaches.

The typical assumption is that to improve the quality of a product or service a business provides, there needs to be commensurately upward-scaling costs of resources (time, capital, focus) applied. However, with lean principles, that is not at all true; higher and higher levels of quality and performance can be achieved without rapidly rising internal costs to achieve them.

The most successful corporations—from industries as diverse as aerospace, automotive, IT, food and beverage, healthcare, and financial services—directly implement lean principles to achieve higher quality in shorter timelines by re-evaluating how work is done within organizations.

In your own workforce, think about the time and efforts spent debating, designing, and deploying new talent development initiatives. What I can tell you empirically from observing more than 110 firms across the Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 doing exactly that, is that most programs do not achieve their aspirational goals. This typically translates into is a subtle legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) trick where talent development groups transform the goals the organization wants and needs into a series of targets that are readily achievable (see sidebar). This is a holdover from the early 1990s, when project management coda was rewritten as Gantt charts and checkboxes. If you can say a target was met, you can check a box as proof that you've moved the ball across the goalpost (and other such pithy analogies).

The problem is that these programs in many cases haven't appreciably changed employees' development or behavior in any meaningful way. The checkboxes of success were only tangentially related to the company objectives but not causal to their success. That is a major distinction.

The lean advantage

The "secret sauce" within lean is ensconced in a tool called value stream mapping (VSM). It looks to the uninitiated like a process flow diagram with many icons and emojis spread across it. But a look beyond the superficial visuals of the VSM exposes all the mystery. VSMs typically begin with what the customer wants to see, then they work backward to all the steps that occur to achieve that objective. Irrelevant arguments need not apply because if there is unnecessary work being conducted that doesn't provide value to the customer, it is quite simply just waste (see figure).

Think about how different this is from most other process flows. Instead of a series of process steps occurring without thought as to how they were conceived and how well they're achieving the objective of satisfying the end customer, each step must demonstrate its efficacy and value.

That alone changes the perception of the process participants.

You're busy. You need results. So, what's the best approach? I offer two principles: Stop measuring what does not matter and specify what each step in your talent development processes needs to deliver.

Stop measuring what does not matter

Many times, there will be talent development measures pertaining to total penetration or coverage of a training program (% trained), or dollars spent per full-time employee per year ($/FTE/yr.) on training courses, external developmental offerings, and so on. Don't do that.

The world-class approach is to look for what it is you're trying to get from talent development initiatives. Measure psychosocial factors in the organization (for example, frequency of spontaneous groups forming and solving business challenges, changes in behavior among employees that result in fewer defects or errors). I've seen plenty of companies spend time on corporate compliance training programs that look at total coverage across all employees. The training programs may tout an Excel table showing that "97.5% of the company was ‘trained' at X," but they are meaningless over time because their forgettability level is high, and lack of implementation often is not encouraging frequent skill development. I've seen dramatically better outcomes in organizations that instead look for an operationalizable output (a willingness to think or work differently).

Management guru Peter Drucker suggested the semantic difference between an efficient staff and an effective staff: An efficient staff try hard to do things. Everything. That often results in scope creep, tackling tasks that don't provide adequate return on investment, and so forth. By contrast, an effective staff focus on doing the right things. What this means is that the value-added activities within processes are known by all and are prioritized above tasks that dilute a company's efforts. By refining your talent development approaches, you can eliminate wasteful work and make staff more efficient and effective.

If your goal is to have more employees doing X, then your talent development measures should be exactly referential to that, not some derivative measure. If you're not directly influencing your employees to be more adaptive, agile, and thoughtful about their work, you're not "doing" talent development.

From a lean perspective, you need to identify those knowledge pieces, skills, abilities, and other factors that are associated with performance improvement at your company and hone them directly.

Specify what each step in your processes needs to deliver

Process flows within talent development are most often black boxes churning out "hope" and "missed objectives," but they don't need to be. Just like a supply chain or logistics challenge addressed by indirect measures and hope wouldn't be tolerated by the commercial side of the business, neither can the processes of talent development be left to chance. So here are the substeps to success.

Figure out the end game. What does the business need to have happen as a result of talent development initiatives?

Define and codify the steps required to achieve that end result. How do you achieve it?

Critically assess your steps to see how the teams perform. How often does something go into development for two or three weeks where everyone else downstream of that step waits (and, thus, wastes time)? It probably never takes two or three weeks but perhaps a half-day or a day that's being divested across dozens of other priorities that are ongoing. This is indicative of inadequate prioritization of other company objectives.

Pursue the best measurements for an executive's arsenal. Develop your new subordinate metrics based on what's critical to success. Now that you have identified all the critical steps needed to deliver on a result that influences the business, see how well the process steps are delivering on those steps. When did documents go back for rework or edits? How long did this delay launch?

Remember, the value being delivered in a talent development program is a change to the hearts and minds of employees, not the number of documents reviewed or fixed. It's also not the total number of new courses that have been created. Nor is it number of views of a course. Make sure each step functions to deliver and improve on the value to the employees and the business.

Course-correct as needed. It may not be exactly right the first time, but it gets more right over time. By keeping the pulse on the business' performance more directly, you remain nimbler to future needs.

Seek a pull culture instead of a push culture

How often does someone "make" you log onto Facebook or YouTube to view or interact with content? We, as consumers of information, hate push approaches (push notifications, push updates, mandatory training courses pushed to all staff). Similarly, improving talent development by seeking a pull culture is a strategy of looking toward a future where employees want to engage with their products and services, and keep up-to-date on the newest marketing programs and portfolio changes. It will not be an overnight change, but when employees begin to see true value in their training and development, improvements in their preparedness for work challenges, and feel like talent development is cherished and sought after, they will be moving from a pushed culture to a pull culture.

Lean is about delivering value and eliminating waste. Lean practices produce our cars, airplanes, smartphones, and tablets. Its ubiquity worldwide in these high-performance systems is specifically because it produces the best outcomes, time after time, by focusing on what the customer values and eliminating nonvalue-added and wasteful activities.

Make sure that in your organization you encourage experimentation on which types of talent development approaches (for example, role-playing, group lecture, e-learning, mobile learning, or microlearning) will best deliver on your objectives for the business. It's not good enough to assume the correct approach. Measuring the value delivered to the business means that you'll doggedly pursue better ways over time, not be content with good enough.

Sleight-of-Hand Trick With Goals

These department-level goals appear supportive of the corporate direction, but are acausal and unlikely to move the needle on any of the top-line objectives.

Corporate Objectives for New Year

Reduce cost of goods sold by 15%.

Improve employee resolution of customer complaints by 5 days.

Improve inventory velocity by 8%.

Recast Goal for Training and Talent Development Staff

Decrease cost of training expenditure per full-time employee by 30% this year.

Train staff to >98% compliance within 30 days on complaint handling.

Identify external supplier to train procurement and logistics staff.

Process Flow Chart vs. Value Stream Map

The first chart is a typical process flow diagram that looks impressive and bureaucratic, yet says nothing about achieving the end goal. Below it is a value stream map that looks to understand how well each step delivers value to the end user (customer).

About the Author
Ben Locwin is head of Global R&D Learning and a member of the enterprise learning leadership team for Biogen, a biopharmaceutical company. He is a behavioral neuroscientist and author of a wide variety of scientific articles for books and magazines, as well as an acclaimed speaker. He is an expert media contact for the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists and a committee member of the American Statistical Association. He also provides expertise to organizations on human learning and performance, and advises on a range of business, healthcare, clinical, and patient concerns. Follow him on Twitter: @BenLocwin.
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