There is a common lean phrase, “Bad systems beat good people.” Sometimes it is attributed to Dr. W. Edwards Deming although it isn’t actually his quote. I’ve used it for 20 years but couldn’t tell you if I heard it or was paraphrasing Dr. Deming’s teaching.
The sentiment is that good people come to work and try to do a good job, but encounter bad systems of work. Management is accountable for these systems. This helps us understand the role of process in achieving performance. Lean certainly has a plethora of methods that are process focused, from processing mapping to standardized work.
However, the relationship between lean and process is overstated. People believe lean is all about process, and anything that makes processes better is inherently lean. We often create program names such as Continuous Process Improvement because of the process focus. People will tell me that they have an industrial engineering degree and therefore are fully versed in lean. But process, while vital, is not enough. For example, you can’t put me into the New England Patriots’ system, or the New York Philharmonic’s, or follow James Patterson’s fiction-writing process and produce the same results. There is something missing: talent.
Talent is a vital ingredient of success in any domain. Too many improvement efforts treat talent as a fixed commodity. Certainly, it shouldn’t be an excuse, nor should it be a reason not to improve your processes. You don’t just hire talent and then leave it alone.
What do you do about talent? Here are some leverage points.
1. Put the right talent in the right place. Hiring is part of this, but so is organizational design. Too often I see an organization reward talent by taking them out of the place they perform the best. That’s like taking your best hitter on the team and making them a team coach before their retirement as a reward. So top salespeople become sales managers, and top engineers become engineering managers. Was that the best use of their talent?
More and more, organizations are developing technical competence career ladders in parallel to the typical management tracks. This allows the organization to reward talent with career advancement without misplacing it.
2. Talent is responsible for its own improvement. Your talent should hold the primary responsibility for their own development. A lean thinker is looking to improve their talent in any skill that matters. When I started joining companies’ boards of directors, I pursued my leadership fellow with the National Association of Corporate Directors. Earlier this year, in the pursuit of improving as a youth soccer coach, I achieved my national diploma with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. Each year, I establish goals for my own learning based on areas that I want to develop. More often than not, they are about building on my strengths rather than fixing a deficiency.
3. Coach and train. Making the development of talent a core part your business means integrating it into your management systems. This is not something to delegate to human resources. The hardest part of this is how you leverage your top talent. While not everyone is suited to coaching and training, leveraging your top talent to build more talent is the long-term play.
In one small organization, one of the key figures was brilliant and one of the best in the industry, but was so good that almost every decision had to be channeled through him. Every time the company grew, it collapsed back down under its own weight. We moved him out of the information flow and put him in a pure training role, sharing his knowledge full time, and the organization grew 40-fold. There was now plenty of talent to go around.
Talent plus process can lead to success. Of course don’t ignore your processes, but also don’t sacrifice talent in the pursuit of process improvement. Talent matters. Cultivate it, and make the target condition to have the most talented team in whatever you pursue.