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Experience and Continuous Improvement

Does experience matter anymore? Despite the fact that people talk about experience with a degree of reverence, it has a changing role in continuous improvement.

Experience is defined as having knowledge or practical wisdom from having done something. The more it was done, the more experience a person gained.

Be careful not to let experience matter too much in decision about people. Use it as an indicator, but judge people on demonstrated ability.

That is especially sound advice in Lean. Continuous improvement changes the importance of experience, simply because processes change so rapidly. Knowing yesterday’s process, and being highly experienced on it, doesn’t always mean a person has expertise on new processes.

Unfortunately, this can be a contentious point in Lean companies. Experience on problem solving and on adapting Lean tools becomes important and lasting. Experience on specific processes isn’t as important when that process is documented, standardized, and will likely change in the near future. People, especially those with a long history in their job or company, feel devalued when experience carries less importance.

Experience does play a role in judging whether someone has sufficient expertise, which is what really matters, but time in a job is not the only factor to consider. Many other aspects of experience affect experience. So, the short answer to the question “Does experience matter anymore?” is that yes, it does, but in a changing manner.

Conditions which affect experience include:

  1. Relevance: Is the experience directly applicable to the new situation at hand? In some cases, close is good enough. A Lean consultant who has expertise in the automobile industry will likely do well in most manufacturing environments, but will be best suited for heavy manufacturing. Chemical processing might be more of a stretch. For a real-world example, would you let an exceptionally experienced eye doctor perform an appendectomy on you?
  2. Span of Experience: The total range of time that a person has been doing something plays a role in expertise. This is the traditional view of experience. The longer someone performs a task, the better they get at it. Of course, this assumes the task is still relevant…
  3. Changing Environment: Changes in landscape make a difference in how important experience is. In some cases, skills become extinct, and lots of experience doesn’t matter when the work landscape changes. Is a pilot with 30 years of experience better than a pilot with 10 years? Probably. Despite the changes in technology, experienced pilots are good at recognizing emergency situations and reacting intuitively. What about a computer programmer? Do the first 20 years of experience add much over their counterpart with only 10 years? Not as likely. Most of their initial experience is likely on outdated software, and designed for more limited hardware.
  4. Frequency: What makes a golfer good? Playing often keeps muscle memory honed, and keeps experience from deteriorating.
  5. ‘Recency’: There is a term in science called ‘half-life’. It has to do with how long it takes for half of a material to degrade. The extension of that term is ‘half-life of education’. How long does it take to forget half of what you were taught? Calculus classes in college have a short half-life. For Lean, consider things like when a Black Belt’s last led a project team. They may have a lot of experience in previous years, but have they done one recently? Is the skill set one in which people can get rusty?
  6. Total Time: Going back to the golf example, total time on the course is a better indicator of experience than years. Total time is a function of frequency and span. Would someone who has played a couple times a year for 20 years likely be better or worse than someone who took up golfing in the last three years, but has played fifty rounds a year?
  7. Innate Skills: Not all people are created equal in ability. Some people ‘get it’ much quicker than others. Don’t let a lack of experience override demonstrated ability.


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