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In Lean Jobs, Experience Is Less Important

In some jobs, experience is critical. I want to be treated by a doctor who has seen every symptom for every disease. I want my pilot to have logged a massive number of flight hours. The few times I’ve needed a lawyer to prepare legal documents for me, I’ve chosen ones with plenty of experience.

In static companies, when a process sticks around for years, experience with a process plays a big role. Those people who have been doing a process for a longer time generally do it better than new trainees.

But in Lean jobs, experience is not as vital. Let me rephrase that. Process experience is not as critical. That’s simply because processes change rapidly and frequently. Yesterday’s jobs are far different than today’s jobs. Experience in the old jobs won’t help much with the new way.

Don’t confuse inexperience with lack of expertise. When a process changes, nobody has any experience in it. A twenty year employee and a new hire both start from square one when a work cell is redesigned. Both have to be trained to be effective.

So, what kind of experience is important to Lean jobs?

  1. General technical skills. Being experienced at welding is important. Being experienced at welding the Widgetmax 3000 is not.
  2. Experience in using the Lean tools. The more adept a person is at using a flowchart, a value stream map, or at developing standard work, the more important they are to the company. Those people become versatile. When a process changes, they simply learn the new process—after all, it is likely well-documented.
  3. Experience at working on teams. Working together is crucial to Lean success. The more a person participates on a project team, the better she becomes at improving her job.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you seen the importance of experience in jobs change as companies improve their processes more rapidly?

(If you are interested in reading more about experience, I dive deeper into the subject in the Lean Dictionary section of the award winning Continuous Improvement Companion. I’ve made some good headway on adding terms in the last few days. We are rapidly approaching a hundred terms—and most are at least a few pages long.) 


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  • Jim Baran says:

    Good topic Jeff. A few comments:

    RE: Process experience is not as critical (Lean Jobs).

    Process knowledge is tribal as is the hiring systems that consume lean talent. Process “comfort” still weighs heavy in the talent selection process.

    On the surface, specific industry process experience remains a high preference by senior leadership, especially with new lean journeys.

    A manufacturing case in point: custom build (low-volume, high/low mix) versus high volume, discrete manufacturing. Most custom build companies view their build processes as more sophisticated if not more complex than discrete “feed & speed”. In transactional business process environments, process knowledge is often viewed as credibility (lean healthcare as one example).

    Truthfully, there are exceptions, but product/process is one of the first “preferred” experience values we receive from clients.

    As a search firm, our target list for above custom mfg example is built this way: first target, lean leader who’s worked in both custom and discrete. Second target, lean leader with primary custom build experience; third target, lean leader with deep lean knowledge lineage, structured problem solving, and behavior transformation in manufacturing who can illustrate strong business case experience for leading change in any industry.

    Capability tradeoffs occur below the surface. We’ve placed many #3 targets when #1 was the preference. This becomes a client conditioning challenge – educating the client that process learning is evolutionary and will actually strengthen the lean system, not minimize it. That process learning will gain traction from current reality, and widen as lean learning moves to future and ideal states.

    It’s been our experience that if you are able to focus the client on customer attributes versus existing “processes”, the tribal mindset loosens. Does your customer care about your custom or discrete experience? Or, would your customer more value doing the right things for the right reasons without process bias?

    What kind of experience is important to Lean jobs?
    Technical skills are important, but would say 60-70% soft lean influence versus 30-40% technical skills is an ideal balance.

    Experience using lean tools is a must. However, more significant is the leader’s track record of assimilating lean principals into the workforce. Second is structured problem solving. Third is influencing, and shaping lean behaviors. We look for evidence of all three performed simultaneously.

    When tools are discussed, we combine the three elements above and substantiate the leaders thought process behind selecting the tool for the task and their expected or unexpected result. If you want to understand why many lean journeys fail, you’ll find most answers here.

    Finally, Experience working on teams. Team work is fundamental for lean success. But what kind of teams do you build? How often do tribal relationships influence the new lean direction?

    Hope this helps inspire further discussion. I have also subscribed to your blog.

    Jim Baran
    Owner, Value Stream Leadership

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