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How can I train technical experts who know more about the work than I do?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I understand I have to train people, but I work in a very technical area and they all know far more about their jobs than I ever will. How can I train them if they know more than I do?

Teach them improvement. You’re making a very good point, and asking a very good question. In knowledge work, in particular, the people you manage are likely to know a lot more than you do about their job. The same happens dealing with suppliers – in many cases, we rely on outside partners to help us with aspects of our own job we feel less than competent at. How can we evaluate their work if they know best? What’s more, how can we train them? To what?

A pivotal attitude in lean management is “problems first”-- welcoming problems rather than brushing them under the carpet, shooting the messenger, or routinely looking for workarounds. Problem solving is the main development method in lean management. However, problems can be solved smartly or stupidly. Some “solutions” can turn out to be terrible ideas, with negative consequences. How can we tell a good countermeasure from a poor one if we don’t understand the field? In specialist fields, how can we become expert enough to figure out what’s what?

The trick is to focus on kaizen. If you’re unsure of what you know or understand, focus on an improvement topic. A couple of years ago, the CEO of a maintenance operation asked me to help with his lean program. I had never worked very closely with service or maintenance and found myself in the typical consultant situation of having to advise without knowledge – borrow your watch to tell you what the time it is. I told the CEO I was incompetent to help them, but he’d tried lean before and wanted to try something else, so we agreed we’d be learning together.

One thing I knew from years on the shop floor of various industrial operations is that service parts are always a problem – they take for ever to obtain, which is not surprising because they’re hard to schedule and manufacture from producer’s point of view.

So we gave ourselves a challenging improvement goal of no more interventions rescheduled because of a missing part. These are serious people, and serious operations, so they’d tried several times before, mostly with software patches. This time we did it the lean way:

  1. We visualized on-time-delivery for every technician in one center on a wall to show how well the parts delivery process performed for its internal clients.
  2. We asked the person in charge of the stock to list problems as and when they occurred.
  3. We visualized the inventory by reorganizing the physical holding of stock in terms of high-runners, low runners, and odd parts very difficult to procure.
  4. We asked him to recalculate his inventory levels once a month and to progressively build a plan per part.

We discovered that very few parts were used very frequently. With hindsight, this was obvious, but had been lost in all the background noise. We also discovered that the company had an implicit ordering policy with habitual suppliers and thus would buy in batches to get a price discount, cluttering the stock.  We learned that some parts could be procured really fast through new specialist sites (even, believe it or not, through Amazon), and not necessarily at a much higher price (in fact, we were astonished at the process differences and fluctuations).

In the end, it turned out that service parts could be a fully profitable business, not just supplying technicians on the field, but customers as well, as the firm learned the ropes of smart procurement.

Learning Areas

We also quickly found out that many problems came from dispatch – as they looked into applying the same basic method: measure the performance, list the problems, visualize the process, try new stuff. Sure enough, we discovered how complex dispatching really was as there are no two similar maintenance contracts and the level of service required varies from one client to the next.

From these two starting points, the CEO and his team progressively got closer to the core of the business: service on site. This is particularly hard to kaizen because technicians are on their own in client sites and the Gemba is difficult to access. What they did was create learning areas in all centers with client training machines to explore with technicians how service itself was done, again, by asking them to improve certain aspects of their job.

The upshot is that I learned a lot about service. Over a couple of years, inventory was cut by half and margin doubled as a result of the CEO’s relentless kaizen efforts. And he learned things about maintenance that he didn’t know as well.

By the by, what he learned enabled him to attack a new market of independent clients he’d not have an in before because his company was geared towards servicing large corporate clients. He discovered that independents could be easier on price but required a much more personalized approach to service – and learned how to do so cost effectively.

Now, it’s clearly better to start with knowing something about the topic, but sometimes you start where you start – which can mean a clean slate. By focusing on kaizen topics, you’ll find you learn very quickly simply asking “why’ repeatedly. People are never shy of explanations when they’re in the midst of Problem solving. They don’t feel imposed on or bothered by stupid questions. In the full flow of Problem solving, exchanges are easy, explanations natural, and very often every one discovers that what we assume we all know is never so clear. Even the most experienced people learn when they explain to others.

Teach to Improve

How do you know you’re tackling the right improvement topics? Here again, lean tradition is a big help: if you’re looking at safety improvement, quality improvement, flexibility improvement (stock reduction) or productivity improvement you can’t go far astray.

Although you certainly can’t teach their jobs to people who are specialists in narrow expert domains (and shouldn’t try), you can always teach them to improve. kaizen topics and kaizen techniques will soon surface specific technical problems and encourage observation and discussion. When this occurs, you will learn as the experts engage with the problem – they’ll spontaneously show you the guts of the issue. Furthermore, you can also contribute by your own experience or out-of-the-box thinking. In full problem-solving mode, no one will mind or resent that.

The next step is to ask experts to write up standards to support the kaizen ideas. As the knowledge base grows, so does your understanding of the situation. You will never get the same experience they have. Experience, in itself, is not transferable. But you’ll find you’ll learn about the fundamentals much faster than they have. Soon enough, you’ll be hiring someone not quite so expert to do the job and find yourself teaching them how to do it as well.

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