Mary and I walked out of our General Manager’s office and went to have coffee. We had just left one of those meetings when you know that your work life will never be quite the same.
We had been given a huge challenge, and the stakes were very high. We were to complete and deliver at scale a new product variant to our sister division. The design was new and we had no database of performance to start with. The launch run rates were high and the cost targets demanded high levels of automation. Oh, and if that weren’t enough? The schedule was exactly one half of our usual product introduction cycle.
We were given a lot of support and flexibility – financially and process wise – but talent was very thin. However, our tight schedule meant that by the time we would have recruited and onboarded new talent, the deadlines would be upon us. We would need to approach our peers for their best and brightest, with promises of backfill headcount in exchange.
We quickly decided that we needed to form a steering team. Mary would lead product design and I would head manufacturing and production operations. We had our first offsite with five other key leaders in our division and looked at the challenge and the requirement from every angle possible. It was clear – actually it was very clear – that there was only one path forward that had a chance of success.
We would need to complete the design and manufacturing engineering in parallel.
The usual path was to bed down the design, and then ramp up the costly investments in capital equipment, process design and qualification. But what we set out to do was pioneer a new side-by-side model based on rapid decision making with the best possible knowledge and outcome probability at each process stage.
Now is was our turn to be surprised.
We identified 24 people and formed two teams: one design and one manufacturing. Our teams took over a conference room and turned it into a “war room.” We soon had every key process step on the wall with sticky notes for inputs, outputs and questions to be answered. We backed into the timeline for ordering production tooling and capital equipment and a red date was placed on each process when decisions needed to be locked in.
To our surprise, it worked. In fact, it didn’t just work, it worked well.
We saw levels of cooperation that rarely occur. We saw people continuously going out of their way to help each other make crucial decisions that had very real consequences.
We made it. It was hard, but that work created a dividend way beyond the delivery of one new product line. It built a cadre of leaders that laid the pathway for a decade of success. We learned about parallel processes that led to huge advantages in the industry and filled the P&L for a long time.
The really big takeaway
So, terribly interesting story Scott, but what does that mean for me and my talent shortage? Well, after this experience, I never looked at talent the same way again. If you would have told Mary and me that we could have gotten that job done with 24 people prior to this experience, we would have laughed. In fact we both would have asked for that many people – each.
So what exactly caused such high levels of efficiency in the teams?
Well a few things.
This was very early days, when Lean methods were just being applied to manufacturing. The one thing we knew for sure, was that there was one red line that we needed to find – the perfect path of design, manufacturing and production process that would yield the only result that mattered: product on time. Everything else was flexible.
- Did daily standup meetings.
- Used the power of interest and passion in forming work package sub-teams (pairing up teams from both product and manufacturing). It turns out that subject matter expertise augmented with passionate team mates is really powerful.
- Kept teams small (ideally 3-4 people).
- Made each decision within view of the whole team. We used a process that had everyone speak (even the quiet types), then forced a decision on deadline. This allowed a balance of risk and schedule performance.
- Used a risk mitigation tool called managing the reserves where we kept three “gauges” on our dashboard: the product cost, the ship date and the capability of the process. Each process step was allotted a budget of the total and we “reserved” 15 percent for unforeseen changes.
And this helps the talent shortage how?
We need to put talent and its strategic application in the same room with design of the mission. When we allow people as teams to engage their full capabilities under a clear set of rules of engagement, magic happens.
When you put people in pre-defined boxes, your system limits their contribution, and in fact, limits the scope with which process can occur. By taking the shackles off, we let the full capability come forward – and the results were dramatic.
Best-in-class firms like Pixar and Amazon use this set of tools frequently and ask themselves the following: are our programs defined as missions and not as fixed routes? Is the end point crystal clear? Is it clear we are looking for fresh thinking?
On the process side, they equip people with the right tools and keep asking questions to help them find the right job.
When discoveries are made they are communicated and talked about. The whole firm is built on a superordinate purpose: to employ human capital at its highest level to the problems of the day.
So, you may not be working against crazy constraints and deadlines on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use these principles. The next time you are faced with a resource shortage, flip the table on the dilemma, and think through how you can use the constraint of talent to drive you to a new level of performance.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, and would be happy to continue the discussion with you. You can reach me on Twitter or Linkedin, or please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.