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How to Avoid Wasting Your Employees’ Skills

Over the past decade, local, state, and federal agencies have been implementing Lean practices to reduce government waste and better serve citizens. Lean can be defined as a management approach that seeks to maximize value while removing wasteful activities and practices.

Think of waste as a step in a process that is not required to successfully complete a process. When waste is removed, processes are completed with maximum efficiency.

These wastes are commonly grouped by category. You may be familiar with these categories by the acronym of TIM WOOD, which includes:

T – Transportation
I – Inventory
M – Motion

W – Waiting
O – Over production
O – Over processing
D – Defects

Many Lean experts also recognize an eighth waste known as Skills, which gives pluralism to our acronym resulting in TIM WOODS. Skills waste occurs when people’s talents, experiences and knowledge are underutilized, in other words – wasted human potential.

When employee skills are wasted, engagement levels hit rock bottom and the other waste areas, such as defects, can become more prominent. For any Lean effort to be successful, the intelligence of all the teams around it must be utilized to identify and eliminate waste. This “systems approach” is another reason why tackling the Skills waste is critical to governmental organizations.

Even more consequential, is that according to Lean research, Skills waste typically results from management style. In other words, our own management practices may be contributing to significant skills waste.

Identifying how leaders can fully utilize the intelligence and capabilities of people around them was the focus of Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers research. Her research showed that leaders acting as Talent Magnets fully utilize and grow employee intelligence and capabilities. Skills are rarely wasted when leaders practice the Talent Magnet disciplines which include:

Find People’s Native Genius. Finding native, and often underutilized, genius begins by being curious about the talent around you.

Utilize People to their Fullest. Once a Talent Magnet has uncovered the native genius of others, he or she looks for opportunities to utilize those capabilities.

Remove the Blockers. Sometimes a Talent Magnet removes the prima donna who is blocking the intelligence of others. But sometimes the blocker is the leader himself.

The Lean process improvement model’s foundational principle is “Respect for all employees.” Skills waste is where Lean meets the Multipliers leadership disciplines.  The Lean “systems approach” to organizational effectiveness cannot survive in the absence of a culture that discounts the ownership and devalues intelligence of all its participants.

Traditional approaches to organizational development have stressed “leadership buy-in” as the key to success.  In the Lean world, this relatively passive involvement is replaced by active “employee promotion” on the part of Lean program leaders.  This presents unique, but not insurmountable challenges within the framework of civil/public service employment practices.

The following Talent Magnet tips can address Skills waste while promoting higher levels of engagement for your Lean program.

  1. Genius Watching. The key to becoming a Talent Magnet is having the mindset that everyone has a genius and employing your curiosity to find the hidden genius in everyone. Instead of wondering if someone is smart, ask yourself, in what ways are they smart?

Talent Magnets are always on the hunt to identify native genius around them. There are various methods for spotting genius depending on your environment. First consider what signs to look for and then determine how and when to scan the environment. Typical scanning techniques include observation, feedback from others, and simply talking with the individual.

  1. Name the Genius. Once you identify how and where you can genius watch be on the lookout for natural talents such as “identifying root causes” or “handling difficult situations” instead of skills that can be taught such as “good with Excel.”

Questions you may want to answer include:

  • What do they do better than anything else they do?
  • What do they do better than the people around them?
  • What are they doing when time flies for them?

Once you have identified their genius, identify new roles for this person to accept that extend their genius. Consider how their genius could contribute at a higher level in the team or organization.

  1. Super-Size It. Once you identify someone’s genius, don’t just give them more of the same work – give them harder work to stretch their genius. Think of this as giving them an assignment that is one size too big for them. Finding the right size stretch will come with practice. If you have Rescuer tendencies, make sure it is a situation where you will be accepting of mistakes. Making and learning from mistakes will help them grow into their new role.

Once you are ready, let the person know why you are giving them an assignment outside their comfort zone while demonstrating your confidence in their ability to grow into that role. As a Talent Magnet, this means being comfortable seeing others uncomfortable.

We have found that Talent Magnets create a cycle of attraction that is exhilarating for employer and employee alike. Their organizations are coveted places to work, and people flock to work for them knowing their talents will be stretched and grown.

How would your agency benefit from having the reputation as a place where career growth is accelerated?

Want more? Read How to Motivate Employees to Maximize Output, or the Top 5 Advantages of an Effective Performance Management Program

By Kathryn A. Henningson, PhD and Jon Haverly

Kathryn A. Henningson, PhD has been involved in health education and systems management for more than three decades.  She received her PhD in community health education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1984.  For the past 16 years, she has served as the Grants Development Specialist in the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute.  Dr. Henningson completed her NYS Lean Empire Belt certification in November 2017.

Jon Haverly is a Multipliers Master Practitioner with The Wiseman Group focusing on conducting leadership research and helping to develop public sector leaders. He has worked with a variety of government agencies for the past 20 years in the areas of project management, portfolio management and leadership. He has been a PMI certified Project Management Professional since 2001.

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Catherine Andrews

I really really really love this question and way of framing things! “Instead of wondering if someone is smart, ask yourself, in what ways are they smart?”

Kathryn Henningson

Thanks so much for your comment, Catherine. That is why I believe the Multipliers leadership model and the Lean process improvement model are a perfect match! The fundamental anchor for both Multipliers and Lean is respect for all employees. Instead of where a person sits in the organization define them, these models take a holistic view of how each employee can contribute their unique intelligence and skills.

Avatar photo Blake Martin

Great article! I’ve never heard about the TIM WOOD(S) acronym until now, but I’m definitely going to keep it in mind moving forward. Loved the differentiation between natural talents and skills that can be taught, such as your example of being good at Excel.

Kathryn Henningson

Thanks for your kind words, Blake! Your point abut natural talents and skills vs skills that can be taught is well taken. Everyone has different natural talents and skills. It’s what makes us unique! That’s why Multipliers is the perfect leadership model for continuous quality improvement (CQI) methods like Lean.

If you want to see more of how Toyota spreads the word about Lean, click on or copy and paste this link into your browser: http://www.tssc.com/default.asp. If you go to the projects tab, you will find the work Toyota has done with New York State and the case study with the Department of Health. If you click on the nonprofit section, you will see my favorite video – “Meals per Hour.” It’s the story of how Toyota worked with the NYC Food Bank after Super Storm Sandy.