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LEAN Techniques: Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement – Without Losing Employee Talent [part 2]

By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

This is part two in a four-part series on LEAN Techniques. You can read Part 1 here.

One of the focuses of LEAN when it comes to improving efficiency and eliminating waste is ‘continuous improvement’. Of course, this means improvements in manufacturing processes and eliminating non-value-adding activities, but it is also an organizational mindset. If every employee at every level of the organization is in a mode of continuous improvement, that means: everyone is committed to wasting less time with outmoded systems or practices, to increasing productivity by improving soft or technical skills, and therefore building up the efficiency of the organization as a whole.

However, I should begin by saying, “I have good news and bad news”:  If you succeed in getting your employees focused on continually building up their performance in terms of high priority skills, then the next questions they are going to ask is, “Exactly what training resources can you provide me for improving in these areas?” That is both the good news and the bad news.

Why is it bad news?

One executive captured the explanation in simple terms: “We invest so much in education and training for our new young professionals, that we have gotten a reputation among our competitors as a great place from which to poach talent. We invest in them through internal programs and also tuition reimbursement for everything from a one-day seminar to pursuing an advanced degree. It is a great tool for recruiting and morale. But it also paints a target on our back. Our competitors in the region actively recruit our two-year-employees. Of course, they are thinking, ‘You’ve been working there for two years? Perfect. Come work for us and we’ll get the return on their education and training investment. It’s very frustrating!”

We call this the “development investment paradox.”  You invest in developing your new young talent only to make them more valuable in the free market, where they are in danger of selling your development investment to the highest bidder.  This is problematic when it comes to hard skills training as well as soft skills training: But it is especially maddening with soft skills training because soft skills are broad, transferable skills that never become obsolete and will make your employees more valuable anywhere they go in any job.  Plus, if you think of soft skills training as “extra” rather than “mission critical” then it seems like a foolish investment to make altogether.

What are the answers to this paradox?

First, use this paradox as an important reminder of the wisdom of sourcing new talent by targeting employers with great reputations for building up the soft skills of their new young employees.

Second, be prepared: If you become one of those employers known for building up the soft skills of your new young employees, you are going to become a target for talent poaching. Think of your competitors sitting around a table: “Their front line employees are so great – they seem so solid, well put-together, smart, capable, polite, engaged, and engaging! What can we do to lure them away?” That’s a problem you DO want to have. However, it puts a high premium on retaining the great young talent you are going to be developing.

Third, calibrate your development investment every step of the way so you never go too far out on a limb. But don’t fool yourself: High priority soft skills behaviors ARE absolutely mission-critical. That’s why it’s so important to know precisely which behaviors are your high priorities and focus on them like a laser beam.

Fourth, you need to get your employees to really buy-in to the value of the high-priority behaviors so they really own the learning process and are prepared to share the costs of the investment.  That means you need to engage their formidable self-building drive. If their self-building is engaged they will spend lots of time on self-directed learning outside of work and, when they are at work, they will be purposely focused on demonstrating and practicing their growing repertoires on the job.

Fifth, provide them with as many easy-to-use targeted learning resources as you possibly can to support their self-directed learning. These can be low tech resources just as much as high tech, but remember they are going to be very tuned in to just-in-time learning resources available online. In particular, today’s young talent is used to being able to get a simple tutorial on just about any topic by going straight to a short online video with explanatory articles (or multiple videos from multiple sources).  If you want to have some input on the sources from which they learn, that means building and supporting easy-to-access learning resources that are in alignment with your training goals.


Does this all mean that you shouldn’t be so generous when it comes to less targeted investments in soft skills? You have to do the math for yourself, but I will say this: Whatever investments you make, the key to protecting your investment is making your young employees full partners – co-investors – in the learning process. As long as they are actively learning skills they value – with your support – they are much less likely to think about leaving.

The general manager of a well-known chain recently shared this with me: “When we teach our team members customer service skills, obviously it’s all about taking care of our customers. But a huge part of our emphasis is on the value to our employees as well. Sometimes they don’t realize at first that customer service skills are extremely valuable in any role in any organization. So we hammer away at the fact that every minute they spend learning and practicing customer service skills is not just an investment in this job but also an investment in they are making in themselves. We need them to buy-in so we really sell it to them.” How does it work? “It really works because we really help the team members own it: Every day there is a quick team huddle and in every meeting a different team member takes a turn leading a quick customer service lesson. They can take a lesson from our curriculum or they are free to create their own lesson. They find cool videos and articles and quotes and some of them really get into it. We take this very seriously – so we recognize and reward team members when they go above and beyond, financially and otherwise.  We often add the lessons they create to our curriculum and we give them full credit as content creators. It creates a virtuous cycle: Some of them really get into it and they make a point of actively practicing the techniques on the job and really showing off what they are learning. Of course, they are usually the ones who stay and become assistant managers and start moving up through the company.”

Lessons learned:

  • If you want them to buy-in, then you have to really sell it to them: Take the time to make the case for why the skills you want them to learn are not just good for you and your business, but are also going to be really valuable to them. Remember, soft skills are broad, highly transferable skills that are valuable in any kind of job and never become obsolete.
  • Help them own the learning by giving them a concrete role in the process: How can you get them actively involved in the training? Can they bring some of their own ideas to the table? Can they help you define learning goals? Identify sources of content or create original content? Teach some of the lessons?
  • Make sure they have opportunities to practice what they are learning on the job and gain recognition and reward and advancement through active participation. Pay close attention to the employees who really get into it as they are likely the ones who might stay and build careers in your organization.

Remember that Millennials are highly accustomed to self-directed learning: If they are eager to learn something, you cannot hold them back in today’s information environment. They will go out into the endless sea of information and people on-line and navigate their own course of links and sources. Before you know it, they will be surprising you with their thoughtfulness, originality, and engagement in the learning.

Whether you are hiring people to engineer, administrate, or engage in high level sales, if you can get them to own the learning process, they are going to be thinking more and more about how they do whatever it is they do. Remember, knowledge work is not about what you do but how you do whatever it is you do. If you help them make whatever they are doing knowledge work by constantly trying to leverage the LEAN principle of continuous improvement in their work, they are going to get more and more invested; more and more engaged; and better and better at their jobs.


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website