As a kid, did you ever take family road trips? What were they like? I remember sitting in the way back of my parents’ station wagon, sweating in the summer heat as we drove to visit some distant cousin. My siblings and I would alternate moans of: “Are we there yet?!”
Now, think about a big change your company is going through. Maybe you’re going to open a new factory, launch a new product, or acquire a competitor. Are you asking that same question … are we there yet?!
Recently, I was talking with a senior VP of a medical device company. He was worried. His company has invested $2 billion in a new product and it needs to begin generating revenue by January 1. The problem he was facing wasn’t the device design. That was solid. The snag was in manufacturing it.
The device was being built in another country, which required standing up a whole new manufacturing operation and hiring a team from scratch. The move was partially successful. Product was coming off the line, but only because the experts who designed it were flying out regularly to oversee production.
Unfortunately, those same experts were supposed to be in their home office, working on version 2.0 of the device and creating new products, which is a common problem. Have your most creative people ever been stuck incubating an egg that has already hatched?
In this case, the company needed these experts innovating, not working on a legacy product. They needed to finish transferring their knowledge and skills to the new manufacturing team – and fast. Here’s how they did it.
Put Power in the Hands of the Apprentice (Not Just the Expert)
It’s easy to think that the expert should be in charge of teaching the apprentice. They hold the knowledge and skills after all. But it’s far more productive to empower the apprentice (in this case the new hire) to take charge of their own learning. If you provide your apprentices with goals, a structure for learning, and time to learn, you can then make it part of their job to get the information and training they need to level-up.
This was particularly pivotal for the medical device company mentioned above. Once given permission and the opportunity to take charge of their own learning, the new manufacturing team quickly mastered the process and no longer needed experts to fly in to do the work. Not only did this increase morale in both countries, it boosted productivity and freed up experts to get to work on new streams of revenue.
Define What “Done” Looks Like
In a letter to Amazon’s shareholders, Jeff Bezos recently wrote about high standards and the importance of being able to recognize “what good looks like.” I’ve used these same words many times and perhaps just as frequently, I’ve found myself asking: “What does DONE look like?”
Defining “done” is increasingly critical as companies navigate change – whether it’s launching a new product, switching to agile or merging with another company. The pressure for faster implementation is constant and can feel like you’ll be 80% done forever.
In the case of the medical device company, “done” needed to be defined at multiple levels. From the individual skill level – ensuring all the apprentices have actually mastered the skills needed (more on this below) – to the big picture level for the whole company. That is, ensuring everyone in the organization knows what the company is trying to accomplish and what their specific role is in making that happen (there’s more on the big picture here).
Have a Clear Skill Development Plan
This may seem obvious, but when you’re moving fast it’s tempting to skip steps. And when you’re producing a medical device – which requires highly technical skills – diligence and consistency are paramount. Before your expert jumps on a plane or your apprentices invest a bunch of time in unstructured job shadowing, be sure you have these things in place:
- A comprehensive, clear list of precisely what the apprentice needs to learn. If you don’t already know what the apprentice needs to learn, you are going to waste time figuring it out.
- Assurance that the “right” expert is actually doing the teaching. Sometimes the person who is available to travel and/or mentor is NOT the best person to be teaching others. To avoid replicating wrong or inconsistent knowledge, management should designate someone as the expert who is setting the standard for specific work.
- Identification of which skills can be learned before the expert travels, either by phone or through self-study. You might even find that travel is not required because all of the knowledge can be transferred over the phone.
- The prioritized sequence in which the skills will be learned once the expert arrives. Often there are meetings to be scheduled or labs to be booked. Having a customized plan in advance makes that process more efficient.
- A list of resources that are available for the apprentice to study in advance and/or use after the trip. These resources could include documentation, training manuals, samples, templates, formal training classes, etc.
- A knowledge “test” to ensure the apprentice has learned a skill and is consistent with the expert’s standard. We recommend a set of 20 verbal “test questions” that demonstrate whether the right knowledge has been absorbed and the apprentice is ready to work independently.
Fortunately, these same principles apply even if your experts and apprentices work in the same building. And, you don’t need to be standing up a new factory. Empowering your apprentices to learn, defining what “done” looks like, and being crystal clear about what your teams need to learn and from whom applies to any major company change.