A Matter of Experience
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


A Matter of Experience by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine May 2003

A quick look at most any job posting will tell you that experience is a very prized attribute to have on one's resume. Unfortunately, in business we tend to focus more on years of experience in a given role or setting than we do on the number of repetitions a person may have experienced doing a certain type of work. In sports, years of experience means much less than the measured ability of a person to perform a given set of skills. I feel that we in business need to begin to shift our thinking towards the sports approach.

My primary argument lies in the fact that years of experience can often be more of a liability than an advantage. For example, if you are looking for a manager to work in an environment that is team-oriented or relies heavily on statistical process control, hiring someone with ten years of experience in an autocratic or opinion-based organization will not do you much good. Now, realistically, no one would do that intentionally, but with resumes, it is often a challenge to simply verify titles and employers, let alone the type of work (or behaviors) that that person actually did (or practiced).

In the last few years, I have begun to focus much more on the number of task-specific repetitions, or the number of cycles, that a person may have experienced over the duration of their career. In other words, how much has this person practiced this key skill, what did they learn from their practice, and how have they improved their approach to practice? Years ago, noted basketball coach Rick Pitino provided me with the perfect quote to compliment this way of thinking – “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

It is not enough to have worked in a facility where six sigma methodologies were used or to be in possession of a black belt certification. Instead for example, one should search for a person that has completed at least five projects as a team member and at least three as a team leader. To me, it is much more important to learn about the repetitions a person has been through than it is to find a person that has spent time in a given type of industry. Sure, there is a learning curve to climb when someone goes to a new type of business, but in my experience, climbing this curve is much easier than learning new behaviors or trying to unlearn ineffective or undesired ones.

Focusing on repetitions or ‘cycles of experience' is a much better way to gauge whether or not a person will give the organization what they are claiming they can do on a resume. Unfortunately, many of our leaders in today's companies got to where they are today because of whom they knew or their ability to influence others. While these skills are beneficial for a leader to have, they do not top the list in my opinion of those skills that effective leaders must have in today's business environment. If we really want to see fast improvement in our organizations, we need to look at the criteria we use to select those leaders.

In those skill areas that I consider myself to be adept at, I have experienced at least 14 annual cycles in a variety of manufacturing and service settings. I would suspect that many of you who are similar in age to me could say the same. From a resume perspective however, the titles and years of service don't do justice to such learnings. Twenty years of experience in the same company that essentially grew very little during that time does not carry near the value that the same twenty years in a growing company, or with several companies with different challenges, does.

We make the same mistake when it comes to training. We tend to think that if a person has gone to a class on conflict resolution, then they understand how to resolve conflict. Most of us know however that one has to practice resolving conflict before they can even begin to get better at it. How many conflict resolution events does a person need to experience before they can consider themselves proficient at using such skills?

The same can be said for using problem solving tools, helping to train others, and analyzing performance data. In fact, most of the skills that we expect supervisors, managers, and support personnel to know and demonstrate require lots of practice. How often do we make sure that this type of practice occurs? How often do we redesign our training approaches to make them more practice intensive? Are our leaders getting enough repetitions in?

Experience is valuable both in terms of the positive learnings we gain and the mistakes we have witnessed. In many cases, the mistakes are more valuable from a learning perspective, if reflection and further study help us figure out how to keep from repeating the same mistake. I have seen too many instances over the years however where people make the same mistake over and over, even when they worked in different companies. They are not learning from their mistakes, and they are missing out on the power that comes from searching for improvement with every cycle that is completed of a given process.

From an Industrial Engineering perspective, practice is also critical. It is critical for us personally to help us get better at the things we do each day. More importantly however, understanding the need for practice can help us work better with others to help make a change stick. Sending out a new written procedure to the front lines is not practice – if we expect a piece of paper to significantly change behaviors, then we are not being realistic about what we are really expecting people to learn.

I really don't see a way to get around using resumes as a screening device. At the same time however, I do feel that it is reasonable to expect people to use different forms of questioning to find out how many practice sessions a person has gone through for each key skill that we are in need of. I know from my experience that I have never really been asked about my ‘cycles of learning' in depth. I also know now however that these cycles of learning represent the essence of what I am as an Industrial Engineer and a manager.

I would welcome the chance to show off my skills at the annual plant managers' combine, but I fear that it will be many years before such an approach is used to evaluate and select managerial talent in business. Until then, I will simply keep practicing what I currently know how to do, and I will keep looking for new skills to practice. Most importantly however, I will look for ways to get more value out of each practice session that I participate in, because as Coach Pitino said “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

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