How Deep is Your Talent Pool?
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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

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-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

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

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


How Deep is Your Talent Pool? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine November 2003

One of the nice things about working for a growing company is that you get plenty of chances to observe the strengths and weaknesses of your people. When I worked for ‘steady state” companies in the past, we essentially made the same amount of product each day. The mix might have been different from day to day or week to week, but the amount we were expected to make each day really did not change that much.

In my last job as a Plant Manager however, the situation was different. Our company's growth rate was outpacing our productivity improvements, and in turn, we found that we often needed to work two shifts a day instead of one about 30% of the time. When this happened, we would split our crew in half and use temporary labor to fill in the gaps. Whenever double shifts happened, I got the chance to see how deep our talent pool really was in all key operations areas.

During 2003, we grew 40%, and in turn, we had to employ the double shift formation more than ten times that year. We eventually reached the point where we could actually compare productivity results from our normal operation formation to the double shift formation. Through these comparisons, we were able to actually see where our talent strengths and weaknesses were in a quantitative manner. Previously, I had to use my best guess, or someone else's opinion, as to who was able to do what. Rarely did I have any other form of talent measure to help me decide who should work where, or if we were even capable of getting the job done at all.

Once I saw that we were in a steady growth mode, I knew that we would need to be at least ‘two deep” in every position, and in our key positions, we would need to be three deep. We were fortunate that we were able to begin training people ahead of the actual need for production – otherwise, our performance would have suffered to a significant degree and key customer orders would have been late. At the same time, managing my team in this manner also raised the larger question in my mind of “How do we really know the depth of the talent pool in our organization?”

Most people do not have the “luxury” of rapid growth to help expose their strengths and weaknesses. They often have to count on vacations or extended illnesses to help show them where they are weak from a skill depth perspective. In most cases, most managers and supervisors go through each day merely making assumptions about what people know and do not know. They try to document all key procedures to make sure that gaps in knowledge are covered, but it is rare that all key problem fixes can be captured.

By managing in this less than effective manner, we greatly under appreciate the potential of our people. After thinking more and more about my experience with talent measurement, I am beginning to form the opinion that talent waste will be the next lean frontier, once we have eliminated all of the waste in the office operations (the current new area of lean concept application).

I have been in business for almost thirty-four years now. During that time, my resume has served as my primary means of talent expression to new or prospective employers, and my on the job accomplishments have served as my personal talent commercial once I was working for a given organization. Unfortunately, one can rarely describe the true value of their skill set on a resume, and rarely does one's supervisor, let alone other key people in a company, see the true talents that we display each day on the job.

To what degree are you aware of both the stated and hidden talents of your people? What types of approaches, if any, do you have in place to help discover the untapped talent and to cultivate the talents that you are at least aware of? I am afraid that we are really failing to both find and use those talents that would help our companies the most, even though we are in essence already paying for that talent.

How do we do a better job of assessing and utilizing talent? Does it do much good to complain about our skills going unused or that consultant getting a job that we could have done ourselves and perhaps better, if we don't have an alternative or two to suggest? I think that in time, we will have better mechanisms to measure mind speed, memory, or skill application techniques, but for now, I think we are better served to simply consider what baby steps we could take to begin moving away from our current approaches for gauging talent.

Most of us, at least those of us who have line management responsibilities, do not have the time to do extensive skill testing with our people away from the floor. That said, we can still employ techniques such as job rotation and cross training to help us see what different types of things our people can do. We do have to be willing to assume some risk as we do this, but what is the longer term risk of wasting talent?

Simply spending more time with each of our people, asking them questions about their interests and skills and watching them work, is perhaps the best approach to use in the short term. If we do this regularly, with an inquiring mind and a strong interest in listening and learning, we can discover what our people like to do and want to do. I can almost guarantee that if you try this for two weeks, you will be very much surprised by what you learn, if you have not been managing in this manner already.

Knowledge continues to grow as well as the primary form of organizational capital. With technology helping us to more easily remember the little things and to perform routine tasks in a shorter amount of time, we are finding ourselves more and more in a position where the manner in which we think and interact is the distinguishing factor between good and bad management. To me, helping people move towards their potential is only second each day from a goal perspective to meeting or exceeding the expectations of the customer.

Perhaps the best way to visualize the power and importance of your in-house talent is to imagine totally replacing your workforce with a new set of people. The building, equipment, and processes would remain the same – only the faces would be different. If you made such a switch, how long would it take to climb the learning curve? Would you even be able to hire people that would be able to match, let alone surpass, the current performance levels of your existing workforce?

When I see companies limiting their approaches for talent assessment to resume review and opinion, I also see companies that might think that their people are replaceable. If you tend to adhere to the old axiom that ‘anyone can be replaced', you might want to consider this visualization. How much of a difference do your people, and the skills they have, really make?

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