The Skills Sought in a Lean Graduate

By Jon Miller Updated on February 22nd, 2016


Matching the content, quality, cost and speed of delivery of a product or service to what the customer wants is the key for business success. This basic lesson is taught in business schools both as theory and through real-life case studies. And yet academic institutions seem to be at least partially responsible for a “skills gap” by not delivering graduates with the knowledge, skills and competencies desired by employers.

This also contributes to 7% of U.S. college graduates being unemployed and nearly 15% under-employed according to a recent article, College vs. Business Training: What Do Employers Want? ? It is an odd situation because the paying customer to the educational institution is the student, but the employer is the customer of the student’s skills as a potential employee. Perhaps the customer demand signal from employer to educator is not strong enough, or the 2-to-4 year education process cycle time creates a “batch” of skills that may not match what employers need upon graduation time. The article suggests that institutes of higher education may not even view the preparation people for the skills they need as their mission.

The head of a global education consultancy, Robert Lytle, is quoted that employers often can’t articulate what skills they want, “but they will come back to you and say critical problem-solving skills, group ability, communication skills…. That kind of reads ‘liberal arts,’ front and center.” The article also points out that employers “expect entry-level hires to arrive with their soft skills mastered” and also that firms increasingly value an employees ability to demonstrate growth and learning, even over and above graduating with the best grades from top schools.

While the article didn’t reference lean in any way, for me it raised a similar question, “Colleges vs. business training: what lean skills do employers want from their hires?” The article already identified a few of the key areas including problem solving skills, communication skills, ability to work in teams and groups, and ability to demonstrate ongoing growth and learning on the job. These are all lean culture must-haves. The last one is especially critical since lean management is not a static system to be designed, built and maintained at a high performance level, but rather something that is more organic and requiring change and adaptation. The “concrete head” with 30 years of experience doing it a way that has “always worked” and the elite college grad with the 4.0 GPA struggle equally a lean workplace if they cannot grow, learn, change.

What are some of the other skills that lean employers must have for hiring people who are ready to hit the ground running? Digging deeper into problem solving, one would hope that the new hire had a strong understanding of cause-and-effect, as well as basic statistical thinking. From a soft skills point of view there is humility, although this may be hard to teach in school. Also desired is an understanding of logistics in the broadest sense, not limited to the movement of goods but how supply-demand, push-pull, inventory-and-cash, batch-and-flow, all work together. If they had studied under professors who weren’t enamored on any particular buzzwords, all the better.

What would you add to this list of skills sought in a lean graduate?

  1. James Sandfield

    February 22, 2016 - 1:54 pm

    Capacity vs demand and a touch of theory (of constraints)

  2. Zane Ferry

    February 22, 2016 - 2:08 pm

    Spring is fast approaching and a new set of graduates is considering their prospects and their potential value. Thanks for this timely question, Jon. To your list I’d add customer experience knowledge, process-focus, and system-awareness. By customer experience knowledge, I mean a heightened level of understanding about how different types of people may engage or experience the same service, product or event in very divergent ways. This requires both emotional smarts and practice (empathy, self/other awareness) and the analytical rigor gained from time spent designing and pursuing a study of a group’s behavior regarding some product or service. This gets to the human-centric nature of nearly all great organizations and what they deliver to their customers. It’s needed in all aspects of work (and life).
    Next there’s process-focus – what I’ll describe as the ability to discern cause-and-effect relationships between seemingly discreet bits of work and the drive to understand what inputs and outputs connect them. Again, this is a perspective that enhances someone’s value in any context and one that can be acquired through study and training.
    Finally, system-awareness or what’s often called “system thinking” seems shallow or immature among many at the beginning of their careers. A noticeable exception in, my experience, has been folks coming from the computer science or bio-science arenas where continual reference is made to the impacts of small changes on complex programs, structures, etc. But on this point, generally, what I’d be looking for as an employer is the ability to move between finite, well-defined work and analysis to a higher and broader level of thought which values and looks for potential indirect consequences that may occur further out in complex, every-changing systems. That may sound like a tall order but if our schools are not good at understanding and developing this capability in learners, then the other good skills and knowledge applied in companies by recent graduates may amount to little more than “good intentions.” I’m interested in what others think about this.

  3. Rob Maystead

    February 22, 2016 - 3:17 pm

    Tied in with rhe comments above, I would have to add the importance of velocity. The ability to zip through PDCA opportunities quickly, keeping the customer needs in full view.

  4. Phil Godfrey

    February 22, 2016 - 9:17 pm

    The ability to see what others can’t see, and to rally people through the opportunity.

  5. Joe Dager

    February 24, 2016 - 2:30 pm

    Great suggestions and to comment on Phil’s statement about seeing. My art classes taught me that drawing was more about seeing than drawing. Rob’s comment about velocity rang a note to em because the true masters always had the ability to speed up or slow down to the level of understanding that allowed me to learn.

    However, I would say the hardest skill that I had to re-master (not sure I have) and is the one we are seemingly born with and taken away as we age. The ability to be free of a solution. The idea of getting away from thinking of Plan-Do in the traditional sense to the Lean sense of Hypothesize and Test. We are trained in a solution culture and to leave our mark on the world it is more about the best idea wins even assigning credit to gain a promotion. Using a sports analogy, I was taught the play before the assist and the goal is what created the opportunity. Tough to measure, tough to see but everyone reaps in the rewards.

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