As our calendar expires once again, many of us will be inspired to reflect on our journeys and to look forward to new adventures. “The Third Degree” is not immune to this drive; this installment serves that very purpose. It will not be mere nostalgia, however.
It is in the spirit of continuous improvement that previous installments will be revisited, referencing material published since their release. Resources that were simply missed in the initial telling will also be shared. This is a mostly chronological journey to simplify navigating the archive to review the original articles.
As the title suggests, scanning the frontier, as well as updating previous installments, is expected to be a periodic endeavor. Despite the title, this is not the first attempt at doing so. See “Hindsight is 20/20. Foresight is 2020” (1Jan2020) for additional updates to the earliest installments of “The Third Degree.” These and future updates can be found under the “uncategorized” heading in the archive.
The “skills gap” remains a popular topic, though discussion has been morphed by a more-comprehensive labor shortage. Precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, labor shortages impact nearly every sector of the economy. This situation extends, and makes more explicit, the overlap of discussions in “The Skills Gap Fallacy” series [Part 1 (7Feb2018), Part 2 (14Feb2018), Part 3 (21Feb2018)] and “Avoid the Spiral into Oblivion” (28Feb2018). We will not delve into the implications of work-from-home (WFH) policies, though they also contribute to staffing woes in many cases.
While the number of articles pertaining to “the skills gap” and other staffing difficulties remains high, few offer anything unique. Even the highest-quality advocacy is largely ineffective because it “preaches to the choir” without gaining significant exposure to a broader audience. The grim performance of this “movement” notwithstanding, a few items warrant a second look.
During the Leadership Exchange at FABTECH 2019, moderator Kord Kozma of Nidec Press & Automation made the following declaration:
“We need to make a call of action to [manufacturers] because you are the only ones who can fix it. The government is not going to fix it for you, schools aren’t going to fix it for you. It’s up to you to change what you’ve been doing. You need to think differently. You need to act differently, invest differently, and lead differently.” (Quoted in the January 2020 issue of Manufacturing Engineering “Up Front” column.)
This echoes the sentiment of “The Third Degree,” possibly with a larger megaphone. Still, little evidence of this transformation in industry is available, though the occasional apprenticeship program announcement keeps hope alive.
One possible outreach to an “extra-choir” audience was provided by “The Indicator from Planet Money” on December 8, 2022 (E1250). In this podcast episode, two quotes from the Federal Reserve’s latest Beige Book were shared:
“One company that was looking to hire an experienced worker decided to hire an entry-level worker instead and just pay for the training.” – Richmond Fed
“Finding qualified candidates was reported as nearly impossible, so firms increased investments in training new hires.” – Atlanta Fed
A previous “Indicator” episode was discussed in “Avoid the Spiral into Oblivion;” it, too, pertained to the Fed’s release of a Beige Book. The two issues discussed are related, but must not be conflated. The availability of labor and employers’ willingness to pay for it are very different problems. Each is worthy of discussion, but require independent solutions.
To encourage and facilitate development of apprenticeship programs, Plant Services published “How to leverage apprenticeship programs” in the September 2021 issue. Unfortunately, the author gives far too much credit to registered apprenticeship programs and “educational” institution partnerships. As stated previously, established programs and partnerships may be advantageous, but should not be the default solution to staffing and training shortfalls. Every organization must assess its circumstances and explore its options before the “best” path forward can be chosen.
Many of the registered or state-approved programs are akin to “workforce engineering,” which, as a March 2022 guest editorial in Manufacturing Engineering points out, “is not a realistic solution to the skills gap.” Instead, we must “ignite the already existing and yet dormant fuel of curiosity inside of young minds.” This expresses sentiment similar to that of Exupéry, quoted in “Viva Manufacturing!”
Developing curiosity and other forms of intrinsic motivation should be a major component of any educational or promotional endeavor. As these efforts become more effective, the remaining tasks become easier. A key advantage of a customized apprenticeship or similar program is that participants are able to pursue their interests without the burden of additional requirements that they deem unnecessary, uninteresting, or otherwise off-putting.
One unnecessary effort is to attach a new label to jobs created by technological change. The term “new collar” has been promoted by a former IBM executive (“The New Collar Workforce.” IndustryWeek, March/April 2020). Worse than being unnecessary, it could be counterproductive. Labels like this can be confusing and divisive, creating stigma for some of the same people it is intended to attract.
By the time the confusion and stigma fade, the label becomes meaningless. When do “new collar” jobs become, simply, “jobs” and do we need new collars for every significant technological advancement? Referencing “collars” to differentiate between professional responsibilities represents an antiquated mental model; the practice should be abandoned. That is, of course, unless you’d like to see the pet care industry advertising “dog collar” jobs. Let’s end this before it gets any more ridiculous!
“Sustainability Begins with Succession Planning” (11Apr2018) approached staffing concerns from a more strategic point of view. Early this year, strategy + business published “The new rules of succession planning” (February 7, 2022), outlining a 3-step process for choosing future leaders. The third step, “structure the process to mitigate bias,” aligns with the thrust of the previous post – avoid simply choosing a “carbon copy” of the outgoing leader. Maintaining objectivity is critical to choosing leaders capable of guiding an organization through inevitable challenges.
“The High Cost of Saving Money” (2Jan2019) presented some counterproductive actions that businesses take to lower costs. One example cited is when purchasing decisions are based exclusively, or nearly so, on the initial cost (“sticker price”) of an item. In “Lowest Lifecycle Costs vs. Lowest Price” (Manufacturing Engineering, June 2020), Mazak Corp.’s CEO encourages buyers to consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) of assets. TCO accounts for operational efficiencies (e.g. energy, material), reliability (e.g downtime, degrading performance), maintainability (e.g. frequency and cost of service), training needs, and any other factors that influence the cost of acquiring, operating, and disposing of an asset. Employing TCO analysis is an effective method of avoiding the irony of increased costs caused by reduced spending.
“Refining the Art of Asking Why” advances the case for the supremacy of questions set forth in “The Art of Asking” (22May2019). The author demonstrates how the “The Shainin System” (23Sep2020) goes beyond 5Why analysis to formulate questions that lead to solutions of root causes, rather than merely addressing symptoms.
The primary objective of “Lightweight Product Design – An Introduction to the How and Why” (19Jun2019) was to draw attention to the trade-offs involved in lightweighting. For an exposition on some methods of balancing mechanical design objectives, see “5 Techniques for Lightweighting: Doing More with Less” (Tech Briefs, January 2020).
Several uses for plant layout drawings were offered in “Commercial Cartography – Vol. III: Facility Layout or Floor Plan” (6Nov2019). Readers unconvinced of the value of layouts are referred to “One shot to get the right plot plan” (Plant Services, September 2021). One only has to get as far as the subtitle for a good reason to reconsider: “Everything from maintenance to the performance of the plant relies on a good layout.”
“Troubleshooting is a Six-Sense Activity” (4Dec2019) describes how all of our senses can be applied to troubleshooting process or equipment issues. It is often assumed that this will be done by maintenance technicians, but that need not be the case. When troubleshooting is performed – in full or in part – by “front-line workers,” it is often more efficient, reducing downtime and leading to more robust solutions. To aid their involvement, Plant Services offers “The operator’s guide to successful troubleshooting” (June 2018), in which a 7-step process is outlined. The six senses are primarily involved in the first two steps, which involve defining the problem and collecting information. They are also used in the testing phase, as comparisons with prior performance will be made reflexively. Though it is presented as the operator’s guide, the structure presented is useful in any role.
Have your meetings improved in the three years since “Meetings: Now Available in Productive Format!” (18Dec2019) was published? For most, sadly, the answer is “no.” For many, the definition of “meeting” may have drastically changed; fortunately, how groups can conduct productive meetings has not changed substantially. Brief introductions to some noteworthy additions to the conversation follow.
“Focus Group” (PM Network, March/April 2020) shares input from several project managers on how to keep meetings on topic.
“The Surprising Science Behind Successful Remote Meetings” (MIT Sloan Management Review, May 21, 2020) cites research that is even more pessimistic than that cited in “Meetings.” The author claims that “only around 50%” of meeting time is serving its intended purpose and that remote meetings are even less effective. Aside from the inevitable use of technology, the advice given is remarkably similar to the prior discussion of meeting improvement.
“How to boost people’s energy and productivity during meetings” (strategy + business, June 14, 2021) targets the group’s leader or facilitator. As the title suggests, it is focused on maintaining engagement once a meeting has commenced. It is important to remember that proper preparation is also critical to achieving this goal.
“End your meeting with clear decisions and shared commitment” (strategy + business, September 13, 2021) reinforces the need for a decisive end to a meeting. That means that everyone understands what was decided and who is responsible for each action item. Distributing meeting minutes reinforces commitment and accountability.
“Turn your meetings into jam sessions” (strategy + business, October 17, 2022) proposes a free-form period to begin meetings. The exploration of nuance it is intended to allow is usually conducted outside meetings; the time limit proposed may not be sufficient to provide clarity for all team members. If you choose to experiment with this approach, be sure to include it on the agenda!
The attention paid to digital tools has only increased since the series run in “The Third Degree” in early 2020. Occasionally, an article makes me realize I could/should have made some points more explicitly. Systems as complex as an entire city were mentioned in “Double Vision: Digital Twins Materialize Operational Improvements” (29Jan2020), but the need for linking digital twins of various types to monitor overall performance was only implied. “How Digital Twins Are Reinventing Innovation” (MIT Sloan Management Review, January, 14, 2020) helps close that information gap.
Similarly, the post may have benefitted from further discussion of the concept of synchroneity of physical-digital twin pairs. This realization was aided by “Why Your Digital Twin Approach Is Not Built to Last and What to Do About It Now” (ReliabilityWeb). Maintaining synchroneity of the twin pair requires updating digital models to reflect real-world conditions. Nominal conditions and assumptions upon which models are built may require adjustment at installation and throughout the physical asset’s operational lifecycle. In addition to allowing remote control of a physical asset, synchroneity improves performance monitoring and prediction, enabling condition-based maintenance.
Virtual Reality (VR) (12Feb2020) and Augmented Reality (AR) (26Feb2020, 11Mar2020, 25Mar2020) are also attracting increasing attention. As the technologies continue to improve, the arguments made for them in the series become stronger, but do not change significantly. One note to make is the addition of an “umbrella” term, Extended Reality (XR), “to describe the technologies that merge the real and virtual worlds.” (“Advancing Ahead of the Architectural Curve.” Syracuse University Magazine, Fall 2022). Although this term is redundant, it may be useful as a search term as its use grows.
“Effective Leaders Decide About Deciding” (MIT Sloan Management Review, April 27, 2022) presents a 2 x 2 matrix to help leaders decide how to delegate decisions and communicate responsibilities. This approach can be used to delegate to individuals or groups. As such, it is worth considering in conjunction with the “How should a decision-making standard be structured?” section of “Making Decisions – Vol. IV: Fundamentals of Group Decision-Making” (20May2020).
“Learning Games” (30Dec2020) presented some benefits of a less-formal approach to education and training when appropriate for the subject matter and target audience. Additional references are cited below; it is left to the reader to evaluate games’ potential for intended participants.
“Teaching Sustainability Leadership in Manufacturing: A Reflection on the Educational Benefits of the Board Game Factory Heroes.” (Mélanie Despeisse, 2018)
The Beer Game
“Teaching Energy Efficiency in Manufacturing Using Gamification: A Case Study.” (Mélanie Despeisse and Peter Lunt, 2017)
“An Executive Decision-Making Game Designed to Observe Executive Decision-Making Behavior.” Richard Wayne Nicholson, 1961.
“Are Mentors Modeling Toxic ‘Ideal Worker’ Norms?” (MIT Sloan Management Review, October 12, 2022) bridges subjects of two previous posts: “Sustainability Begins with Succession Planning” (11Apr2018) and “Managerial Schizophrenia and Workplace Cancel Culture” (9Mar2022). If mentors advocate “going with the flow,” toxic workplace cultures and counterproductive behaviors are perpetuated. Real change agents value true diversity over lip service.
A fondness for analogy has been openly shared throughout “The Third Degree;” “Eight Analogical Levels of Operations Management” (24Aug2022) provides a particularly blatant example. Although it did not fit well within the 8-level framework presented, “Max-Q: between too much and not enough” (Plant Services, July 2021) provides another aeronautical analogy for management that is worthy of consideration. The Max-Q concept is applicable at each of the eight analogical levels of Operations Management.
“How to turn ESG policy into ESG practice” (Plant Services, October 2022) cites a survey to which 45% of respondents identified “undefined financial benefits” as one of “the biggest obstacles to achieving ESG goals.” This should have been referenced in “Sustainability vs. Profitability – A ROSI Outlook” (14Dec2022) to help explain why an organization may want to conduct a ROSI analysis. Unfortunately, this article was in my reading queue at the time that installment was written and posted. It does, however, expose some of the motivation for writing posts such as this one.
Future installments of “The Third Degree” are expected to follow an established pattern. They will aim to:
Thank you for being my “choir.” Have a happy and healthy holiday season and a glorious new year!
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Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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