Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Why Do We Underutilize Human Potential?

Large and small corporations, both in high-tech and traditional industries, now owe most of their value to investments in knowledge. These investments, creating value from the intangible assets of intellectual capital, have a better return on investment (ROI) than physical assets.  In our knowledge-based economy, effectively developing and applying intellectual capital is the key to creating value. Intellectual capital is defined by businessdictionary.com as the "Collective knowledge (whether or not documented) of the individuals in an organization or society. This knowledge can be used to produce wealth, multiply output of physical assets, gain competitive advantage, and/or to enhance value of other types of capital. Intellectual capital is now beginning to be classified as a true capital cost because (1) investment in (and replacement of) people tantamount to investment in machines and plants, and (2) expenses incurred in education and training (to maintain the shelf life of intellectual assets) are equivalent to depreciation costs of physical assets. Intellectual capital includes customer capital, human capital, intellectual property, and structural capital." 

One of the fundamental tenets of lean is the reduction of underutilized human potential. What exactly does this mean? Systems2win defines the underutilization of human potential elegantly:

Restricting employee's authority and responsibility to make routine decisions. Having highly paid staff do routine tasks that don't require their unique expertise. Not providing the business tools needed to perform and continuously improve each employee's assigned work. Not trusting your people to stop production to stop and fix a problem (jidoka). Not trusting your people to be responsible for the cleanliness, maintenance, and organization of their own work area. Not trusting people with a flat organization structure of largely self-directed teams. Not expecting (and measuring) every person to contribute to continuous improvement.

The intriguing concept in this statement is the inability to trust. This lack of trust speaks to the ecosystem of current organizational structures. Peter F. Drucker stated that the organization hierarchy in most organizations today developed as a result of World War II and the attempt to create efficiencies by structuring the firm like the military. While this organizational structure may have made sense 50 years ago, the command and control model is one which does not support the facilitation of human capital to better your organization. Through my research I would argue the military type structures in place today are ineffective in developing and applying intellectual capital and need to change.

Turf wars, politics, red tape, budget nepotism, envy, ego, greed, cronyism, short-term thinking, and rapid changes in strategic direction for no apparent reason must be removed from the culture and replaced with the fuel, the tools, the resources, and the attitudes that drive the innovative process. Any organization, whether a for-profit business, a nonprofit organization, a government agency, or an academic institution, that has a culture where there is a direct or indirect, explicit or implicit, stated or whispered vested interest in keeping things exactly the same to produce continuity and to win the elusive prize of job security will surely die a slow death and will never be a place where creativity is cherished or innovation is harvested. Cultures of innovation are places where creativity is celebrated, rewarded, and cherished at all levels in the organization. When teams are truly inspired and passionate about their work, they are much more likely to discover and to dream without the fear of “extra effort” or discretionary time (e.g., time and effort expended in the workplace beyond what is typically expected) that innovation can flourish and valuable crops can grow.

Leveraging Knowledge
In my experience, about 80% of a company's knowledge is undocumented or unshared and thus lives in the tacit knowledge world while the remaining 20% of explicit knowledge lives in documents or procedures which in that are often ignored. Think about that ratio in terms of your organization. If you are only utilizing 20% of the knowledge of your employees, what is the opportunity cost to your firm for what you miss out of your intellectual capital? If 80% of your organization's capital resides in the knowledge of your workers, managers are hobbled in their ability to make decisions regarding how those assets are utilized.

CEO's are frequently asked "What is the most important asset to your organization?" The standard response is, "Our people." While this is often the general response, it is rarely true. When asked to further define why people are an organization’s most important asset, most managers will resort to primitive answers such as, "They make our products," or "Without them we can't do anything." While these responses are certainly correct, they are a subtle gauge of a lack of trust because they only refer to the physical output of the employee.  After all what's one the first items to be cut when cash flow goes red?

This line of thinking is not only broken, it's dangerous for the future of your organization. Regardless of your product or service, your greatest asset is your people; not in what they do but in what they know. Their intellectual capital (tacit knowledge) is something that can move you from being a good company to being a great company. With knowledge empowering people, your organization can develop products your competition simply can't given the same resources.

The failure to leverage employees’ knowledge creates the opposite result. We have seen companies falter when people retire from firms that have failed to create an environment of successful knowledge transfer.

Creating Transformation
This problem is not easy to tackle. How do you transform an organization with a culture that doesn't adequately value intellectual capital into one which lives off it? What components must be in place in order to facilitate this change? It starts with management. Once management truly supports an investment in intellectual capital, significant advances can be made by following a few recommendations. As with all change, these take time and effort but they can turn your organization into a world-class institution:

A culture of innovation begins at the top but must permeate and trickle through all levels and all functions within any organization. The work ethic, transparency, simplicity, humility, integrity, and accountability of most farmers offer insights and leadership lessons for all of us, particularly leaders interested in fostering a culture committed to intellectual capital agrarianism. Norms must be put into place and enforced that foster cooperation, teamwork, candor, a sense of a common purpose, and a commitment to a set of institutional core values that transcends individual agendas and priorities. These shared values must be truly embraced by everyone, not just appear on a page on the company’s website. People are more likely to innovate and truly want to improve their workplace when they identify with and want to be governed by a set of shared institutional and consistent values and when they are confident that the fruit of their innovation labors are aligned with overall companywide strategies and goals.

As executives, dedicate yourselves to supporting substantial efforts to prevent lost knowledge but culturally and physically.  Create a culture of lean which empowers knowledge workers. Empowerment is a book in itself but to create this environment you must create what Forrester calls HERO (highly empowered and resourceful operatives). Creating a process of improvement through value streaming and Kaizen where management recruits intellectual capital accepts the recommendations for change.  Emphasize teamwork over teams. Teams refer to small groups of people working together toward a common purpose. Teamwork refers to an environment in the larger organization that creates and sustains relationships of trust, support, respect, independence and collaboration. Creating highly empowered teams that work without titles can create the shift of culture to one that prizes intellectual capital.  Focus on knowledge capture and allowing knowledge transfer. Several methods can entice team members to transfer knowledge, including mentoring, paired teams, work shadowing and simulations.

Utilizing human potential is a complex topic. Although many organizations view capturing the remaining 80% of tacit knowledge as a lost cause, it is certainly worth the effort. In reality, most firms do little to try to capture and use their human potential. However, doing so can provide exponential returns and will enable your organization to achieve greater success with minimal additional resources. I encourage delving into some of the lean communities for more advice on how to utilize human potential within your organization. 


  1. Patrick, I loved this post. I think all of us in business say that our people are the most valuable aspect of our business but yet sometimes they are the easiest to forget or underutilize. So often we think about systems and processes as being transformative and we focus our time trying to control our human capital instead of unlocking their potential by providing them the resources to be most productive and innovative. I love Google's 20% time and it seems like those types of policies and freedoms help unlock the human capital resources that you describe that are often neglected.

  2. Thank you, Patrick, for a provocative and insightful post. You have hit so many critical elements intersecting the realms of behavioral economics, leadership practice and processes, LEAN, and organizational development as well as employee engagement. This should be (and I hope, will be) a growing area of examination over the coming few years.
    Thank you, again. I look forward to reading more from you, and hearing from others on the topic as well.
    Rick Pulito


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