The state of the US economy notwithstanding, retention of talent is a major issue across many organizations these days. Operational Excellence, Six Sigma, and related disciplines are no exception, with a lot of the mobility fueled by the same high standards for training and certification that are intended to attract folks in the first place.

Indeed, that sucking sound you hear just might be the vacuum created as Black Belts bolt one manufacturing company for another. Or perhaps they’re leaving for jobs in healthcare and finance, both of which seem to be consuming experienced practitioners at an alarming rate. And if you are in China or other similarly hot economies, that sucking sound is probably closer to the wail of a hurricane, as the best talent ricochets from employer to employer with all the subtlety of a midnight freight train.

For the organization suffering defections, there are many downsides to this churn. Consistency is hard to maintain. Standards are hard to enforce. Long-term projects and initiatives are hard to complete. Relationships suffer. Departments break down. And organization memory shrinks to a pinprick.

Priority number one in this environment is, of course, to hold on to your talent. I won’t go into that lengthy topic (others could probably do it more justice anyway), nor will I tarry for an admittedly interesting discussion about why a lot of technical folks feel the need to hop employers to get ahead in their careers (although I do think that is a fascinating phenomenon).

Instead I want to talk about the flip-side of the phenomenon, and why it can actually be a good thing for an organization. Even the best organizations lose people sometimes, and those people are generally replaced with people from other good organizations. So there is a constant stream of people and knowledge going back and forth. All of which means that, big or small, you probably have a lot of “outside” knowledge resident in your organization. This is old news, and I’m hardly the first one to point it out. But I think its especially true of continuous improvement professionals, and in my experience there isn’t a whole lot being done about it.

This is in part due to a love affair with outside consultants. Many of us were initially trained by outside consultants, and out first instinct in new situations is to look towards them. This is a familiar mode for all involved, but is very expensive and results tend to be mixed at best. What if there was a way to get exactly the same benefits with virtually no cost and very little risk? With as much cross-fertilization as there is going on between companies these days, the best consultants are probably already colleagues just waiting to be consulted. That’s always been the case, but it is exacerbated as the flow of talent is becomes ever more fast, furious, and global.

Like I said, this is hardly an original thought. But even so, I see a lot of consultants engaged for jobs that could very well be done just as well by internal employees. The missing link is a high degree of communication and organization, especially across geography and business functions. For example, if a large company needs 5S help in a plant in Chicago, it is very easy to go out and hire a consultant. But if the company is large enough, there’s probably a distribution center in Warsaw that has already been through a 5S journey and has plenty of expertise and experience to share. The trouble is that the folks in Chicago almost never know about the people in Warsaw. And even if that connection is made, doing something about can look pretty daunting. Getting the domestic consultant in is a lot easier. It may cost more, but it is the kind of cost that the organization is used to paying.

All of which means that in an environment where talent and experience are migrating both in and out of the organization – like they are right now in Six Sigma and related areas – having the infrastructure and processes in place to identify and leverage expertise globally is at least as important as any other task a deployment executive has. You’ve got people coming in with new skills and experience all the time, and you need to be learning from them and leveraging what they know. You can be victim to the sucking sound, or you can profit from it. Setting up to do that looks and feel a lot different than a traditional deployment, but we’re no longer living in a world where big companies don’t have Black Belts or Continuous Improvement specialists. The question isn’t whether you have them, it’s what you know about them and what are you doing with them.

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