You just completed a six-month effort to fill an open position on your team. The meetings with human resources, sifting through resumes, scheduling multiple rounds of interviews, and then putting together an appropriate compensation package all took a significant amount of your time, but it was worth it. You’re pleased with the candidate you hired. You lean back in your chair and think, “Great, I have that position covered for a couple years.”
The new employee, however, starts and is thinking, “I’ll do this for a couple months, maybe a year, and will quickly demonstrate that I’m ready for my next move.”
This is the problem of mismatched expectations that many companies are facing today. The new employee doesn’t understand all the time and effort that went into getting them hired, nor should they. But beyond this, employees tend to think they have mastered a role before they truly have. This eagerness to move on doesn’t allow the new employee an opportunity to fully experience the responsibilities of the new role. In fact, some of these responsibilities only occur annually such as the capital planning process, peak season shipping, and the end of the fiscal year.
This problem isn’t isolated to new hires, either. Employees joining your team after making a lateral move or being promoted often have the same mindset. We need to have our employees look forward to spending two to three years in the role.
A three-phase framework
To help establish that expectation, we have found it helpful in our professional experience to use a three-phase framework to guide an employee’s time in the role. In each phase, the employee’s primary focus changes to provide a fresh perspective on the role. We recommend using a “Learn-Anticipate-Improve” three-phase approach.
In the first phase, the focus should be on learning and establishing a needed foundation. An employee who is new to a role needs time to learn the expectations of the job, create relationships with key stakeholders, and experience the positive and negative results of their decisions.
In the second phase, the employee is better positioned to anticipate issues and correct them before they occur. Things that surprised the employee in phase one are anticipated and dealt with in phase two.
In phase three, the focus is on continuous improvement and driving change. By the time the employee reaches phase three, he or she is in a position to make improvements to processes, reports, and reoccurring issues. When the employee does move on, the role is in a better position than the employee found it.
This three-phase Learn-Anticipate-Improve framework needs to be discussed with the employee during the interview process and throughout their time in the role. Too often, a conversation about the employee’s entire time in the role never happens. At best, goals are set for the next fiscal year, but there’s no discussion beyond that. A two- to three-year Learn-Anticipate-Improve framework should bring new challenges and added responsibilities to the role so the employee doesn’t feel like they’ve been doing “the same thing for three years.” This keeps the employee engaged and the role filled for that timeframe.
This framework is particularly useful in supply chain departments, as employees typically change roles more frequently than most other departments. Supply chain is a broad discipline and often attracts employees who are interested in this broad experience. As new employees gain experience across many supply chain roles early in their career, we need to help them see the value in gaining deeper knowledge in a role and the skills and leadership opportunities that come with that deeper knowledge.
In the rest of this article, we dive deeper into each of the three phases of the Learn-Anticipate-Improve framework. We’ll provide you with specific actions employees should be performing in each phase. Then we discuss the impacts to the company and the employee if the employee moves on after phase one or phase two. We wrap up with some ideas on modifications to this framework.
Phase One: Learn
In the first year in a new role, the employee’s focus should be on learning. In our experience, phase one often takes around a year, especially if it’s important to capture an entire fiscal year business cycle. Phases two and three in the framework may each be longer or shorter than one year, depending on the employee’s maturity, experience, and other factors. But since the department looks very different in January than it does in July and than it does in December, it would be wise to have the employee’s primary focus in the first year be on learning.
Some employees will understand “learning” to mean learning the day-to-day and week-to-week responsibilities of the job. Maybe this is why some employees are too quick to claim mastery of a role? We need to help employees think about their learning in a much broader way than just being able to satisfactorily do the job.
For example, relationship building is part of learning in the first year. The new employee needs to build strong relationships with their colleagues. What areas of expertise does each teammate possess? What connections to other internal departments and external supply chain partners does each teammate have? The new employee needs to develop those strong bonds that will be beneficial down the road. When the teammate transfers to another department or the department is reorganized, having built those relationships can help the employee later in their career.
In addition to building relationships with teammates, the new employee also needs to build trust and credibility with internal and external stakeholders. This takes time and certainly can’t be accomplished in a couple months. For example, when the first-year employee needs something urgently from accounting, will accounting stop what they’re doing and help? Or does accounting have no idea who the employee is? Part of building that foundation of trust and credibility is learning how to interact with other departments.
The department’s systems can also take a while to learn. Employees need to learn not only how to navigate and use each system but also what data is found in each system, which systems talk to each other, and how frequently the systems exchange data. This learning can help an employee understand why the numbers they entered into the finance system this afternoon don’t appear in the data warehouse until after the midnight upload.
In addition to building relationships and learning the systems, the employee needs to understand their objectives, key processes, and business strategy to be set up for success. Learning the role is a good first step, but after a year in the role the employee should also understand how the role meets the objectives of the department and overall organization.
So, challenge your new employees to think broader about their learning in the first year. Ask them about their relationships with their teammates and key stakeholders. Does the employee demonstrate a detailed understanding of the processes and systems that the department uses, or is there just basic knowledge?
Before we leave our discussion of phase one, it’s important to note that although anticipation of issues and continuous improvement become a greater focus in phases two and three in the role, there is still an expectation that both of these will occur in phase one. Figure 1 shows how the employee’s primary focus should transition from learning in phase one, to anticipating issues in phase two, to improving processes in phase three.
How an employee's primary focus area changes over time
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Anticipation in phase one will have the least focus initially but should grow throughout the year so it can become the employee’s primary focus in phase two. Tasks that occur weekly or monthly will enable the employee to exercise their anticipation skills in phase one. Be clear with your new employee that after a few cycles of these weekly and monthly tasks, you are expecting them to begin to anticipate issues. Employees should view this favorably as well. As tasks become more familiar to them, they will start to build their anticipation skills.
There are also opportunities for new employees to contribute process improvements during phase one. Employees new to the department are a great source of process improvement ideas during the onboarding period. For example, new employees are frequently interacting with the training materials and will quickly identify where screen shots have changed, steps are missing, and instructions are confusing. Have the new employees engage in some continuous improvement in phase one by making them responsible for updating the training materials when discrepancies are identified. If no training materials exist, then the new employee can be responsible for creating them. We should also capture the employee's feedback about the onboarding process so those suggestions can be considered and implemented for future employees that join the department.
Phase Two: Anticipate
In phase two, the employee’s mindset should begin to change. They’ve built the right foundation to do the work effectively and are set up to put their learning into action. One of the goals in phase two should be to demonstrate agility in their work. Through focusing on anticipating issues, the employee will strengthen their learning agility and as a result, will face fewer issues to “fire fight.”
While we strongly recommend that the learning in the Learn-Anticipate-Improve framework be planned for one year, we have found that the length of phases two and three can be more flexible. Phases two and three could each be planned for a duration from six to 18 months, depending on the needs of the department, the skills and interests of the employee, and other factors. For example, an employee supporting a production line who is continually surprised by schedule changes may get more benefit from a longer phase two so that they can build up improved methods to anticipate these issues. In contrast, someone working in the logistics department with a backlog of continuous improvement projects may benefit more from a longer phase three. Conversations between the employee and the manager will help determine the right amount of time for phases two and three, leaving room for adjustments to the schedule if needed.
In phase two, the employee should be expected to not only anticipate possible issues but also implement corrective actions to prevent the issues from reoccurring. For issues that can’t be controlled, such as weather events, the focus should be on developing an early warning system and having a mitigation plan to reduce its impact. Taking action is important in phase two. The employee should be able to describe what actions have been taken and how the actions will mitigate the identified risks.
Data changes can be another source of disruption. In phase two, the employee should anticipate which conditions could change, the impact it will have, and the actions required to adjust to the change. A production planner may have noticed in their first year in the role that the production schedule is most likely to change in the last week of the quarter. Priorities change, rush orders are entered, and some customers will push out orders to the following quarter. Being able to anticipate these data changes enables the planner to handle them in the normal course of the business instead of each treated as an isolated event.
These data changes aren’t isolated to schedule changes either. Bills of materials, forecasts, safety-stock levels, and business requirements may all change. Each of these presents an opportunity to anticipate the change and decide how the business should best deal with it. As employees become more experienced, they will recognize that not all changes to the bill of materials should be handled in the same manner. Changes to product packaging, for example, dramatically affect sales and marketing and require more work than simply updating the bill of materials to use the latest revision of a part.
Although anticipation is the primary mindset in phase two, referring back to Figure 1 shows there is still continued learning that occurs as well as improvements to ways of working. The employee needs to continue to meet with key stakeholders, attend training classes and webinars, develop their soft skills, and receive feedback on their progress. The learning in phase two may dovetail with the primary anticipation focus as the employee meets with new contacts that aid in this risk mitigation effort.
Phase Three: Improve
Now possessing significant experience on the team, the employee should be seen as an expert in phase three. This status as an expert should present a new challenge and a different experience than the first two phases. Focusing on continuous improvement in phase three will give the employee leadership experience and elevate the performance of the team. Like phase two, the length of the continuous improvement phase is flexible and can range from six to 18 months. If the decision is made to have a shorter anticipation phase, it may have been because the manager wants the employee to spend more time in phase three.
The continuous improvement projects can take many forms, and the employee should be working on multiple continuous improvement projects at the same time. One common continuous improvement project is automating the manual method used to anticipate issues in phase two. For example, an inventory specialist may have to visit 12 websites to confirm parts will arrive in time for next week’s production. In phase three, the specialist may look into an application that could automate that search process.
These continuous improvement efforts don’t just strengthen the employee’s skills, they are also where the company gets the payback from investing in the employee’s development. While some of these efforts will focus on reducing costs, others will target increasing productivity, improving quality, or making the workplace safer. If your company doesn’t already have a continuous improvement culture, these projects will start to develop that way of working. We have found that when employees are involved in continuous improvement projects, they are more engaged and less likely to leave the company.
By phase three, the employee should be well-versed in the responsibilities of the job, so the learning takes the form of acquiring skills from leading continuous improvement projects. Skills such as managing team dynamics, handling conflicting priorities, and communicating changes to the project schedule can all be developed and honed in phase three.
There should also be a moderate amount of anticipation occurring in phase three as well. Some of the issues that were identified and anticipated in phase two may be expanded or taken to a deeper level in phase three. The buyer who was able to anticipate issues with their supplier in phase two may now be able to anticipate issues with the supplier’s supplier in phase three. Multiple suppliers that all source their components from the same second-tier supplier may be identified and mitigated in phase three.
A flexible framework
We realize that this three-phase Learn-Anticipate-Improve framework isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. It may make business sense for an employee to move to a new role earlier or later than planned. Another department that suddenly has an employee leave the company may need an internal transfer to immediately fill the role. With this framework, the company and the employee will know what they are forgoing by moving the employee to the open position sooner than planned. If the employee moves after only one year in the position, both the company and employee miss out on the anticipation and continuous improvement phases. Unless the position is backfilled with an employee experienced in that role, the organization has to accommodate having an employee in the learning phase sooner than expected.
Another modification to the three-phase framework would be for departments with a quarterly cadence. In these departments, a new employee is more likely to experience the full breadth of job responsibilities within a quarter’s time instead of a year’s time. A possible modification may be an 18-month expectation of time in the role where the employee spends two quarters in the Learning phase, two quarters in Anticipation and two quarters in Improvement before moving to a new role. One caveat with this approach is that although the department itself may be on a quarterly cadence, those that interact with the department may only do so annually. You may need to decide which framework is most applicable depending on how frequently these interactions occur with other departments.
Start the conversation
We have found that having employees recognize that they will spend their first year in a position learning the role provides a powerful foundation for success. And with this strong foundation, they are set up to excel in phases two and three. The employee will be better prepared to anticipate issues and lead continuous improvement projects to really shine before they move to their next role.
We encourage you to have a conversation with each of your direct reports about their time in the role—no matter whether they are a recent hire or a veteran employee. Cover the time already spent in the role and the learning and skills that have been acquired, then discuss a plan for the employee’s remaining time in the role. Use a Learn-Anticipate-Improve framework to map out additional responsibilities and skills that will be gained over the employee’s remaining time in the role. Employees will appreciate a plan to provide them with different challenges during their time in the role, and retaining an employee in the role for two to three years will greatly benefit the department.
Mark Kosfeld (email@example.com) is the associate director of the Supply Chain Management Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Sheldon B. Lubar College of Business, with 16 years of supply chain experience.
Alison Wolff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of procurement with over 15 years of global supply chain experience.