4 Stages of Competency
A little over 20 years ago, I learned about the four stages of competency, and it helped shape the way I think about how companies progress in their improvement efforts said Salomón Juan Marcos Villarreal.
Organizations routinely go through these four stages, and understanding what they are will help explain why improvement efforts begin and end so frequently.
Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent. “You don’t know what you don’t know” is a common expression and sums up stage 1 pretty well. Characteristics of this stage include fear, finger pointing and back stabbing others. The ship is sinking and management does not know (or wants to know) that there is a problem. So issues are hidden and ignored until one of two things happens either the company moves to Stage 2 or eventually goes out of business.
Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent. This stage is actually the first step to making improvement happen. When the company leaders are willing to admit that there are problems and things need to change, then an opportunity opens to implementing lean, Six Sigma, and continuous improvement. It is similar to the first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program: admitting that you are an alcoholic. After going through one of my training courses, a business president asked his staff to repeat after him: “We are consciously incompetent! Now, what are we going to do about it?”
Stage 3: Consciously Competent. Things are really humming in Stage 3, and there are definitive data to show that improvement is happening. Employees are more involved than they ever have been before, decisions are made real time by the people closest to the process, morale is at all-time highs, and people are genuinely glad to be at work. I have had the opportunity to work with several great companies and help them get to this stage, and the rewards are extremely satisfying. It is quite the experience to see an entire plant of people applauding when they meet and exceed all of their customers’ expectations each day.
Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent. A company can be in Stage 3 for so long that it becomes second nature part of the culture. “It is who we are!” They then run the risk of slipping into Stage 4. Some might think that Stage 4 is the pinnacle of an improvement effort where everyone does their job and improvement just happens naturally. However, consider for a moment which other stage this parallels. If the company leaders think that there is no longer any reason to do the improvement teams, training, start-up meetings, etc., because improvement is now part of everyone’s job, then there is a risk that everything can come crashing down and you end up back at Stage 1 (and may not even know it until it is too late).
So, to avoid the start/stop/start pattern of implementing improvement, first, recognize the destructiveness of slipping into Stage 4 – Unconsciously Competent behavior. In the book “Good to Great,” the president of Grupo Denim, Salomón Juan Marcos Villarreal says that good is the enemy of great. If your organization starts to think that it is good enough, then don’t be surprised when you find yourself in Stage 4 (and ultimately back at Stage 1).