The Dangers of Overtraining and Hyper-specialization

If you were to travel to Japan, you’d find signs hanging above restaurants advertising a dish unique to the region: fugu. A type of sashimi, this blowfish dish is sought out by locals and tourists alike.

It can also kill you.

The fugu stores a lethal toxin in its skin and vital organs. Chefs train for years to learn how to cut the meat carefully–one wrong move and diners will descend into paralysis. Their breathing will slow and eventually stop. In 1958, 176 people died from eating fugu in one single year. 

So it’s safe to say the food preparation process is critical to a successful outcome. And when it comes to that preparation, can you imagine a fugu chef using just any knife? No way. They use a specially-crafted instrument, called a fugubiki. It’s designed for one thing: preparing a lethal dish for human consumption.

Now, there are other more versatile knives in the world. I personally love my swiss army knife. It can perform many functions to a moderate degree of success. But I wouldn’t trust my swiss army knife to prepare blowfish for dinner–not even with the most experienced chef!

And yet, that’s precisely what some managers and C-suite executives do with their critical and specialized projects.

The Fugubiki or the Swiss Army Knife

There’s a common misconception within some business spheres that generalized labor is the best solution to staffing needs. Many leaders want to see workers as interchangeable and replaceable. And while there are certain advantages to this thinking, I can tell you that you don’t want everyone trained in everything.

If everyone is trained in everything, it means that 1) you’re training people to have a skill you’ll never actually need them to do, and 2) you are spending a ton of extra money on training. Overtraining is costly. While you should crosstrain your employees so that they are aware of more facets of your business, expecting everyone to stagnate at a basic level of training for the sake of generality is crippling. The goal of every employer is to maximize the quality and quantity of potential work done by each employee. Trying to train employees to obtain a mastery of all skills is both unattainable and a waste of time and resources. Train only those you need on what you need them to do.

As Seth Godin puts it: “When choice is limited, I want a generalist. When selection is difficult, a jack of all trades is just fine. But whenever possible, please bring me a brilliant specialist.” You may occasionally have a role that requires a “jack of all trades.” But building your entire training program around developing generalized labor could cause you precision and productivity in the long run.

Cutting Precision

Like the fugubiki knife, precision in skills and tasks can mean the difference between success and failure. Though lives may not be literally on the line, a level of precision could result in your team meeting your OEM deadlines or increased overtime when precision is lacking. You are limited by the capacity of the people who are trained and the level to which they are trained.

When you foster an environment of specialization–through both hiring and training–you allow the highest quality work, and workers, to rise to the top. These individuals can develop a mastery of their field, bringing in best practices from the industry. Instead of being limited to the general level of standard skill, the quality can ascend to the skill level of those with expertise.

As Malone, Laubacher, and Johns wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Quality improves when more of the work that goes into a final product is done by people who are good at it.” Beware, however, of hyperspecialization. Hyperspecialization is costly because there’s often not enough work for a highly specialized employee to do. One of my clients maintained a highly specialized person who was brilliant in his field. The problem was: he was being paid a generous full-time salary but was so hyperspecialized that he only had about 10 hours of work each week.  The key is for this hyperspecialized skill to be held by individual capable and willing to do other general work as well.  

The right work, done by the right people trained for the task, results in cutting precision. 

Steady Productivity

Have you ever used the wrong knife while preparing food? Perhaps a paring knife to cut a loaf of bread? You end up working twice as hard to do the work–and still end up with a mess. The wrong knife eviscerates productivity. The same goes for a generalized workforce. You can end up with the wrong person in the wrong role, killing forward motion. 

If everyone can do everything, then you have a problem with redundancy. You want a workforce in which everyone is working to their fullest potential in their specific role. But instead, you can end up with a group of individuals standing around, watching only one person do the work they’re all trained to do.

And in my years of experience as a consultant, I often see that when productivity is lagging, managers or employees try to push for more hires. If your skills inventory (specific activities you need to be done) doesn’t match your resource load (the number of employees you have), it’s not a capacity issue; it’s a skills training issue. Hiring the wrong person isn’t a small mistake–it could cost your company hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you still would not have achieved your goals! Morale would suffer as you fire the person you should never have hired in the first place. Productivity would languish due to the problem with redundancy.

As for revenue streams and financial goals, you can invest your training budget in the right people and the best practices they uncover. As far as nuts and bolts go, this improved spending could dramatically shift the future of your company. This looks like:

  • Less redundant training. 
  • Less unnecessary hires. 
  • Less money spent fixing mistakes.

Malone, Laubacher, and Johns noted, “The biggest cost saving for most companies may come in the form of better utilization of their own employees’ time.” Employees access their specific training, move faster, and make fewer mistakes. Not only does this benefit your company, but it creates a sense of satisfied cohesion and steady productivity within your workforce.

The Right Knife for You

When I work with my clients to develop a Management Operating System (MOS), we spend significant time talking about training. I ask questions like:

  • What does your skills training process involve?
  • Is everyone expected to be able to do everything?
  • Do you know if training the wrong people on the wrong tasks?
  • Are you relying on new hires to fix old training mistakes?
  • How does your skills inventory align with your resource load?

We craft a unique Skill Flexibility Matrix for each client to answer these questions, but you can consider these questions for your company right now. The precision and productivity of your company depend on your answers. 

If you’d like to talk through these questions with me, I offer a free initial consultation. Schedule a short call to connect — I look forward to hearing from you!