Guest Post: “Soft Skills”: From Spongy to Solid


Inspired by Mark's recent posting on More Trust, Less Fear and an upcoming conference panel that I'm a part of, I thought a continuation of the “soft skills” discussion would be timely.

The first thing that comes to my mind when people say “soft skills” :


What I think should come to mind when people say “soft skills”: A firm foundation!:


The Evidence: “Soft skills” can be described as the social and motivational traits, behaviours, or abilities of an individual or group used to perform a task. Our actions based on where we tend to place our effort would suggest that “soft skills,” such as trust, confidence, empathy, adaptability and self-control, are often perceived as being not as important as (or at least secondary to) the technical skills of a workforce. However, practitioners and academics from various fields have found that these skills have a significant impact on performance in various work systems involving people. For example, the sociotechnical systems perspective emphasizes that there should be joint optimization between the task or technical environment and the social system within a given organization.

Generally, the role of “soft skills” in healthcare has been studied extensively, with the work of Prof. Amy Edmonson on organizational learning and psychological safety (i.e., my team is safe for interpersonal risk tasking) being among the most popular. And evidence of “soft skills” in lean is gaining maturity. However,  the impact of “soft skills” on the success of lean healthcare efforts is not fully understood.

Opinion: Important but Hard to Do: I think that everyone knows “soft skills” are important, perhaps more important than technical skills, but because they are difficult to cultivate, measure, etc. we tend to avoid discussing them.

Opinion: “Soft Skills” Sounds Soggy: Establishing a new term to describe these skills could be helpful as well. “Soft skills” sounds like an intangible, marginalized set of concepts. However, naming the actual skills (trust, confidence, etc.) tend to resonate much better and are perceived as valuable traits. Perhaps interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are better “umbrella” terms…

Let's Chat: So let's shed some more light on the subject:
What are some examples when “soft skills” were the reason your lean healthcare efforts excelled or failed? How do you cultivate “soft skills” in your lean efforts?

What you think the term “soft skills?” What would you call them?

Dr. Wiljeana Glover is  currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the  MIT Lean Advancement Initiative. Her current research interests include healthcare systems, improvement sustainability, and management innovation.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleNew Site
Next articleQuestions about and Lessons from a Steering Wheel Falling Off
Wiljeana Glover
Wiljeana Glover is an Assistant Professor of Technology, Operations, and Information Management. She currently teaches technology and operations management to undergraduate students. Prof. Glover studies healthcare and non-profit organizations to understand how continuous improvement approaches, coordination practices, service innovation, and complexity influence service delivery. She explores these topics via research and teaching partnerships, including with the Clalit Health Systems-Israel (in collaboration with the Israel Institute of Technology) and the Greater Boston Food Bank (in collaboration with the Toyota Production System Support Center-TSSC).


  1. We had, on one of my performance review forms, something called a critical success factor. These were your “soft skills”–your ability to work with other people, risk taking, adaptability to change, etc.

    When we had a layoff after my first few years at my first “real job,” it was the people who were lacking “soft skills” who got laid off–largely because it was recognized that our work environment was going to be more collaborative and cross-functional. So people who were difficult to work with because of their insensitivity or inflexibility were let go.

    I don’t know if critical success factor is any better a name, but it does give these skills an air of more importance than “soft skills.”

  2. Rachel, great suggestion! I didn’t know orgs. were using Critical success factors (CSFs) in that way.
    In org. research, the CSF term is used to describe when a factor, social or technical, is statistically significant to achieving an outcome. So CSF could also be used to capture technically-related factors of success, further showing that the social and technical skills are equally important.

  3. I prefer the term interpersonal skills. Soft skills encompass the skills necessary to effectively communicate and build valuable relationships. Technical skills and interpersonal skills are imperative for an organization to succeed.

  4. Soft skills definately are a foundation to hard skills. Why talk about lean, quality, safety, logistics if workers feel they live on an island? It’s useless as long as they do not how to work as a team and support eachother. The technical system is built upon a strong social system.
    Our lean training programme always starts with soft skills.

    We just call them soft skills. Inventing new names fot the same thing is not lean.

    • Jan, great point. I think it could be interesting to poll lean HC orgs to understand the way that they introduce lean, i.e., starting with hard or soft skills.
      How did you emphasize the importance of soft skills in your lean training efforts?
      And to your last point, a lean program would likely not want to create new names for the sake of them being new, but only in situations where “soft skills” is met with cynicism, resistance, etc. For example, some organizations use the term “social skills,” which is not new, just different. This may be a case where one-size-does-not-fit-all and depending on your culture, one categorization term may be better than another.

  5. Thanks Wiljeana.
    Well, I’m a hard skills trainer. Lean and quality are my main subjects. We use specialized communication trainers to take care of soft skills. Among other things they usually do a DISC assessment. Later on they support the hard skills topics. We teach workers how to use verbal skills: no complaining but a positive attitude. They learn how to express themselves with better results. Of course hard skills trainers have to deal with a lot of soft skills topics too. The NIH-attitude is common and reoccuring in lean-transitions.
    Lean leadership always a topic. In smaller traditional organisations we get great results by training and coaching the leaders before anything else

    Lean itself is often met with cynicism, resistance, etc. Some people even avoid ‘Lean’ because of its association with ‘Mean’. A crying shame. If we are not able to explain what lean is really about, then we will not achieve anything by changing its name. Don’t get lost in namegiving. It’s about what we do.

  6. Jan’s point is good but I still agree that hard/soft skills terminology conveys a message.

    To build on your initial analogy what about talking about “foundation skills”. You convey the message that every technical achievement is built upon (not “facilitated by” or “completed by”) a layer of human relations

  7. I would call it , following Baert, PRESENCE. Soft skills is less about what you do, and more about who you are.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.