How and why HR must do Lean Practice

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Rey Elbo

In The Workplace

Most of the time, the human resource (HR) department as top management’s first-line of defense is criticized for its acts and omissions that adversely affected employees’ welfare. Even if HR is following management decision on certain things, still — it can’t be helped by the workers but to disparage its leadership. How do we change such perceptions against HR? — Yellow Submarine.

A general and his young lieutenant in the United States were traveling from their military base to another base in another state. Due to lack of transportation, they were forced to travel with civilians aboard a passenger train. They found their booth, where an attractive young woman and her grandmother were seated. For most of the trip, they conversed freely until the train entered a long and dark tunnel.

Once inside the tunnel, the four passengers heard two distinct sounds — the first was the smooch of a kiss and the second was the loud sound of a slap. Immediately, the four passengers had formed different conclusions. The young woman is thinking for herself how glad she is that the young lieutenant got up the courage to kiss her, but she is somewhat disappointed at her grandmother for slapping him for kissing her.

The general, on the other hand is thinking to himself how proud he is of his young lieutenant for being enterprising enough to find the opportunity to kiss the attractive young woman, but he is flabbergasted that she slapped him instead of the lieutenant.

The grandmother is flabbergasted to think that the young lieutenant would have the gall to kiss her daughter, but she is proud of her granddaughter for slapping him for doing it.

The young lieutenant is trying to hold back his laughter, for he had found the perfect opportunity to kiss an attractive young girl and slap his superior officer all at the same time.

It’s a matter of perception that depends much on where one is seated. Of course, if a management policy adverse to the employees is handed down, there is no better suspect than HR as the implementing agency even if its actions are dictated by top management. The suspicion remains the same even if HR recommended such actions and was approved by management.

Just like in our train-inside-the-tunnel story, there are four sides to the story, which brings us to the Dave Ulrich model, which involves wearing hats of the following — the change agent, the business partner, the administrative expert, and the employee champion, not necessarily in that order.

These four hats must be worn by HR leaders at all times, whenever they focus their attention on “people” and “processes.” And speaking of “people” and “processes,” there’s no better way but for HR to understand, inject, and implement the principles of Lean into its work functions.

And as you probably know, Lean or the continuing elimination of bottlenecks and operational waste in HR work functions is the driving force that is reshaping the people management environment, hence the term “Lean HR.”

Jim Scully, founder of the HR Shared Services Institute says “(if) you think Lean is for the factory floor, and certainly not for HR service delivery, think again. Lean is about eliminating waste, and the typical service delivery function expends more than half of its resources on waste — that is, performing activities that do not directly deliver value to its customers.”

If you know how and why to do Lean HR, then, you must be wearing all four hats of the Ulrich model. Why? For one, there’s really a need for HR to focus on giving “total quality” service to its workers and related stockholders. It is often neglected as HR tries to perform many fire-fighting activities.

The domain of Lean HR includes strategic input and continual deployment of systems to increase employee satisfaction that would redound to the benefit of the organization. That could only happen if HR is proactive and conscious of identifying the most common types of non-value adding activities in its operations. Following the Lean framework that is used by manufacturing, these operational wastes are classified here:

One is having difficult or unqualified workers. If not corrected proactively, a high turnover rate is costly to any organization. The problem becomes worse, if the voluntary or involuntary resignation happens within one year from hiring date. That’s not all, the issue is compounded when an organization has too many difficult employees that can’t be properly managed by their line supervisors and managers but rely much on HR to do the dirty job.

Two is over-staffing. This happens when a company resorts to hiring too many low-paid contractual workers, part-timers, casuals, and even student trainees that could make the work life of regular workers easy, but not necessarily productive. Besides, having too many workers inside the company can be a security and safety issue. If the work is too much for a certain number of workers, try to review the system and work process, and almost, always you’ll find a solution.

Three is unnecessary waiting. This is apparent when HR takes too much time in sourcing, hiring, and on-boarding new employees. One bottleneck in screening applicants is when HR requires all applicants to produce many documents in the first stage of the hiring process, when one or a two-page CV would suffice for purposes of a paper review. Additional documents are required only as the applicants make it through the interview and are best suited only when you’re ready to select from a 3-man shortlist.

Four is non-use of employee talent and other company resources. If you have a job vacancy, why not promote someone from within? If there’s no one qualified, why not? By asking at least five whys, you’ll understand many root causes of the issue, which may possibly include lack of a sensible succession planning or lack of employee training, among others. But one thing is sure, it boils down to management incompetence.

Five is unnecessary transportation of workers and resources. In this age of daily, monstrous traffic jams, it’s always better for the company to hire people who live near the company or its branches. If necessary, it’s better for employees to be transferred where their skills are better utilized. Anyway, it’s management prerogative to transfer people for purposes of multi-skilling and flexibility. It is for the mutual benefit of the employees and the organization.

Six is having too many HR forms in paper format that clog inventory. Try having a paperless work environment and you’ll see immediate benefits. For one, discard old 201 folders of resigned, retired, deceased, and retrenched employees and keep only a scan copy of two or three basic documents about former employees. What’s the use of keeping these paper files for life when the Labor Code has a three years prescription period for money claims?

Seven is excessive “motion” or control in many HR forms and processes. The most common examples include requiring job applicants to go back and forth during the hiring process, requiring employees to file several copies of their leave application form or requiring employees to submit a medical certificate, even for a one-day sick leave. As an extreme example, I heard of one stupid policy prohibiting employees from taking a nap in their work station. If you do that, what kind of management are you demonstrating to these people?

Last is extra processing or multiple approvals for employee requests. This is related to number seven above. How many signatories do you need to process an employee leave application? If it’s more than one, then you’re over-doing it. Why not empower the line supervisors and managers to do a one-on-one control system? Imagine the magic that it can bring to your organization by eliminating multiple control systems from many trivial administrative tasks.

There are many examples out there. It’s only a matter of reconciling the mutual interest of the workers and management. And this can be done by giving high priority to a systematic understanding of the employees’ basic needs, which are not limited to giving them high pay and perks. After all, employee satisfaction has, in fact, become an umbrella phrase for a range of adjustments and refinements to attract, motivate, and retain the best and the brightest.

ELBONOMICS: Customer satisfaction can happen if there’s employee satisfaction.