The following is an excerpt from my book, “Lean HR: Redesigning HR Processes for a Culture of Continuous Improvement” – Second Edition, out this spring, intended to help organizations partner with HR to reach the full potential of a lean transformation.

“Understanding why HR is held in such low regard and seen as tangential to lean transformation efforts is critical to implementing Lean HR. One way is to address the common myths and misconceptions about HR. Until we can move beyond the negative stereotypes and attitudes about HR and how it functions, we’ll never begin to optimize the power this work could bring to lean efforts.

Myth #1: Lean HR mostly refers to improving the non-strategic, transactional work of HR.

People often assume Lean HR means applying lean principles and practices to HR to make the department itself more efficient. This isn’t viewed as important, because HR is typically associated with non-strategic transactional activities (payroll, benefits, compliance, etc.), so the thinking is that applying lean to such work will not yield big benefits.

Even people who see value in the roles of HR beyond transactional activities (employee relations, employee engagement, etc.) do not see the opportunities for lean/CI improvement in these higher value activities. Thus, HR is frequently not targeted for lean/CI focused efforts because it’s perceived as a lower priority compared to the work of driving, say, productivity improvements on the plant floor.

Reality: Applying lean/CI methods to HR should only be the beginning of a Lean HR initiative.

Doing so provides a foundation that prepares HR to become a valuable resource for companywide improvement.

Many HR professionals find themselves buried in paperwork and other traditional HR tasks that prevent them from focusing on more important business needs. While they might sincerely want to do more strategically vital work, the demands of HR’s traditional roles can easily interfere with their pursuit of greater contributions. As such, many HR team members may require lean improvement of their work processes before they can devote more of their attention to supporting the organizations lean/CI transformation.

The oversimplification of applying lean/CI to HR causes leadership to miss the fact that, by keeping HR out of the loop, they miss the many ways HR could support improvement efforts. Specifically, lean/CI typically includes building problem-solving skills and promoting teamwork. HR could assist by helping to increase the effectiveness of training and education to build these skills. HR professionals can also manage the inevitable workforce changes that will result as the company turns its focus to problem-solving and teamwork.

Opportunity: Optimize HR’s leadership potential, expertise, and areas of responsibility to advance the strategies and activities of lean/CI transformation.

Organizations can use the application of lean/CI to HR as a way to model and build the skills of HR professionals, while building a parallel path for HR to drive lean/CI principles and practices throughout the company. By applying various lean/CI practices to every aspect of HR work, HR professionals could do the following:

• Complete their traditional HR work more quickly, thereby freeing up time to contribute to lean/CI and other strategic efforts.
• Model the lean/CI way of managing processes.
• Gain the skills and abilities they need to build HR programs that fully support a lean/CI based workplace.

In one of the first lean transformations I led, we began, as many companies do, in operations. I had happened to learn about lean methodologies and saw them as a form of training to introduce to the facility. As expected, I needed to partner with the head of operations before moving forward.

About a year into the project, the progress bumped up against disconnects with the way our people understood their jobs. We had begun to have so much interdepartmental problem-solving and teamwork that we needed to add related skills to the job descriptions. Another pressing concern became the need to standardize, which also drove the need to further redefine roles. In turn, these changes created pressure to redesign the role of supervisors.

As I studied other lean organizations, it became clear that, for a lean transformation to be fully successful, companies need to change the way leaders lead. Supervisors must be adept at utilizing the full capabilities of each team member, which they traditionally have not been asked to do in their roles. They need to involve each team member in solving problems and improving the work processes. Anything less is simply far less than lean transformations can produce. All of these changes required HR expertise and guidance.”

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