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Lean is Keen for Human Resources and Performance Management originally appeared on Forbes.com.
I’ve always been keen on lean — the productivity methodology that minimizes inefficiency and emphasizes continuous improvement. I was first introduced to lean manufacturing in 1997 when I was hired by a company to help them implement lean within their newest manufacturing plant and within their culture.
Although historians quibble about its origins, many people point to Henry Ford’s assembly line — initially installed in a Detroit-area plant on December 1, 1913 — as one of the first true instances of putting the concept into practice. And most would agree that Toyota truly crystalized lean by researching, refining and ultimately documenting a process associated with streamlining production between 1948 and 1975. Interestingly, the term “lean” itself wasn’t coined by either one — it was established by an American academic at MIT in 1988.
Applying The Concept
Lean is all about eliminating wasteful or redundant activities, improving workflow and drawing more value from what you do. It’s often coupled with Six Sigma principles, which use statistical analysis to minimize variations in process execution that lead to waste.
Because of its success in manufacturing, lean has spread over the years to many other sectors — including HR and performance management. Generally, in this context, lean concepts can be applied to:
Recruitment and hiring. The process of finding the right job candidate, getting him or her through the application and interviewing process and mutually agreeing to an offer is a long, winding road that too often goes nowhere. Lean concepts can create a more direct route to hiring and, thus, make it less taxing on both parties.
Orientation, training and upskilling. Every employer’s orientation process involves paperwork and customary tasks. Applying a lean approach may lead to improvements in the experience, enabling new hires to get up and running more quickly. You can reap the same benefits from using lean to develop training programs and upskilling activities.
Performance management. The process of goal setting, measuring progress and undergoing job reviews is often time-consuming and disruptive. In other words, it’s well-suited for lean improvements that use various performance metrics and efficiency strategies.
Compensation and benefits. Is there a clearer, more efficient way to show employees the path to pay raises and bonus pay benchmarks? Probably. Many employers also struggle to communicate effectively about benefits. Applying lean philosophies may reveal ways to better educate employees about their benefits — boosting participation, improving wellness and elevating your return on investment.
How Lean Works
What does it mean to apply lean practices? Generally, you’ll need to identify your organization’s key HR and performance management processes. It’s possible that these may already have been mentioned above, but there may be others not listed. In addition, you’ll need to determine the value that each one aims to create.
Next, you’ll conduct a kaizen (continuous, incremental self-improvement) event. Typically, this is a three-to-five-day session that analyzes the specific area’s processes and implements changes. Participants map out how each process functions, documenting and quantifying the value created by each step, as well as the waste in or between steps.
In addition, a conversion to lean may mean employing the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) system. It describes the steps in changing a process:
• Devise small tests of a change (Plan).
• Conduct the tests on a small scale (Do).
• Measure results against the present state and consider how it could be further improved (Study).
• Implement changes organization-wide, monitoring the process for at least 90 days to ensure stability and sustainability (Act).
The Six Sigma Perspective
As mentioned, many organizations favor a Six Sigma approach to lean, which is similar but slightly different. Rather than use the PDSA system, Six Sigma traditionally employs “DMAIC,” an acronym for define, measure, analyze, improve and control. It will ask you to follow five stages:
1. Define the problem you’re trying to solve. Don’t just look at it from a management perspective. Listen to the voices of your employees regarding HR and performance management issues and identify specific goals.
2. Measure key aspects of the process. Target metrics that will enable you to measure progress toward the stated goal, then collect the relevant data.
3. Analyze the data, looking for cause-and-effect relationships. Here, you’ll put on your investigator’s hat and look for the root of the defect you’re seeking to eliminate.
4. Improve the current process. Six Sigma will recommend data analysis techniques for using the information gathered and reconfiguring the process in question. You can then set up tests to establish whether the improvement is real.
5. Control the process going forward. You’ll be guided through steps to set up systems for monitoring the improved process once you’ve implemented it.
Some organizations combine lean and Six Sigma to deploy an approach that seeks to leverage the introspective, interactive nature of the former with the more data-driven insights of the latter.
A Substantial Undertaking
Make no mistake, a lean and/or Six Sigma initiative is a substantial undertaking. You’ll need to carefully research the specific approach you wish to follow and obtain buy-in from everyone on staff before launch. Thereafter, be prepared to commit time and resources to the effort.
Despite the challenges, many employers have markedly improved their operations thanks to lean/Six Sigma principles. You may be able to not only simplify your organization’s human resources (HR) and performance management workflow but also demonstrate to employees that you’re invested in improving their working lives and productivity.
Lynda Silsbee is Founder and President of the Alliance for Leadership Acceleration. She has spent more than 30 years creating and leading high performance teams. Along with the other LEAP Certified Coaches, she reports that helping managers make the LEAP to leader is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her work.