Lean Strategies for the HR Department

May 24, 2018

Lean Strategies for the HR Department

When functioning in a business at an executive HR level, the perception of internal processes from outside departments can vary drastically from their actuality. Put another way, HR can unfortunately be associated with lengthy, bureaucratic, and complex processes—practices with a high level of significance to the overall functionality of a company but with less appreciation or understanding.

On one hand, this viewpoint of bureaucracy can be misplaced. Yes, HR does need to often act as the internal police department in most companies. As HR executives, we are somewhat predisposed to thinking critically about new policy and procedural designs and considering when exceptions and misuses could arise. This is of incredible asset to the company, but perception does not always mesh with reality.

From the opposite side, our processes can often lack a certain, well, leanness to them. The reality is that it’s all too easy for us to get caught up in procedure design, lost in maze after maze of policy, to the extent that we lose sight of the exit goal and create overly convoluted systems.

Simplification can make our lives a whole lot easier than the current operational model. They can not only allow for objectives to be more attainable, but also assist other departments in understanding and pursuing the organizational goals we set out for them. The key to this level of successful simplification? Lean strategies.

In order to operate your HR department with the greatest level of efficiency, we’re going to outline what lean strategies are and a few tools that you can integrate into your departmental strategy immediately.

What Is the Lean Strategy?
Lean is a business methodology designed to be used across virtually all disciplines of knowledge work to assist teams in working wiser and delivering increased value to their company. This value can be defined by any variable, but for our purposes let’s say that the value lean will bring to an HR department is in successfully identifying problem areas, developing and creating procedures, and conveying them to teams across the company.

Lean organizations are created to optimize processes and reduce excess, streamlining departments, and making it easier to maintain focus on delivering value to the company. By doing so, teams and organizations are better able to communicate internally, collaborate at a more effective rate, and increase their knowledge together.

This strategy can run a bit awry from typical HR conceptualization. HR typically is not oriented to consider or focus on the total costs of its processes. Department processes are often expensive endeavors, necessitating full scale implementation across the entire company as opposed to strictly one department. Redesigning processes and HR organization needs to instead focus on the larger scope that HR roles can take and empowerment of employees must be widened.

In order for lean processes to be introduced, the underlying corporate culture itself has to be modified. The philosophy of the corporation itself has to be welcoming of lean strategies, because these concepts tend to be more big picture mindsets or methodologies rather than day-to-day measurables.

With that said, there are many lean tools that you can implement as an HR executive that will get the ball rolling. There’s no one way to go about lean, but survey data from a recent Lean Business Report suggests that in the field of knowledge work, some lean tools are more effective and widely-used than others. These tools are Kanban boards, WIP limits, and continuous improvement methods. Let’s take a look at each tool and see where it can fit in to your organizational needs.

Kanban Boards: Pulling Your Department in the Right Direction
Kanban boards are quite easily the most commonly used tool by lean teams. In fact, 83 percent of survey respondents stated that they relied on Kanban boards as a primary lean tactic. Kanban is a strategy based on the ability of the demand-forecast to create a push or pull effect.

The principles of Kanban rely on organizational visualization to create a better understanding of workflow. Two primary rules basically exist: visualize your work, and limit your work-in-progress. Instead of a push approach, whereby tasks dictate the workflow of the HR department and can create tense and stressful work environments, Kanban operates on a pull method. The process focuses on the overarching goals at hand, rather than each individual in the department’s activities. It advises limiting work in progress, which in turn reduces waste from trying to multitask and switch context (a frequent issue that HR professionals face).

The Kanban board itself is designed to harness the brain’s natural preference to visualize information. By using cards to represent work items, such as creating material for a training session or rewriting the company code of conduct, on a physical or digital whiteboard, Kanban aids HR teams in visualizing and improving their flow of work.

The board itself visually demonstrates how work moves from left to right through the “production chain,” each column representing a stage with the value stream. They are well-liked due to their versatility and ability to be applied across multiple departments and initiatives. They can quite complex, or as simple as a sort of “beginning/work-in-progress/completed.” It’s recommended that each column contain its own “work-in-progress limit,” meaning that each individual column can only have a fixed amount of work items. The purpose of this is to optimize focus and not constrain the overall department, positively influencing the pull of the team and optimizing output.

Work-In-Progress Limits: A Kanban Rule Expanded
Setting work-in-progress (WIP) limits probably seems completely in line with Kanban thinking now, doesn’t it? This tool will take a lot of practice and monitoring initially, but once your team gets it down, it should fully expedite your department’s work.

The urgency of setting WIP limits is truly critical to your team’s work stream. In a conversation with Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry, coauthors of several Kanban pieces, Jim stated, “If you’re not limiting your WIP, then there is no flow. Your Kanban board is no more than a to-do list.” In other words, if you fail to set limits on the columns in your board, you’ll completely miss out on the ability to analyze where bottlenecks are occurring in your department’s workflow.

Improving workflow is the goal of lean, and an ideal way for HR executives to find their own way of trimming their department. Setting WIP limits is the perfect way to approach this endeavor and shouldn’t be an afterthought. When we fail to limit WIP, we often exceed the amount of work we can handle and our attention suffers, along with the quality of our work. We wind up forgetting details or missing deadlines, and the context of the project itself gets stuck in limbo. The WIP limits allow us to see our projects through to the end, effectively preventing us from starting new assignments until our pipeline has the space for it.

Continuous Improvement: A Philosophy as Much as a Tool
Our last lean strategy for HR executives to consider implementing in their department is used by roughly one-third of survey respondents. Continuous improvement is a tool that can be challenging to measure at first, but the methodology it brings is vital for the function of your team.

The entire concept of continuous improvement is to continue identifying opportunities for streamlining work and reducing waste in your organization. You can choose to either implement informally, more as a department motto and overarching guide when working on new projects, or as a more formalized practice.

In a formal manner, the continuous improvement cycle has four general steps. The first is to identify, which is to analyze where your workflow process needs improvement. This can be done in conjunction with WIP limits; take note of bottlenecks and identify the root cause.

The second step is to plan. Determine with the managers on your team what is affecting the identified area and suggestions for making improvements.

The third step is to execute: this is the process of implementing the plan that was decided upon. This process can take some time to see results, so don’t feel the need to rush it.

The fourth and final step is to review. Once you determine a period of time over which you’d like to execute the plan, set up review points to evaluate how the changes are working for the department. Be sure to do so in a way that isn’t pressure-driven beyond the typical everyday workflow; you want your results to be true and reflect a typical workflow cycle.

The continuous improvement system, along with every lean strategy, relies on open and clear communications coupled with a data-driven way of measuring results. As the leader of your department, establish that team members can speak openly and honestly about their successes and failures along the way. This will result in the team making true strides towards efficiency and reflect positively on the goals of the HR department.

The Authors: 

Jon Terry is chief evangelist, Lean-Agile strategy at Planview and former co-founder of LeanKit. He helps enterprises around the globe discover how to increase effectiveness, optimize processes, and deliver value faster with Lean-Agile principles.  Jon has been a leader in Agile transformations for some of the largest organizations in North America, including HCA Healthcare and HealthTrust Purchasing Group. Jon earned his Global Executive MBA from Georgetown University and ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. Connect with him on LinkedIn.