If you Measure It, They will Listen: A Case Study in Why Lean can help HR get its Groove back


By, Cari Desiderio

I often tell people that I am not a very attentive to detail person.  My DiSC score is a high I with some gravitation towards D.  Meaning I move fast, love to talk, love to win, and absolutely hate getting into the weeds.  The thing is, people don’t believe me.  That is because despite my natural orientation, I have changed my behaviors.  You might say I have gotten drunk on Lean Kool-Aid.  This not so naturally detailed lady now loves metrics.  Because metrics done well, spells out success in our field.  The soft and touchy feely field of HR suddenly goes from a field leaders give a half way nod to, to a field our leaders see as crucial to success. This changing of the reputation only happens once we can measure and prove our worth. That’s where Lean, Six Sigma and continuous improvement (CI) theories can help.

My journey in CI actually started with the tenets of Six Sigma, but in recent years I have evolved to embrace business system thinking that infuses a deep culture of CI into the very fiber of culture and people.   Whether it is the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) that Six Sigma teaches, or the Kaizen brainstorming and VDM (visual daily management boards) that Lean introduces, there is a common pattern of measuring things.  They teach a culture of constant stretching and improving.  Recently a team member still in her on boarding period asked me about how serious we are about our goals.  I gave her the analogy of standing on her tippy toes with fingers outstretched, trying to touch the ceiling.  Think about the goal as the ceiling.  This is how a good goal feels.  Lean teaches us that when we start hitting our goals repeatedly, the goal needs to be adjusted.  We’ve settled.  We should never contract back to a standing position, or we are becoming complacent.  I told this team member that it’s good that she feels the stretch effect.  That yes for sure we are serious about our goals. But not to be discouraged.  The culture embraced by Lean and CI, embodies a spirit of trial and error and success learned through mistakes and repeats and then, finally, improvement.  But those bumps and ebb and flowing are part of the story.  There is no smooth ride.  The learning happens in the bumps along the way. But if we stay the course, in the end we will win and see strides forward and goals hit.  That is because when CI is applied, with visibility and goals and team engagement not abandoned, some form of success just has to eventually ensue.

Now I need to state a disclaimer. I’m still a bit of a newbie to Lean.  I’m still learning.  But I’ve seen some immediate successes in the recent years and it’s got me sold. My first learning journey in Lean was when I was involved with an action improvement plan (AIP) focused on cross training a plant.  We looked at our problem statement.  It started with an American problem that was impacting our plant and many others. Namely, that close to 600,000 American factory jobs cannot be filled due to labor shortage due to lacking technical skills.  A compounding problem statement is that factory workers tend to be older and the Baby Boomers are retiring.  A third and also compounding issue was that our engagement scores (again – obtained via measurement) were showing that team members wanted opportunities to grow and develop.  Neglecting to do so would lead to dissatisfaction, poorer engagement and more turnover.  Add all of this up, and we have a risk situation around adequate factory labor to make our materials on time and well. So all of these factors led to an initiative to map out the skills and competencies required to hold various positions in different departments in the shop. Direct labor staff members were evaluated on skills sets and given learning plans to stretch and learn new skills.  The outcome?  We were able to avoid numerous outside hires for some of the more complex jobs because we were growing out talent.

A second area I’ve enjoyed seeing Lean applied to is talent acquisition.  In this endeavor we’ve brought more of the formal tools of Lean into play. A kaizen workshop to dissect the process, and using mapping tools to have cross platform teams critique the talent acquisition process and build a future state.  VDM regular report out meetings to dissect the problem areas and adopt a discipline for team members to come together to speak to and address issues regularly.  VDM is great because sometimes by merely exposing issues on a timely basis, they are solved faster and better.  One can also apply formal countermeasure solutions to solving recruiting issues, when issues are more complex.  Easy? No. It takes discipline.  But in the end the hard work pays off.  Over two companies, I have seen time to fill reduced by 25% to 50% using principles of Six Sigma and Lean. It pays off!

The lesson is simple.  Measurement.  Visibility.  Accountability.  Goals.  Engagement and inviting team ideas and ownership.  Eliminating waste. Relentless improvement baked into the culture.  There are many great things that can happen when the tried and true principles taught by various continuous improvement theories are applied to any field. Including HR!  I read a recent report by Deloitte that said HR gets a D+ grade with most operational leaders. Let’s change this story!  By getting serious about measuring our field, we can go from a D+ to an A+. Let’s define what a good HR partner looks like, and starting adding value to the bottom line!




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