Lean HR: Some people managers act like morticians

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

AN economist was invited to give a talk to a group of human resource (HR) managers on what to expect in the years to come. The resource speaker propped up a big sheet of white easel paper. Then he made a black spot on the paper with a black marker, and asked a man in the front row what he saw.

The man replied promptly—“A black round spot.” Then the speaker asked every person the same question, and each one replied—“Yes, a black round spot.” With calm and deliberate emphasis, the speaker said: “Yes, there is a black round spot, but none of you mentioned the big sheet of white paper. And that’s the major part of my presentation.”

This is typical of what you expect from today’s HR professionals who, more often than not, appear to have a different perspective than what David Ulrich’s ideal portrayal of what an HR Champion should be. In his book “Human Resource Champions” (1997), Ulrich says people managers must, first and foremost, perform the role of strategic business partner, change agent, and employee champion – all rolled into one.

Many HR executives forget, if not oblivious of the Ulrich prescription. It should not happen, but it does happen for some reasons even if they mouth different things in their glossy annual reports and websites. In real life, they forget what they’re saying, when asked with specific examples on how they do it.

HR managers are simply playing games by writing the best motherhood statements while focusing on magic phrases like work-life balance, empowerment, and employee engagement, among others. I’ve tested this many times with people and organizations. And 80 percent of the time, I know when someone puts up a white lie.

But how do you make an HR manager fit into the mold of Ulrich’s HR Champion as a strategic partner, change agent, and employee champion? There are many strategic solutions. One of them is “Lean HR.” Sure, I’ve a special bias for Total Quality Management (TQM) and how it applies to HR. Essentially, it is an oft-neglected side of HR.

Organizations that don’t practice “Lean HR” mean only one thing. They’re not interested in continuous improvement. But what is “Lean HR” in the first place?

It is the application of TQM principles like lean production and kaizen to better improve the delivery of HR services to employees and its management. Lean HR is intimately linked to maximize the full potential of human talent, either individually through the Suggestion System or collectively by means of Quality Circles, Self-Directed Teams, and Labor-Management Councils.

Lean HR provides the structure and system to engage and empower the workers. Yet many HR managers and their management continue to ignore employee talent, because they believe much on the traditional command-and-control type of management.

“People are hired to work and they’re not expected to use their brain,” said one HR manager. “The brain work can be done effectively by management who has the ultimate decision to make things happen. If the workers don’t work to our satisfaction, then off they go. There should be no mercy.”

That organization is one critical example of many firms out there that shoots its wounded.

To my calculation, one in every five people managers is mentally unbalanced. Think of your friends in the corporate world. If they appear alright, then you’re the one! And it’s good you’re reading this piece. If you’re not a believer, then ask yourself the following questions:

How many days or months do you need to fill-up a vacant position in your organization? If it is taking you at least two weeks to do it, then you’re guilty of the waste of waiting. How about the number of documents you’re asking job applicants during your first encounter with them? If it’s more than the biodata, then you’re overly ignorant of the waste of over-processing.

And speaking of job applications, do you still rely on hard copy submissions? Have you listened to your employees complaining against wrongful salary deductions? How about delayed payment of salaries? How long does it take you to issue an employment certificate?

The HR function is a wide arena for many improvement activities. It is the big white space in everyone’s easel paper. As a strategic business partner, HR has the resources and opportunity to lead continuous improvement. If you don’t believe this, ask any HR manager what makes him stick with that job?

If he tells you he enjoys working with people as a career challenge, offer him the work of an embalmer.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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