How HR Can Lead a Continuous Improvement Culture Change

HR can lead continuous improvement

Process bottlenecks, missed deadlines, budget blow-outs and communication breakdowns are systematic to every business. Beyond finger-pointing, tirades by exasperated leaders and cutting or adding staff with knee-jerk reaction to solve problems, there is another way: The Lean Way.

As a business leader, you probably recognize that processes across the organization could be more efficient. Yet, how do you actually hit the pause button to find a better way to do things? It’s not just about working harder and faster. It’s about working efficiently. Continuous improvement can be accomplished by any business in any industry.

Implementing continuous improvement practices is a culture shift within a business. And it’s not like flipping on a light switch and everything is immediately streamlined. There is a deliberate way to do things the Lean way. For a continuous improvement culture to be effective, it must permeate across an organization rather than remain quartered in just one or a few supporting departments.

As background, lean thinking and practices started in the manufacturing world by Toyota as it rose from last to first in-vehicle quality and production efficiency. Today, continuous improvement practices have transformed businesses in industries beyond manufacturing to include healthcare, retail, services, technology and every organization that seeks to improve process efficiencies and reduce costs.

HR management is an ideal fit to lead the way and sustain Lean practices across the organization. So why does it make sense to start with HR to launch the continuous improvement culture change?

HR is the hub of an organization’s greatest asset – it’s people. The Human Resources department is connected to each person who enters and leaves an organization. HR staff are the first to welcome each new employee and a conduit throughout each employee’s career with the organization. Based on their centrality within the organization, the HR team exhibits and reinforces the company culture each and every day.

The role of HR in an organization includes numerous processes that are repeatedly accomplished every day. With a nexus to every employee, HR roles can include: recruiting, interviewing, onboarding, offboarding, training & development, performance management, benefits, payroll, employee relations, and communications.

What better way to begin your organization’s Lean journey and culture transformation than with your HR team. So how do you tackle process improvement efforts? The following four steps is the place to start.

Process Mapping

Each process within the department, large and small, must be mapped to visually outline the “current state” of the process. You cannot begin to improve upon a process until you fully understand what is currently happening. Additionally, in order to measure improvement changes, you must have a baseline to measure by.

In the Lean world, swim lane diagrams are used to gather a baseline measurement of current processes. The swim lane diagrams illustrate business processes as they move within and outside of a department while capturing the time associated with each process step. Often, redundant or unnecessary steps are quickly uncovered. This visual representation highlights cross-functional responsibilities and processes within a business unit.

Affinity Diagrams

An Affinity Diagram is a type of brainstorming used to organize ideas into subgroups with common relationships. Each person in the group identifies thoughts or ideas around a pre-determined question. The approach can help a group make connections between common ideas that may otherwise seem overwhelming to discuss.

For example, a HR team early in their Lean journey can gather to identify a key problem or issue within the department. The exercise begins with each participant jotting down individual ideas on sticky notes and randomly place each one on a wall for everyone to see. In a round-robin timed sequence, each participant groups similar ideas. The result is a cohesive identification of issues that then can be addressed with other lean tools.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

SOPs are step-by-step instructions that document a routine activity critical to the function of a department. Well-written SOPs provide consistency and reduce error.

Within HR, some SOPs can include: Employee Onboarding; workforce planning, interviewing and orientation; Performance Management, including budget planning, communications, and assignment of merit increases; Employee Relations, involving corrective action policy, documentation, coaching and termination; Benefits; Workman’s Compensation filing and documentation; and Off-boarding, involving both voluntary and involuntary separation from the company.

Each HR department develops SOPs unique to their organization based on processes outlined in the Process Mapping segment. The goal is to have clear processes documented that can be updated as needed in a systematic way to maximize version control. In other words, don’t print off an SOP and then stick it in a file drawer, never to see the light of day. When updates are needed, update the main version so the updates are always current and accessible by everyone.

Lean Communications

Establishing communication protocols and efficiencies will create a framework to consistency and methodically communicate within each department and across the organization. By establishing the following infrastructure, all team members, at every level, will always be “in the know” with the ability to freely exchange information. In addition, as issues arise within work teams, the communication protocol presents the opportunity to escalate daily to the next level in the department or organization.

  • The Leader Standard Work (LSW), in a single-page, outlines daily, weekly and monthly tasks for each team member. The use of the LSW for each team member provides consistency for their position and tracking for daily escalations and weekly O3 meetings.
  • The Visual Control Board provides a visual representation within a department or team of current projects, status to due dates and individual accountability. The team huddles in front of the board daily at a specified time to review and provide an opportunity to those discuss any needs in accomplishing tasks and meeting a deadline. The visual control board is the communications opportunity to escalate information to the next level of management.
  • One-on-One (O3) meetings are weekly, half-hour meetings between a supervisor and their direct report. Everyone, at every level within an organization, should have an O3 meeting. The structured meeting is organized in three parts.

In the first 10 minutes, the discussion is usually non-work-related dialogue about personal news like how the kids are doing, a new hobby or upcoming travel plans. In the second 10 minutes, the direct report highlights updates on their Leader Standard Work and any request for assistance to a meet a project or task deadline. In the final 10 minutes, the manager shares any information related to the department, organization or upcoming projects.

It is important that both the manager and direct reports adhere to O3 meeting structure and timeline limits. In addition, the meeting should be viewed with great importance and held routinely at the same time and day of the week. It should only be rescheduled for urgent matters, rather, not because one party is just too busy to meet. Once a cadence is established, the O3 becomes a useful and efficient communications tool and practice.


Contact RTG Solutions Group Today!

It’s never too late, or early, to implement Lean methods and a continuous improvement culture in an organization. Although an organization’s Lean journey can kick-off with any department champion to spearhead the effort, Human Resources is a great place to begin!

If your business is interested in learning more about how to implement continuous improvement practices in your organization, contact RTG Solutions Group at 813-943-5727 or drop us a line.

“A vision cannot be realized without the ability to execute.”

Khris K. Bhattan
President, RTG Solutions Group
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