Some critics say that many human resources departments and professionals are reactive, process-driven and service-oriented instead of being strategic business partners. Stephen Coco, associate principal of Intellilink, comments, “Everyone wants HR to do more succession planning, organizational design support – in short, ‘strategic HR.’ However, how do you make yourself more available to be strategic?” 

The workload for HR is already overwhelming in many organizations and it may seem impossible to add any more work. Coco suggests that using some of the concepts from Six Sigma, specifically the “lean” process management philosophy, can help free up time so you can focus your resources on being more of a strategic business partner in your organization. This back door entrance to strategic HR helps you examine processes and tasks that might be eating up the time of your HR executives and professionals.

The three concepts from the lean process management philosophy that will help you, according to Coco, include: 

  • Focusing on process value, 
  • Improving service throughput, and
  • Embracing pull systems.

Using Process Value And Mapping
Process value and process mapping help you to determine whether the HR function is procedure and process heavy, explains Coco. “Any process that doesn’t help keep costs and cycle time down, or doesn’t contribute to quality, needs to be reconsidered. Inefficient processes cause waste and can introduce errors into the system. Particularly in HR, where there is much data manipulation and movement of information, there are many “re’s” – repeats, reworks and rechecks. These ‘re’s’ add much time and length to the process and don’t add a tremendous amount of value?”

Challenging the old way of doing things, such as questioning what may be unnecessary layers of approval, can make a process more efficient, says Coco. “In HR, we’ve seen so many instances where the ceremonial check-offs [checking someone else’s work and signing off on it] occur because that’s the way that it has been done before.”

If your HR team takes each task and process and reviews the steps involved, the team can decide which steps might be discontinued or streamlined to speed up the processes.

Improving ‘Throughput’
Improving service throughput (rate of successful message delivery) involves reviewing the systems and staffing for your processes since both affect the end result.

For example, if you have staff that can handle 50 telephone calls per hour when 100 calls are coming in, would doubling the staff solve your problem? “Not necessarily,” explains Coco. ”It could be that your telephone system cannot handle 100 calls per hour, in which case it wouldn’t make sense to add personnel without also upping the system capacity. If you upgrade the system, maybe you can handle the demand by adding only 50 percent more employees.” 

In HR, perhaps too much time is spent on tasks and taking calls because your systems or processes are not up to par, and one or both need an overhaul, he says. Systems quickly become antiquated or obsolete and need to be upgraded or replaced to meet current and future demands.

Introduce ‘Pull’ Systems 
The last concept that applies well to HR is implementing pull systems – systems that are based on actual customer demand, explains Coco. “Linking process and demand cuts out waste that would otherwise result from overproduction. For service (providers) like HR, the objective is to reduce the overall lead time of providing services by reducing things in progress.” 

For example, by using an Internet-based, self-service employee portal that allows workers to change personal information; sign up for benefits; and access policies, procedures, forms, communication tools, and wellness information, you could drastically cut down on the need for human interaction within the HR function and give employees better service. 

The result of reviewing the three lean concepts and examining your processes to determine what needs an overhaul will be the freeing up of HR professionals to serve the organization as business partners. HR can then apply its strengths in the areas of talent management, succession planning, employee and leadership development, and other critical aspects of HR to move the organization toward greater business success and profit margins.

For more information about this topic and Intellilink, a management consulting firm that improves the productivity of knowledge worker organizations, visit www.intellilink.com.

A detailed definition of Six Sigma may be found on the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute’s Web site at www.sei.cmu.edu/str/descriptions/sigma6_body.html.