It's hard to find leaders of the human resources (HR) function who are active in helping their organization improve the way it works. I asked dozens of people who are in HR or in process improvement to share examples of HR change leaders, and I only found a few.
Though it's rare, here's an indicator of what is possible. In 2009 Tony Scibelli, Vice President of Human Resources and Operations at Faxton-St. Luke's Healthcare learned that the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Nursing Officer were going to launch "relationship-based care," a comprehensive cultural change program to focus doctors' and nurses' attention on patients and their families. He offered to have HR involved to address the people aspects. He showed them how HR could weave relationship-based care and continuous improvement into the fabric of this community hospital in central New York, for example by hiring and promoting the right people. He was at the table with them as they planned training and communications, and as they decided how to reward people who took on improvement projects.
When I talk with leaders of process improvement activities about the role of HR in change, however, I generally hear that HR is bureaucratic and a brake on innovation. Others say that HR is under-utilized. In most organizations talent management is left to direct supervisors.
Dave Ulrich, a professor at the University of Michigan, and recognized by HR Magazine as the most influential person in Human Resources, and also identified by Thinkers50 as one of the world's top 50 business thinkers for 2011, has identified three human resource processes that are critical for embedding a culture such as continuous improvement: (1) talent flow, (2) rewards, and (3) training and development. Changing any of these to support continuous improvement presents challenges to HR:
- Talent Flow: Hiring and promoting people who embody an organization's desired mindset and behaviors — and removing those who don't — sends clear messages about what is valued. People see what is happening and adapt their behaviors accordingly. The problem for continuous improvement is that managers tend to hire for expertise, not for behaviors such as improvement. Scott Beaird, Director of Talent Management at Tufts Medical Center, told me, "We hire what the manager wants. We hire a financial analyst, who is great at working with dollars. We don't typically challenge managers to look more broadly. We introduced HR business partners twelve months ago and asked them to advocate HR policies. They struggled. They kept getting mired down in minute details, e.g., writing a requisition for a new job."
- Rewards: Reward systems can change and reinforce behavior. The aim of a reward system is to turn goals into measures of behavior and outcomes, then allocate rewards based how employees perform against the measures. Continuous improvement demands that people not only carry out their jobs, but improve their work too. HR people typically don't have the operational experience, expectation, or permission to engage line managers in changing rewards to encourage operational improvement. For example, Scott Beaird tells me that his hospital needs to reward process improvement to accommodate healthcare reform, but that HR can't initiate the changes from its position; modifications to rewards have to be made by senior leaders.
- Training and Development: Training courses and development investments send messages about what matters. At the same time, they offer leaders skills and tools to act on those messages. To support continuous improvement, these investments have to focus on making work better. Few HR organizations will promote improvement training unless it's driven by senior leadership, even though they may recognize it as what the organization needs.
- Politics: To sustain improvement activities, HR must use its power and influence to help leaders focus on customers, long-term business results, and building capabilities in their people — not a personal or HR agenda. Yet if HR gets out in front of improvement activities, it could be in a precarious position if a new CEO comes in with a focus on shorter-term results. A supporting role may seem safer.
- A Support Relationship: As described above at Faxton-St. Luke's, HR must be at the table with senior leaders to weave HR into improvement programs. Before HR can offer advice to the organization, it needs to be a partner — not just support. The CEO and executive team often view HR as an expense with a transaction focus, rather than adding value with a strategic focus. HR has to operate as a partner that adds value to make the case for their role as a partner.
- Being Inbred: HR hires HR experience, and HR has historically been mainly engaged in personnel, compliance, and transactions. HR professionals without operational experience have less credibility and aren't comfortable giving operational advice. As Roger Addison, a performance consultant, told me, "HR doesn't think like the business. HR professionals don't know which knife, fork, or spoon to use when they're at the table."