Embracing a Lean Culture in Recruitment
This article originally appeared in Outsource Magazine Issue #24 Summer 2011
By embracing the fundamentals of Lean manufacturing, HR leaders at GE Healthcare realised they could lift recruitment to new heights of efficiency and quality…
Few organisations epitomise process excellence as succinctly as General Electric, whose global innovations across myriad businesses have made the household brand a leader in every one of its markets. So it might seem surprising that GE Healthcare, one of the company’s fastest-growing divisions, began implementing Lean manufacturing methodology within a service line only three and a half years ago, even though manufacturers around the world have been involved with Lean for decades. Was this corporate giant simply lagging behind its competitors?
On the contrary, GE Healthcare’s use of Lean methodology was far ahead of its time – reaffirming its status as a trailblazer. The company had already implemented this highly effective quality system throughout its manufacturing facilities long ago. But in 2006, GE broke new ground by adopting the basic tenets of Lean within its business process services, beginning with the critical function of recruitment.
By embracing the fundamentals of Lean manufacturing – identifying value-creating activities, eliminating waste, and focusing on continuous improvement – HR leaders at GE Healthcare realised that they could lift recruitment and other back-office functions to new heights of efficiency and quality. Moreover, the initiative would give business partners more insight.
“Ultimately, this has been about providing really smart, deliverable data to our clients and then saying to them, ‘Here are not only the benchmarks we started from, but here are the additional efficiencies we can deliver.’ We have a story we can tell,” explains Steven Brown, talent acquisition leader at GE Healthcare and one of the architects behind the company’s Lean recruitment initiative. “We are driven by improvements. We go over this on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis so we expose ourselves to how we are doing.”
Becoming Lean: How to Get Started in Recruitment
Understanding the Lean philosophy and making a commitment to it in your organisation is a considerable investment. It requires executive sponsorship, buy-in from the rank and file, plus the patience and resources to make it successful. However, when executed well, the effort can significantly improve how you acquire talent.
Brown’s outlook reflects the Lean philosophy in every respect. As disciples of continuous improvement, practitioners train themselves to guard against complacency and remain vigilant in identifying and solving breakdowns in their processes. Although many companies have applied the methodology to manufacturing, few have adopted it within a business process, where advocates say similar success can be achieved. That’s why GE Healthcare’s efforts are considered groundbreaking, especially in the field of talent acquisition, an increasingly strategic service that can give an organisation real competitive advantage.
As part of its Lean journey, GE Healthcare enlisted the support of its external recruitment service provider (and my own organisation), Kelly Outsourcing and Consulting Group (KellyOCG), which had been an integral part of the company’s recruitment services since 1999. As a learning exercise for both partners, Lean implementation at GE Healthcare resulted in cultural shifts not only to its internal processes but also to those of KellyOCG. And now the global outsourcing service provider is bringing its Lean expertise to other organisations.
Fad or Here to Stay?
A lead HR outsourcing analyst explained that many companies today are considering various ways to standardise and streamline their recruitment processes. But as many industry veterans know, quality systems come and go, and there will always be a “fad of the day” clamouring for the attention of operational leaders. Remember ISO 9001? Companies couldn’t file for registration fast enough, but ISO’s lingering impact on corporate culture has faded just as quickly. So what makes Lean any different than previous fads? How can a manufacturing initiative improve the workings of a business process? And are the benefits of implementing Lean methodology worth the effort?
“There is no doubt in my mind that this is a good thing,” says Gary Bragar, lead HR outsourcing analyst at NelsonHall, a global market analyst and advisory firm. He explains that many companies today are considering various ways to standardise and streamline their recruitment processes as the pressure to acquire top talent intensifies. Using a disciplined approach such as the Lean methodology is a smart way to organise and execute those goals.
Indeed, a number of world-class organisations now apply Lean principles outside of their manufacturing activities. In his book Going Lean, author Stephen Ruffa cites standouts such as Walmart and Southwest Airlines as pioneers in adopting Lean to combat a turbulent business environment. The lesson here is that even when external forces are restless, companies can weather the storm by adhering to the stabilising forces of a Lean culture.
“Lean is not a fad; Lean is a lifestyle. Lean practices enable an organisation to reduce development cycles, to produce higher quality services and products at a lower cost, and to use resources more efficiently. The application of Lean is now an integral component of our RPO solutions.”says Candy Lewandowski, vice president and global RPO practice leader, Kelly Outsourcing and Consulting Group
Lean Up Close
Just as this approach is capable of turning out a better car, when applied to recruitment, practitioners can expect a more efficient and responsive process for finding candidates.
While the Lean movement within a business process remains nascent, its adoption by the manufacturing community has been ongoing for decades. Global carmaker Toyota, whose production system on which the term “Lean” was coined, leveraged this approach to grow itself into the world’s leading automobile manufacturer. The Toyota Production System (TPS) was so effective that it spawned an entire industry based on its study. Today, the Lean philosophy has been adopted by organisations around the globe, with thousands of trained disciples practicing its methods.
The benefits to HR have been documented. According to a study conducted by two researchers at Coventry University, Lean principles applied in a pilot project to improve candidate recruitment at the institution helped to significantly raise outcomes. Involving staff from the university’s HR recruitment team, external recruitment agencies, and IT services – as well as customers from library services, academic faculty, and student services – the project netted a 20 per cent reduction in overall time to approve and fill staff positions. More importantly, the exercise also helped HR to identify non-core, ancillary activities that occupied their time, enabling them to simplify and expedite the entire process.
What exactly, then, is the Lean philosophy and how can it be leveraged to improve corporate recruitment?
In essence, Lean manufacturing is a philosophy in which practitioners commit to continuous improvements using critical tools to help them identify and eliminate waste and irregularities in their processes. Although it stemmed from the automotive shop floor, its fundamental tenets can be applied to the back office as well, since all organisational activities involve some degree of waste or duplication. Just as this management approach is capable of turning out a better car, when applied to recruitment, practitioners can expect a more efficient and responsive process for finding candidates. Ultimately, because practicing organisations reduce waste and non-value-added activities, they also cut costs.
It all starts with Value Stream Mapping (VSM), a process by which managers examine all activities that take place to produce a product or service. As part of the Lean philosophy, tasks that do not create value for the customer are considered wasteful, so in drawing up a VSM, practitioners identify “waste” to be targeted for elimination. In recruitment, for example, an organisation may duplicate efforts when a candidate slate is presented to the hiring manager. Some companies employ multiple applicant tracking systems that might require the same information to be input several times to meet customer needs, compliance requirements, or for data retention. This duplication clearly generates wasted time that adds no value to the hiring manager or the candidate. By drawing up a comprehensive VSM, Lean practitioners can address all the unnecessary efforts in the recruitment process. This allows team members to produce a future-state VSM that is free of the identified waste. Visually, it provides a map for any organisation to follow.
If VSM represents a roadmap for the Lean journey, then the 5 Ss might be considered gas for the road. These are five essential principles for operating in a Lean environment to help ensure process consistency.
- Sort – separation of necessary items from unnecessary items (identifying waste)
- Set In Order – arrange items according to how they will be used (an enabler of efficiency)
- Shine – maintain work area for sorted and set-in-order items (maintaining workplace hygiene)
- Standardise – ensure sort, set-in-order, and shine steps are consistently followed (reducing process variations)
- Sustain – maintain and improve sort, set-in-order, shine, and standardise steps (ensuring Lean efforts are ongoing)
These five principles set the foundation on which Lean organisations execute their operational plans. Each step helps to ensure that workflow is not compromised by unanticipated problems. And when issues do arise, all team members pitch in to resolve them.
When the 5 S concept was first developed, it was aimed at improving production flow on the manufacturing floor. However, these ideas can be applied with equal success to recruitment, where unnecessary activities slow hiring and hinder service delivery to customers. Each of these tools facilitates waste elimination and minimises process variation.
Think about the 5 Ss in recruitment. How do we take it from the manufacturing floor to the office? The floor is your desk and filing system, where you process your work. It is a sustainable solution. The principles have been around forever; it’s a matter of how to apply them, and how to challenge yourself to continue applying these principles to maintain order and efficiency daily.
As the 5 Ss are implemented, organisations typically assemble kaizen teams – stakeholders who help sustain and administer continuous improvements. Kaizen, which simply means “improvement” in Japanese, is the practice of making changes, monitoring results, and making adjustments as needed. Without this important component, Lean would be unsustainable.
Because of the collaborative environment it creates, Lean encourages transparency into every team member’s role, so others can weigh in with suggestions on how to resolve a particular colleague’s difficult issues. Furthermore, although individuals are highly accountable for their work, the culture is less about blame than about problem-solving. It also allows for best practices to be more visible, and thus shared more readily.
When a problem is identified, a kanban, or card is used to visually flag the problem. For instance, if interview scheduling often results in conflicts, a kanban is pulled and a kaizen team member documents the nature of the problem, frequency of occurrence, the triggering mechanism, and other relevant information. Are entry errors being made in the ATS? Is there a communication breakdown between recruiters and candidates? The kaizen team undertakes a three-step approach to resolving the issue, including problem identification, resolution brainstorming, and validation of the solution. Separately, each of these tools contributes incremental changes in workflow – but when implemented cohesively, they can have a significant impact. However, Lean experts caution that new practitioners must be patient and allow it to permeate an organisation. Rushing to judge its effectiveness may result in a skewed picture.
“As you go through the Lean journey, some things might not seem like they would make a huge impact, but over time – months or years later – that’s when you really understand their impact. You must have patience,” advises Stacey Forbes, Americas Practice Lead, within the KellyOCG RPO practice.
Focus on Practitioners
One of the key benefits for GE Healthcare was Lean’s emphasis on standardisation. Indeed, even for an organisation already obsessed with operational excellence, adding Lean made a difference at GE Healthcare. “Adopting this philosophy in recruitment was a natural progression in the company’s pursuit of perfection,” Steven Brown says, adding that “even before the business began investing in Lean, it was already practicing Six Sigma, another quality management approach. However, Lean methodologies further elevated the company’s ability to deliver high-quality candidates in a timely manner.”
Because the company had made numerous acquisitions over the years, different business lines had different approaches to recruitment. Challenges around compliance, reporting, benchmarking, and other issues were inevitable. This created tremendous inefficiencies in recruitment services and slowed the delivery of qualified candidates to hiring managers. For a business highly dependent on its human capital, this was a market handicap.
“One of the challenges that we have is the way GE Healthcare has evolved through acquisitions. We are made up of many businesses. To have different processes to manage each became a challenge you wouldn’t believe,” says Brown, recalling the company’s recruitment problems prior to the start of its Lean journey.
Because GE Healthcare had outsourced its recruitment to KellyOCG for more than a decade, when deciding to adopt a Lean culture, it also needed the support of its service provider. In fact, it shepherded KellyOCG through the process by allocating a trained quality Black-Belt to serve as an advisor for six months – turning the normal customer-vendor relationship on its head. But if it seems GE Healthcare was being extraordinarily altruistic, Brown concedes that helping KellyOCG was also self-serving. By improving the workflow of its provider, GE Healthcare would ultimately reap the benefits. Moreover, because the two operated synergistically, both would need to adopt a Lean culture to maximize the return on investment.
“Kelly has been part of our staffing organisation for ten years, so they had seen our inefficiencies too. They had lived through the challenges,” Brown said. “We have been in this together with Kelly since day one. We have been lucky in that we haven’t had to change partners.”
GE Healthcare began implementation of Lean recruitment in 2006, producing its first VSM in May of that year. Relying on an internal expert who had studied Lean at Toyota and General Motors, the company moved steadily toward its future state, building a centre of excellence along the way and creating a knowledge base shared by other GE businesses such as GE Money, the parent company’s finance business.
Brown said his own team and KellyOCG team members have become so immersed in the philosophy that they instinctively tackle problems in a highly systematic and standardised way. Today, the impact on hiring managers is that they receive better and more consistent service, without having to learn about Lean.
“Ultimately I don’t think the customers care about how you deliver service, as long as you do it well,” Brown concludes.