The wave of LEAN has been crashing into the shores of American business for nearly four decades now. Scores of organizations have successfully embraced the call to Continually Improve and Respect People. With all of that, it still amazes me that organizations – even those who choose to embrace LEAN as their path – often leave Human Resources out of the equation.

I don’t mean that they are leaving people out. I mean they leave the HR department and its team out.

Big mistake.

My experience also includes countless examples where HR is the primary barrier to successful LEAN implementation. It is often as if LEAN principles pose a threat to HR’s quest to help the organization ‘stay out of trouble’ and ‘remain compliant’. This can be a dagger, actually halting the Lean program before it really gets started. Even worse, HR sometimes gets on board in agreeing to the LEAN approach but fails to see their role as a leader of the initiative. In these situations, HR continues to operate in a conventional mode, focusing on keeping track of staffing, enforcing policies, getting people paid, etc.

In order for a Lean program to be successful, HR needs to be an active partner. Their role should expand into one that emphasizes development of people, stable employment, and ensuring mutual trust and respect exists everywhere in the organization. They must view their role in context of a People Value Stream, ensuring consistent application of LEAN principles from selection, development, recognition, and engagement of people. It’s about ensuring a Culture that is conducive to teamwork, problem identification/problem solving, and elimination of waste. How an HR organization approaches this will impact the success of the LEAN initiative – either negatively or positively.

HR’s absence is often a result of operating in a vertical organization that is more comfortable operating in silos. In my experience, HR often seems to be the most “siloed”, likely due the fact that many organizations do not allow HR the proverbial ‘seat at the table’. In a previous consulting engagement, I had an Executive VP of HR that would not engage in a discussion about organization-wide objectives. The VP was only willing to focus on ‘HR’ initiatives. How ludicrous is that? This person was on the senior leadership team of this organization. With this orientation, how does this organization expect to lead its team to success. If you think about it, HR is the function that can least afford to be in a silo. They exist to support people. There are people in every department. How on earth can they effectively operate in a silo? They can’t. That’s the point. They certainly cannot sit idly by when the organization’s leadership is expecting a culture change. Culture is a product of people – how they think, act, what they value, etc. HR certainly needs to be a part of that. 

The HR role in a lean implementation is not just supportive. HR needs to drive linkage between company objectives and behavioral expectations at all levels. This means creating organizational structures that are conducive to effective communications. It means they need to develop recruitment and selection systems and tools that will find and hire people who have the competencies necessary to be effective in a lean organization. HR must ensure effective performance evaluation and employee development systems and tools are in place. This is important in a company that is driving PDCA methodology. PDCA is as much a development tool in the effective lean organization as it is a problem-solving tool. Therefore, HR must create effective feedback systems – so people can continually improve.

Alan Parsley is a LEAN/HR executive consultant, facilitator and speaker who leads LEAN improvement initiatives at companies from a wide range of industries. Alan is President of JaxHR Consulting and serves as a Sr. Associate for Honsha & Associates, a premier international lean consulting group.

Alan gained the unique combination of operational and administrative experience over his 27-year career. Alan learned Leadership and Toyota Production System (TPS) methodologies while at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky. Facility as well as the corporate headquarters in Erlanger Ky.

Based in Jacksonville, FL., Alan has served as Vice Chairman of the Jacksonville Lean Consortium and is a member of the Board of Directors for the First Coast Manufacturer’s Association.