LeanHCM – Initiation by fire

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As a student of economics in college, my favorite definition was “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” by Lord Lionel Robbins. This summed up the constant challenge to manage your resources optimally to ensure harmony and continuity. At  business school operations research always fascinated me, where optimization was the core objective.

Hence when I hit upon lean methodology, it caught my fancy instantaneously and I started looking for connections with my own passion, Human Capital Management. I am now a complete believer of Lean and strongly feel that Human Capital Management will benefit vastly with this approach. What with a product lifecycle reduced to days and market cap hitting dizzy heights even before a dollar of profit is generated! this new paradigm requires a new approach to HCM!

Some lessons in life typically come so abruptly that it leaves us in a state of shock and the rich learning from the incident dawns only after a very long time. My first lesson in LeanHCM was under similar circumstances and I wasnt even aware that this was my first lesson!

My first job was with a large tea company in Southern India as part of the management staff. My primary job was to manage field and factory operations of a profit center more easily known as an estate. As a young twenty something, it was a life dreams were made of, bungalow, car, a butler and access to a premier club with a private golf course. It was a tough physical job involving a high percentage of outdoor work. The organization was pretty flat, with operational workers and supervisors at the first tier and a layer of staff to manage day-to-day operations. There were only two levels of management – Assistant Manager and Manager.

My primary responsibility involved meeting our targeted production numbers within the stipulated budget. Apart from this, well-being of the workforce was a key responsibility. I was responsible for all welfare and employee relations aspects,including being the chief guest at the local school’s annual day!

As part of my job I spent time with workers and union leaders on a daily basis to understand their concerns and work to address them. Discussions would typically be around housing, vacation, transfer, suspension orders etc.

We did not have any HR support to address employee relations, we were Line and HR manager rolled into one.

My first brush with reality came at a prestigious profit center known for its recalcitrant workforce characterized by low productivity and high costs of production.

I was all energy and enthusiasm and was out to prove that I could change the old order. I implemented cost containment measures and pushed for productivity across the board. Given the situation we were in, I could not accede to requests from the union to overlook productivity or disciplinary transgressions by the workforce. I needed to get us to a position of strength in the eyes of the senior management.

My wake up call came on a bright new year’s morning over what looked like an innocuous issue:

We had to postpone a scheduled weekly salary advance by a day due to a company policy. The estate had a bespoke practice of providing a small advance to workers (this was not mandated by local laws) to meet weekly incidental expenses. I was in charge of the estate as my manager was on vacation. I thought that the issue was put to bed during our daily discussion and the union leaders agreed to the delayed payment.

I was in for a rude shock because things apparently went out of hand within the worker union internal discussions and it was unanimously decided to go on a wildcat strike the next day, leaving me with egg on my face the next morning! I felt cheated and very let down that despite agreeing with me, the union leaders reneged on their commitment and ambushed me. For a long time I was unable to live this down and wondered what really went wrong?

A year after this incident, I was accepted  at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management Calcutta to pursue the PGDBM program and on graduating, I embarked on a career of HR and held leadership positions with a number of marquee firms. Many years later, while discussing plans for our own product development process, my colleague and I were talking about the Lean process and its merits over traditional models. When this incident came to mind and I had an Aha moment!

The truth was that on that new year morning, I was in a setup where I was both line and HR Manager and that in essence was a challenge. There was no Lean HCM approach to dovetail Line and HR decision making to address both objectives. I failed to see that I was solving an HR issue with a line manager’s view-point.

On deeper analysis I came up with the following hypotheses which I think is extremely relevant to current day organizations: Flat structures, Leaders with multiple responsibilities, Talent or workforce as a critical success factor and an added dimension where timelines are extremely short!

  • In lean ecosystems and or rapidly growing organizations which are typically flat HR should not  be viewed as a support function but as a new identity called Lean Human Capital Management or LeanHCM
  • Lean HCM is an integral part of the line management so the approach needs to be radically different
  • Lean HCM demands us to create true All-Rounders
  • Lean HCM is strategic as well as tactical in approach
  • Lean HCM is about constantly measuring the pulse of all stakeholders including HR
  • One size fits all is the wrong approach Lean HCM is about flexibility and constant adaptation
  • Policies and handbooks are finite and perishable in the LeanHCM world

I eagerly look forward to my journey into this paradigm of Human Capital Management !

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