Peeling Back the Onion of Workforce Efficiency (OM Insight)

This article was originally published on OM Insight and is re-posted here with permission.  OM Insight is a website catered to Operations Management professionals to share their knowledge, opinions and experience.  Thank you to the OM Insight team for adding HRL’s Kristie Evans as a contributor!


When operations are running well, there is a distinct sense of smoothness and synergy in the air.  Tasks are being completed in a timely fashion, positive comments occur and are unsolicited, and employees are happy as well as their customers.  It is a rewarding feeling to see your department function like a well-oil machine.

Systems, however, are comprised of a million tiny details and moving parts.  It is difficult to maintain synergy day in and day out.  Even the best systems require constant attention.  Often, we are distracted by priorities and deadlines which require our attention.  Maintenance and calibration of the workforce shift to the back burner.  When this happens over an extended period of time, symptoms of deterioration start to pop up – signals that are nagging, often inconvenient, sometimes embarrassing and usually unpleasant.  When we begin experiencing repetitive signals, it’s a message – just as a toothache tells us to go to the dentist.  These messages alert us to a system that is deteriorating, and if not corrected, will reach the point of dysfunction.

In 2010, Susan, the Director of the Human Resources Technology department of a large healthcare organization, began to notice repetitive signals of dysfunction.  This case study describes her journey to bring her department back to synergy and smooth functionality.   The road was a difficult one with high visibility and high risk.  But the signals and challenges were faced head-on by her and her team and she was able to lead her department back to full strength and stature.

When Susan’s journey began, the signals of dysfunction were growing louder.  Over and over, Susan learned her customers were embarking on decisions about HR technology without asking for her department’s advice and expertise.  Customers were using workarounds, seemingly to avoid working with her team.  New hires didn’t seem to assimilate well with the department and moved on too quickly, often just as they were reaching full productive capacity.  Internally, many staff members seemed disgruntled and complained about how management handled various issues.

Susan’s department was responsible for the operations of HR technology applications.  This included project management involving the technology, troubleshooting, and maintenance.  Her customers were primarily the 500 business professionals of the Human Resources Division that serviced 45,000 employees.  She found herself defending her operations to colleagues, experiencing difficulty with recruiting, and burdened by too many demands from her customers and too few staff resources.  It was unsettling, and the repeated loss of talent seemed to exacerbate the situation.

Though her frustration was mounting, she wasn’t quite sure how to identify the most critical issues.  Was it simply that her customers weren’t giving the department the respect it deserved?  Did her customers understand the process of prioritizing requests?  Was the executive team supporting her or standing back too much and giving too little leadership?  Or was it simply that the job descriptions were out of date and needed to be upgraded so Susan could hire stronger resources?

Bottom line – she needed to fix the situation to support the organization’s growth.  But how?

Demand was continuing to escalate as the organization grew, yet the department was constrained by budget and resources.  It was critical that Susan figure out how to maximize and leverage current talent, recruit more capable resources, meet her customers’ definition of value, and plan for future needs.  But she was certain she was too close to the situation; it was necessary for her to look for external objectivity.

Initially, the right place to start seemed to be a review of the job descriptions.  The most acute problem seemed the increased turnover and loss of resources.  Logically, if resources of the right skills and caliber were available, Susan would be better equipped to support her customers and provide the value they required and expected.  After deciding to partner with an external consultant (HR Logistics), Susan’s initial request was to have them benchmark the job descriptions and upgrade them based on current market standards.

But the consultant asked one question that really stumped Susan.

“What’s the work?”

As the team discussed the question, it became apparent that many things about the work had changed in recent years.  A few examples were:

  • The organization had implemented a large, enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that had changed the technology landscape for the organization and how business intelligence was generated.  In some cases it was more efficient, but reporting for Human Resources had become cumbersome.
  • The ERP required significant resources and created two types of support within the department – ERP and ancillary systems.
  • Though two types of support were required, the processes which the technology supported intermingled, creating a stronger need for integration and collaboration, yet management teams were separated by ERP and non-ERP.
  • The skill level of her staff was changing as some systems required sophisticated technology skills and some required more analytical skills.

It became clear that a simple upgrade of job descriptions would not solve the problem.  The team began to design a more in-depth approach.  As Susan, her management team, and the consultant began to design their approach, they identified three (3) potential objectives:

  1. Investigate and validate the symptoms – validate the current state.
  2. Align the work with the organization’s strategic plan for growth – define the future state.
  3. Redesign operations to leverage resources and maximize customer and staff satisfaction and value outcomes.

The first goal was the foundation for goals two and three.  It was critical to gather information from internal staff and customers and confirm the status of operations – to separate truth from perception.  Susan also felt it was important to validate against other organizations to confirm whether these issues were commonplace or unique to her organization and look for best practices.

The team devised a plan to gather data to analyze the current state:

  1. Internal surveys were developed to ask internal staff and customers questions about the department’s operations from their perspective.  The survey would identify if there was alignment between customers’ expectations and staff understanding of their role in delivery.
  2. An external survey was developed to solicit participation from similar organizations – some were healthcare and some were not.  A total of 10 participated in a survey of 30 questions related to operations within a technology department.
  3. A total of 19 workshops were conducted to discuss the current state of operations and identify business requirements for the future state.  Workshops were segregated between staff and customers and questionnaires were designed to solicit the opinions of the stakeholders on a specific operational topic or process.  Susan’s team did not participate to allow stronger discussion and full disclosure.

The analysis yielded a wealth of data that was then consolidated and categorized to identify four (4) major areas of focus for goals #2 and #3 above:

  • HR Technology Management (HRTM) Departmental Efficiency
  • Customer Service
  • Prioritization and Governance
  • Technology Management

Armed with the current state assessment, Susan now had to make the decision about change.  How far should she push her department to change?  Should she do it in a phased approach?  Would a partial change be sufficient to meet the needs of the organization?  It seemed there were three choices – do nothing, rebalance the workload, or go for total HRTM realignment.  While total HRTM realignment was a daunting choice – it was also the biggest ROI for the investigation that had already been conducted.

Susan had already stepped out of her comfort zone.  Her efforts to revamp her department had increased her visibility and some of her colleagues had even called her “brave.”  If she backed away from the full value of the project, what message would she be sending and what role model would she be for her department?  Though the process was challenging and sometimes she heard feedback that she felt was unfair or uncomplimentary, the process was re-invigorating her department.  The change in the culture was noticeable as everyone – staff and customers alike – waited for the results.  Somewhat uncertain, Susan recommended full alignment.  It would yield the most value for the process they had endured.

As we speak, Susan’s department has completely realigned how they serve their customers.  The staff’s positions have been aligned to processes that simplify things for the customer, minimizing points of contact for problems, and creating stronger customer relationships.  Business processes that were determined to be cumbersome and unproductive have been assigned to teams evaluate and rework the processes with the help of customers and stakeholders to ensure buy-in and quality of outcomes.  And finally, the job descriptions have been rewritten – but based on the new alignment of the work and the needs the staff expressed for their professional development.  The department is thriving again – and Susan can enjoy that sense of accomplishment for a job well done (until the next recalibration is needed.).

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