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Embracing ‘Lean’ Process Improvement and Empowering Teams

A photo of Margaret Erickson
Margaret Erickson is assistant vice chancellor for HR Total Rewards.

The pandemic has changed the world of work for us all in many ways. The profession I work in —  human resources — has shifted from a task-based focus to facilitating organizational excellence, elevating employee experiences, and empowering HR professionals to make autonomous decisions that directly impact their work and improve the service and efficiency of the organizations where they work. I’m empowering the teams I lead in University Human Resources to do the latter. Here’s why that will benefit you. 

What is Lean Methodology? 

The HR Service Center, one of the teams I lead, is spearheading the use of Lean methodology and Lean huddles in UHR. The team uses Lean methodology for process improvement. The team conducts Lean huddles, or short team meetings, to discuss priorities. The other teams I manage will begin using both Lean methodology and huddles soon.

The Lean process improvement methodology originated in the automotive manufacturing industry. The use of Lean methodology has spread to other sectors, including human resources and higher education. The first community of Lean practitioners in higher education dates back to 2008. Lean HE is a community of Lean practitioners and includes expert practitioners from higher education institutions worldwide. As a Lean practitioner, I can attest to the benefits of using Lean to improve customer experiences and empower teams to review processes and solve problems.

Lean methodology is based on seven principles that foster a culture of learning and continuous improvement and can enhance organizational success. The principles encourage teams to listen to customers, experiment, be agile and responsive, and practice self-management by addressing problems on their own and re-engineering processes that directly improve the customer experience. 

The Service Center is a team of HR employees responsible for connecting employees with HR resources and services and answering employee questions. When team members can’t answer an employee’s question, they escalate those questions to subject matter experts in HR. 

The team has embraced aspects of Lean — experimentation, continuous improvement and learning — as it works internally and with other HR teams to figure out how more employee questions can be resolved at the Service Center level.

“We believe this will benefit our customers a lot because they will get answers to their questions more quickly,” said Shara Anderson, senior Service Center specialist. 

Implementing Lean Huddles Into Daily Teamwork

The Service Center team conducts Lean huddles three times a week. The huddles last about 15 minutes and typically occur during the first part of the workday. 

During the huddles, the team gathers around a board used to track service metrics and process improvement efforts. Each team member participates in a discussion about team initiatives, presents new ideas, discusses challenges and obstacles, reviews team metrics, and celebrates success. Team members who are not supervisors but are empowered to make decisions and monitor team progress facilitate the discussions. 

The huddles have led to increased team collaboration, communication and engagement on important customer service initiatives and process improvements. 

“What I really like about Lean and Lean huddles is both are centering our team around continuous improvement and becoming more dynamic,” Anderson said. 

Margaret Erickson 
Assistant Vice Chancellor, HR Total Rewards