We need HR to succeed. Really.


During my two last gemba visits in two different companies, the HR Director was with the leader on the shop floor. This is a major step forward.

What are the deep roots that will, in time produce more competitive products? How do we get better fruit, in other words? The management teams started listing the various key know-hows needed to grow a product.

The we counted how many world-class experts (people we would send to an international conference as speakers without flinching) we had in house on each of these basic tech. Out several hundred people in the company, in both cases the answer was from 7 to 15 all expertise counted. Sobering.

Then, on the gemba, the HR Directors got involved in witnessing quality problem solving analyses, and we asked ourselves what where the ingredients for solving difficult quality issues, beyond technicality and product knowledge. Discussion with HR came down to the basic components of creativity:

  • Curiosity – open mindedness to new ideas and in particular the realization that an idea expressed clumsily (and therefore easily shot down by management) si not necessarily poor and needs to be give an chance to survive.
  • Common sense – the ability to not buy a weird explanation because it doesn’t fit with everything else we know, and constantly try to reconcile what we know and what happened without dismissing fact, but without accepting fanciful explanation either.
  • Creative desperation – the knack of responding under pressure with sudden insights and not giving up when the problem refuses to resolve itself at the first, second or third attempt, the grit to stay on it until it does.


Finally, as the gemba walks wrapped up both HR managers came to acknowledge the main operational complaint that operations needed help with labor flexibility. In order to deliver, absenteeism must be, somehow, replaced now. In order to deliver, how do we deal with large volume variations? What is the training plan for temporary workers to guarantee quality and so on.

We need HR to make sure our deep core of world-class experts is alive and well. We need HR to remind us that “people who just do the job” is not enough for success in a competitive world, but we also need diversity, creativity and thinking outside the box. We need HR to create instruction programs so that common practices are well understood by every new entrant (starting with safety practices). And we definitely need HR to make sure that there are enough good rowers at every rowing station of the skiff because if not we’re likely to go round in circles (one strong rower will not compensate and send us turning round and round).

We can’t succeed without HR. If lean means achieving our objectives by developing people, we need HR. Really. This clearly means that HR managers have to take the wild step of getting interested in the products and the people that make them. But it also means that operations managers have to create the space for them and acknowledge they now little about their major means of production: people and how people think.


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