Many articles make the connection between business success and innovation. And it’s true, businesses need to innovate to survive. But innovation isn’t always a grand moment of inspiration with a unique idea. In many situations, innovation is the result of several small incremental changes. This classic Harvard Business Review article outlines seven different sources of innovation. It highlights that innovation is about continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement processes vary by industry and organization. Years ago, organizations were exposed to continuous improvement through Total Quality Management (TQM.) Since then, we’ve learned about LEAN, Six Sigma, Kaizen, and other quality processes. Each involves an investment in training and other resources. Although there are definite benefits to implementing a formal continuous improvement effort, organizations can get the benefits of continuous improvement without the same rigor.
Most continuous improvement models have 4 components: Plan, Do, Check, Act. Here’s a brief description of each and an example of how it might look within the human resources department.
STEP 1. PLAN
During this step, a plan of action is developed. Some organizations might go through a formal assessment step before getting to this point. Even if a formal assessment isn’t conducted, organizations should consider doing some type of assessment – even if it’s two questions: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? The result will be a gap that needs to be addressed. Assessment completed.
When it comes to plan design, a S.M.A.R.T. plan format (specific, measurable, actionable, responsible, time-bound) allows flexibility and covers all the key considerations. The document can be set up in a spreadsheet and placed on an internal server so all employees have access to update the plan as required.
Example: HR wants to reduce the amount of paper being processed. They’ve already implemented an online I-9 solution, but they want to do more. HR is researching employee self-service as a solution.
STEP 2. DO
This step includes plan implementation. Organizations have some decisions to make during this step; specifically, will the plan be implemented at one time, or in phases? A phased-in approach can be less burdensome on company resources and it can allow for challenges to be fixed before moving to the next phase. The downside is that stakeholders who must wait might get a little frustrated.
Also, the company should decide whether to utilize a pilot group before officially rolling out the plan. This can be very beneficial, especially if the company doesn’t want to use a phased-in approach. Issues can be identified in the pilot and corrected before launch.
Example: HR proposes to senior management the employee self-service idea and receives approval to proceed. They develop an implementation plan. The plan will pilot the self-service solution in marketing, accounting, and HR departments initially. After the pilot is completed, self-service will be rolled out in the rest of the company.
STEP 3. CHECK
Once the plan is implemented, the work isn’t over. The plan should be monitored on a regular basis to ensure its still working as expected. Organizations might want to consider frequent monitoring in the early stages and, once users are comfortable with the new plan, then monitor intermittently.
In addition, plan results should be gathered and evaluated. While it’s ideal to establish the metrics and measurement during the first step, reality doesn’t always allow that to happen. It’s possible that getting feedback from users about the plan – what’s working well and what needs attention – could drive the decision about what metrics to focus on.
Example: After the organizational rollout, HR conducts regular surveys to get employee feedback. The surveys indicate that the solution is well received. Employee feedback allows HR to create a “user satisfaction” metric which will be reported to senior management. In addition, several ideas have been suggested to give employees more control over their information.
STEP 4. ACT
This 4-step model isn’t linear; it’s circular. In the final step, stakeholders should review the feedback and metrics, then discuss changes and ideas for improvement. And proposed changes or updates to the plan would be implemented starting with step one – plan.
Organizations will want to consider the frequency of change when making these decisions. While systems can be upgraded at any time, it’s important to ask if employees are ready for change. Organizations should develop a comprehensive communication strategy for plan updates. Combining plan updates with change management training can help the organization deal with the new plan.
Example: HR, IT, and senior management discuss the proposed changes suggested by employees. Several ideas are cost prohibitive but worth considering for the next budget year. A couple of suggestions can be implemented with no additional expense. HR is tasked with developing a new plan to rollout the changes.
HR can remain a valuable business partner by using the concepts of continuous improvement to innovate their responsibilities. They can start with using continuous improvement to streamline processes. Then consider adding programs with greater value and improving the overall customer service provided to employees. Continuous improvement provides HR with the model to keep innovating their function, and the business.
Sharlyn Lauby is the HR Bartender and president of ITM Group Inc., a South Florida based training and human resources consulting firm focused on helping companies retain and engage talent.
Sharlyn sees human resources as a strategic partner - the marketing department for a company’s internal clients rather as administrative. During her 20+ years in the profession, she has earned a reputation for bringing business solutions to reality.
Prior to starting ITM Group, Sharlyn was vice president of human resources for Right Management Consultants, one of the world’s largest organizational consulting firms. She has designed and implemented highly successful programs for employee retention, internal and external customer satisfaction, and leadership development. Publications such as Reuters, The New York Times, ABC News, TODAY, Readers Digest, Men’s Health and The Wall Street Journal have sought out her expertise on topics related to human resources and workplace issues.