The Wrong Race

The track I train on. Taken with iPhone 4 and Camera Awesome

I am not the only member of my team who began their career in engineering. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while, a reformed engineer slips into the HR door and finds an opportunity they are perfectly suited for. I would have to say, however, that I have met very few technologists in the HR offices. And yet, there are many parallels.

Consider the following:

  • Among the things an engineer is concerned with are the physical laws of nature. Gravity, friction, electrical power, mechanical power, fluid dynamics all come to play in machine design and operation. The HR manager is concerned about the laws of man. FLSA, FMLA, HIPAA, ADA, and all things related to discrimination of any type.
  • An engineer considers total life cycle cost. From capital expenditure, to installation, start-up, operation, ongoing maintenance and eventual de-commissioning of equipment. The HR team looks at the cost of people from hiring and selection, into training and promotion, and benefit costs through employment and sometimes into retirement.
  • When things break down beyond routine failure, the engineer is called in to trouble-shoot, determine root cause of the failure, and take corrective action. And if you are in HR, you know that is exactly the drill when human processes break down and people behave out of standard.

Whether I stayed in engineering or moved to HR, I have been working on perfecting process. Making things go more smoothly. Tuning up the process so we can win the race. But lately I have been wondering this: what if it’s the wrong race?

Refining process is important. Usually a process improvement leads to higher quality output or reduced cost. This is generally as true with a manufacturing process as it is with a selection process. But there can be times where further process refinement doesn’t buy you anything.

Imagine you have a machine that you operate 8 hours a day with two employees, and at the current level of control, it produces to the demand for the product. Exactly to the demand. What if you could make a 5% improvement, and in the 8 hours, make 5% additional product, for which there is no current demand?

Well, you could pay for some marketing or additional sales efforts, but will the new costs outweigh the benefit of selling an additional 5% output? What if you could increase productivity by 25%, and yet not afford additional support to extend the market for the product? So instead of selling more, you operate at a reduced schedule, and now your key employees can’t work enough hours to make the wages they need. And all because they helped you improve efficiency.

Pretty soon, you’re left with a new team that isn’t very capable, and they need to operate the process 9 hours a day to meet the current demand.

I’m not trying to suggest that continuous process improvement isn’t a good idea. What I am suggesting is that it might not be the right idea at any point in time. It might be the wrong race to be running.

In an HR process, like talent review or employee selection, you need to understand what the objective of the process improvement is, and ask the question “Are there any unintended consequences if we pursue this improvement?” Will the actual gain in time, for example, be something that we can put to use elsewhere? Is there a reduced cost that we can take to the bank, that improves our bottom line?  If you are pursing a process change that can’t be measured in terms of real improvement to the business, you might be better off allocating resources elsewhere.


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