Lean Six Sigma in HR—Understanding HR Process Streamlining

Mitch Millstein
Posted: 10/25/2011

Misunderstandings about Lean Six Sigma

There are many misunderstandings about Lean Six Sigma. Here are some common ones: Lean Six Sigma is a manufacturing process; it is about cutting jobs; being leaner and meaner; it is only for big companies. Lean Six Sigma is not any of these. Instead, it is a set of tools to identify and eliminate non-value added steps in your organization and find the root cause of difficult-to-solve problems. It is about streamlining your processes. Actually Lean and Six Sigma are two different methods, both popularized in the 1990s that were blended in the 2000s. Lets go through what Lean Six Sigma is, where to apply it in Human Resources and how to get started.

A focus on Performance Measurement


Lean Six Sigma is a quantitative improvement tool. There are many methods for improving your organization’s outcomes. Some are qualitative, which HR is often responsible for implementing. Others, such as Lean Six Sigma are quantitative. Lean Six Sigma involves measuring a key performance metric and sustainably improving that metric. Sometimes organizations will focus too much on wanting to implement Lean Six Sigma; rather you should want to improve your performance. Lean Six Sigma is a way to get there. Streamlining a process does feel good, but more importantly, it will make a measurable difference in your department and your organization’s performance. We will feature performance scorecards for human resource departments in a future article.

A Brief Overview of Lean


Popularized as Lean Manufacturing, Lean is often associated with manufacturing because it was created by a manufacturing company, Toyota, in the 1950s. However, Lean has nothing specifically to do with manufacturing. It uses visual, easy-to-understand tools to "see" waste and eliminate that waste from your processes. Many people think about Lean as cutting fat. I feel this is a poor choice of words. We are simply looking for wastes, or processes that if you stepped back you might ask, "Why do I do this, does anyone value this step?" Examples of waste can be:

  • Extra walking around or extra time looking for something
  • Not using people to their fullest by creating a work environment where they wait around or don’t use the full potential of their intelligence
  • Letting work stack up so that the last "one" in has to sit in a pile and wait (creating waiting for other employees or customers)
  • Redoing something someone else has done, or checking on others’ work because you can’t trust them to do it right the first time


A Brief Overview of Six Sigma

Six Sigma is related to Lean but is actually quite different. Six Sigma uses what was once considered quality improvement tools to solve all kinds of difficult problems. Just like Lean, Six Sigma attempts to visualize the root cause of the problem. We use graphs, such as Pareto Charts (famous for the 80/20 rule) and Cause & Effect Diagrams. We like to say that if a problem can be solved by tribal-knowledge or intuition, go solve it. If these don’t work then we need to use higher level tools, like Six Sigma, to find the root cause.

If people are showing up to work late, and you don’t know how to stop it, perhaps this Pareto chart will help you solve the problem. Companies with this problem have changed their shift hours to reduce the impact of traffic on their employees.


Every HR Department Has a Factory Inside It – And Where to Apply LSS in HR

Lean Six Sigma is not a universal tool. It cannot be used to solve every problem. It is best used on processes and problems that are repetitive. I like to say that you need to look for the factory inside your department. What processes are done over and over? They may be different every time, but they repeat. Hiring is one such process. Benefits administration, employee review administration and relocation are others. It is within these processes that identifying and eliminating waste will provide the biggest payback. Even if that non-value added step only wastes 6 minutes, if it happens 100 times a year that is 10 hours! If your process has 50 of these non-value added steps you can give yourself 500 hours a year to do higher level work, that will improve your organization’s performance.

How to Get Started

The best place to start is with your Performance Scorecard. We will present more about this topic in a future column. Start with your worst performing metric. Then get agreement from the top official at your site that improving this Human Resource process would help the organization overall. The last step before kicking off your project is to pull together a cross functional team that includes your internal customers. These internal customers are the departments that you assist by virtue of your processes.

We will present more in the future about kicking off a Lean Six Sigma project in the Human Resources department. Hopefully this will get you started in looking for and streamlining HR processes.

Mitch Millstein
Posted: 10/25/2011

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