HR’s role in quality improvement

When it comes to improving quality in the organization, HR might not always be the champion but it has a pivotal role to play

The story of the photocopier always gets a chuckle whenever Lynda Ryder, director of human resources at National Silicates, tells it — but she still likes telling it. It goes to show how seriously the company takes its continuous improvement processes.

As the story goes, many years ago staff at National Silicates, a Toronto-based silicates manufacturing company with 150 employees, were growing frustrated with the photocopier, which kept breaking down from paper jams.

“It was a source of irritation. So we started measuring how many times it jammed, where it jammed and what could we do. We gathered our data, we studied the machine,” said Ryder. “Plus we studied costs per copy, what this did to productivity, how much it cost us in downtime or when we had to go outside do copies.”

The problem turned out to be the quality of the paper. Ryder knows that when she tells the story, people sometimes laugh.

“People will say, ‘Oh, what a silly project.’ But that silly project has saved us not only aggravation, but also time and money year after year,” she said.

For Ryder, the story illustrates a mentality that has set in at the company since the late 1980s. The system the company used at the time was called continuous quality improvement; it was later replaced with total quality management, which was then replaced with Six Sigma.

In the beginning, managers had to be strict in making sure employees got used to a new mindset — one that saw opportunities to rein in unwieldy processes, cut down errors and trim waste. Back then, Ryder recalled, everybody had to be on a project and there were many meetings and workshops. National Silicates’ annual conference originated from the need to teach everyone how these continuous improvement systems work.

But as the photocopier anecdote shows, the result is a mindset that “refuses to put up with inadequate methods,” said Ryder.

It’s now part of the way people do things, from fixing faulty pumps to reducing downtime to reducing scraps. People are now put on projects only as needed, but they learn a lot about leadership, teamwork and innovation.

And what makes such tools worth the time and effort, even when applied to ordinary events such as diagnosing paper jams, is when a solution is found there’s widespread acceptance, said Ryder. “When you do change something, the implementation is simple. Everybody is on board, everybody knows what you’re doing.”

Whose job is it?

As in most organizations, particularly those in the manufacturing sector, continuous improvement at National Silicates isn’t an HR responsibility. Instead, the director of plant operations oversees the projects. Now that these tools are already embedded in how people work, Ryder has minimal role in the application of these processes.

Traditionally, quality improvement processes reside within an independent unit, usually called the quality assurance department, said Brenda Fisk, Toronto-based Canadian director of ASQ Canada, American Society for Quality Inc.

But given the trend in recent years of integrating quality into everybody’s job, Fisk said she doesn’t see a reason why HR does not or cannot take charge of the cross-functional support work required to ensure quality improvement is part of the day-to-day work. After all, having a continuous improvement system in place requires someone to instill the right culture, make resources available for training and formalize new ways of doing things in performance expectations — the stuff of HR’s purview.

Still, Fisk said, it’s rare to see HR as the department leading or assuming responsibilities for quality processes. “I don’t have a good reason for that.”

Organizational development takes the lead at UBC

Among the exceptions is the University of British Columbia, which employs 10,000 staff and faculty. At this Vancouver university, it’s the organizational development and learning group in the HR department that has custody of the “process streamlining” tool.

When other departments need to tackle a process that’s not working well, this group of about six people step in to “brainstorm around problems, do some external research and then do some more brainstorming to create a new process,” said Peter Godman, organizational development and learning consultant.

As projects are usually initiated at a senior management level, with the head of a unit championing the change, Godman’s team rarely has to lead the implementation of the new processes. The one exception Godman can think of is a case where the senior manager has left the role, leaving the streamlining project with no champion, but even then Godman might take his cue from the unit.

Unlike the large-scale business process re-engineering projects that radically change how people do their jobs, the streamlining projects Godman works on require little more than incremental change. That means there’s not a lot of need for change management work from HR.

Plus, Godman noted, he usually involves front-line staff as well as line managers in coming up with solutions, so he doesn’t often encounter resistance from employees.

HR champion at Goodyear

At Goodyear Canada, a Toronto-headquartered tire manufacturer employing 4,000 workers, the person championing the use of Six Sigma tools happens to be an HR person. Gary Blake is an organizational development specialist, nominated by the company’s HR department into the role of lean Six Sigma champion, in which he reports to the president. As keeper of the company’s quality improvement processes, he often finds himself in a role coveted by many an HR practitioner.

“It’s the old HR challenge of, ‘How do I help the business?’ As a lean Six Sigma champion I get to sit in on business meetings, with my OD hat on, and I’ll be listening for potential projects. And a potential project is anything intractable that conventional problem-solving tools have not been able to handle.”

The way Blake sees it, processes such as Six Sigma help organizations sidestep the tendency to treat symptoms and not problems. He cited a recent example where Goodyear was able to significantly reduce the rate of strains and sprains by looking at why workers tended to hurt their wrists and backs when they removed tires from a mobile rack.

“For a problem such as soft-tissue injuries, we might deal with the symptoms by telling people to work smarter and not harder, or we hold a team meeting and remind them to work safely, or we hold a contest,” said Blake.

Dealing with the problem, in contrast, would mean taking data around when a problem happens, under which conditions it occurs, “digging down and asking why, measuring something and asking why again and measuring something else. It’s using statistics and looking for relationships between something and another thing, finding cause and effect.” With the injuries related to removing the tires, the root problem was some tires were sticking to the racks and requiring additional force to be removed.

Blake noted, though, that he doesn’t believe in using just one continuous improvement system over another. That kind of adherence will only lead people to see problems through one particular viewpoint.

He’s likewise pragmatic when it comes to the role of HR or any other department in leading, implementing or managing the use of these tools. “It gets back to what expertise you have in your department,” said Blake. “If problem-solving expertise or change-management expertise does not exist within human resources, then the quality folks would be providing that service to help improve processes.”

But HR does have a role to play in assessing whether the organization has the right culture to effectively use these tools, he added. Is the culture one in which “people leap to conclusions, and the boss knows how to solve problems, and employees wait to be told what to do, and when they have a problem they go to the boss?”

If that’s the case, HR can start instilling a new culture by suggesting, “‘Why don’t we start giving employees tools so that they can better solve problems themselves, with our leadership and careful management?’ It’s about change management again, but in the context of HR as the climate manager."

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