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Matt Henkes



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Achieving the mindshift to tackle failure demand in HR


Failure demand is everywhere, clogging up your team’s schedule, getting in the way of value-driving activity and impacting user experience whenever your people interact with HR.

It’s not people who create failure demand, but the system. To learn how to identify and tackle failure demand, we need to start thinking differently. We need systems thinking.

It’s not often you get to quote Aristotle in an article about HR, but here he is: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The old philosopher probably didn’t know it at the time, but he was neatly describing the essence of systems thinking. This is the view that all tasks and processes are part of a larger ecosystem, sustained by how well they fit together and support a shared purpose.

Understanding demand

In HR, professionals are constantly juggling many different types of demand, so it’s helpful to form a clear mental picture of what they are. In a systems approach, demand can be broken down broadly into three categories. 

Value demand: This is work you want. The kind of work that gets you out of bed in the morning with a cheerful spring in your step; strategic HR that adds value and makes a difference. 

Non-value demand: Work that often comes to you but isn’t really relevant to your process or purpose. Perhaps your team are picking up the load for underperforming colleagues, rerouting tasks that come to the wrong place, or constantly being drawn into simple cases that should be easily solved without their involvement. 

Failure demand: Repeated tasks, cleaning up errors, damage limitation… Failure demand is extra work you don’t want, for two reasons. First, it’s an unnecessary time stealer, and, secondly, it indicates that something is going badly wrong somewhere in your process. 

In HR, incorporating systems thinking to tackle failure demand involves flipping the way we think about process design. 

Failure demand is endemic because the top down mindset doesn’t allow for the variety of human demand.

The hangover

In traditional businesses, this involves top-down thinking – we visualise the desired outcome then build a series of steps judged most likely to achieve it. This seems intuitive enough. 

But this is a hangover from the industrial age where top-down command and control management delivered effective economies of scale in environments where rigid systems were needed to enable efficient mass production of goods, textiles, automobile parts and paperclips.

In service culture, which makes up the majority of the UK’s economy today, this thinking is too rigid. Failure demand is endemic because the top down mindset doesn’t allow for the variety of human demand. People have complex needs and dealing with them is completely unlike manufacturing paperclips.

Too rigid for human complexity 

Service processes designed in this way aren’t built with the nature of demand in mind, so the customer or user is often the last consideration. And failure demand occurs where this rigid process is unable to meet their complex requirements. Tasks that should be completed in a single touchpoint stretched over many, hoovering up resources that could be better spent elsewhere. 

Examples include broken forms, overly complex procedures and ineffective self-service that results in incomplete work being passed on, or work passed backwards to be repeated or rechecked. 

This kind of work can be culturally baked in, where line management over-rely on HR for simple tasks. Or lack of appropriate access to information, systems, equipment or knowledge generates unnecessary queries.

In essence, it’s where parts of your carefully honed HR machine, which should be simple, instead regularly generates more work. Work you don’t want.

There’s a huge opportunity for potential improvement, just by flipping your thinking.

A tsunami-sized opportunity 

And because top-down systems don’t classify different types of demand, what’s measured is often the work done, not the demand coming in. So the only thing your team can tell you is that they’re busy. This is often why HR teams feel stuck on a perpetual hamster wheel; a tsunami of people clamouring for attention but no way to tell what the underlying demands are.

If this all sounds worryingly familiar, don’t worry, you’re not alone. 

Moreover, there’s a huge opportunity for potential improvement, just by flipping your thinking. Eliminating (or at least significantly reducing) failure demand will not only dramatically slice the admin burden on your team, it will also free up time that can be spent on value demand, work you do want. 

Tips to get started

1. Seek to limit manual transactional tasks 

  • Are managers in your organisation over reliant on HR? 

  • Ensure HR systems are clearly understood, and user instructions are easily accessible 

  • How much of the admin load on your team could be alleviated through effective self-service? 

2. Appreciate the user point of view

  • Have you mapped user experience for common HR processes? 

  • Walk through each process to identify areas of over-complexity and potential failure, involving front line staff in this process 

  • How could multi-step tasks be completed in a single touch point? Which steps are ‘value’ steps, and which are ‘waste’? 

3. Bottom-up thinking 

  • Start classifying and measuring incoming demand rather than tasks completed 

  • Do you incentivise the right mindset? How is performance judged, on tasks completed, or on complexity of cases solved? 

Helping HR leaders identify and address failure demand is the key objective of our upcoming webinar on 16 October 2019.

Featuring Simon Fowler, XCD CEO, Mandy Chapman, General Manager of HRCubed and Matthew Blair, Process & Change Consultant at HRCubed, the webinar will provide examples and strategies to incorporate systems thinking into your HR process design so you can stop doing work you don’t want. 

To find out more and register your place, click here

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Matt Henkes


Read more from Matt Henkes

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