I am indebted to Stuart Corrigan (the MD of Vanguard Scotland) for this contribution. Sometimes he is asked “How can I tell if I’m a good HR director?” He answers by telling two stories. About a year ago one of our clients told us “you will never believe what has just happened! My human resource manager has stormed into my office and told me that she is sick of Stuart Corrigan.” (Stuart says he’s heard this from the female population a few times in his life, so it was no real surprise, ha ha!). “After a few questions she said that she used to feel like she was adding value by sorting those that were perpetually off sick, resolving disputes between departments, and counselling those that were fed up. She went on to say that her job had nigh on disappeared since we started doing systems thinking, because people are happier at their work.”

After he was told the story Stuart didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But it did help him to get a clear view on what an HR manager should not be doing. To get Stuart’s weekly e-newsletter, then follow the link: http://www.vanguardscotland.co.uk/blog/
Contrast the last story with one from another client Helen Fitzpatrick, a senior HR manager at the financial services company Royal London. Helen and her colleague Julie Cropper, spend their time working with managers to help them optimise their divisions. By optimise I mean that they show them how they can maximise productivity, revolutionise service, minimise operating expense and improve revenue and return on investment.
The question of course is by what method? They start with a simple premise; you can’t maximise what you are currently doing until you first understand exactly how the business works now, warts and all, including the assumptions under which it operates.
They, like most who understand this, know that if you start from a position of knowledge about what’s happening today and why it’s happening, then being able to fix what is wrong is actually very easy. This is a universal principle, I don’t care whether you run one internet site or you are the chief executive of a global company, unless you know exactly how the business works (processes, policies, job role design, measures) and you can articulate it, you will never ever optimise your organisation.
Hence the perspective taken by Helen and Julie is outside-in; work with leaders to get data on how the business works from the customer’s perspective and then use that knowledge to make it better, that’s it. Oh, this also applies to functions like marketing, sales and finance.
Here’s an example; a few years ago we were working with a finance company that handles claims. There were long delays in the system, it took up to 942 days to close a claim, most claims were re-worked by a factor of 3-4 before being closed, customers were leaving, brokers had stopped recommending the company, and the cost of settling claims were increasing.
After having studied the system the problem was obvious (well, I told you it would be), the staff were measured on how fast they got a claim logged on to the system. So information about a claim was passed to claims handlers dirty. They then spent most of their time getting additional information before being able to settle the claim.
With knowledge about how the system worked the solution was obvious; by changing the measures and getting the expertise at the right point in the system, the time to settle a claim was slashed to two weeks. And the increase in capacity was used to work with corporate clients to inform them about the most predictable causes of crashes. Now that’s real added value. And it came about through knowledge of the current system.
Which leads us back to our question, how can you tell if you’re a good HR manager? (you should replace HR with your own job title). The answer lies in whether you can describe how your organisation looks and works from the customer’s point of view. Well can you? I accept that for some managers this seems too difficult, it means getting out of their office and getting their hands dirty. But hey, what’s the alternative, filling in another spreadsheet on who was off sick this week?
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