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Building the Muscles of Your Workforce

Running improvement projects in a wide variety of service organisations over the last couple of years, I had to relearn what I thought I had a good grasp of already. I had to restudy the basic drivers of productivity and process efficiency. Yes, it is certainly possible to drive productivity by process changes. Yes, IT can help to boost it even further. However, people often greatly underestimate an important source of productivity that we frequently leave untapped – humans. It is not about making your staff run faster to produce more in a certain amount of time. Rather, it is about what your team members do in that same amount of time. It is about their process efficiency.


Balancing Customer Satisfaction and Productivity

Your staff members complain about having too much work. The proportion of people on short-term sick-leave is consistently above average. And, the turnover rate is disturbingly high. Do these symptoms indicate that you need to increase your staffing? However, the average number of daily transactions processed shows that your staff should be able to easily handle the volume. Comparing takt time and processing time does not lead to any obvious issue. So, what is the problem?


Excuse Me, Why Should HR Know About Six Sigma?

A friend recently spoke at an HR Conference on a competency development roadmap for Six Sigma professionals. During the break, a few participants went up to him and asked him what Six Sigma is. Only then it occurred to him that not every HR person is familiar with well known basic principles and management practices contributing to business performance and leadership development.

Job Redesign

Job redesign is about redesigning the tasks in a job so that it fits staff and business needs. For instance, tasks that can be done in isolation can be assigned to a telecommuter, duplicate tasks may be eliminated. One full-time job may become appropriate for two part-timers. Two employees may split a job, but work independently of each other. Looking at the tasks of a job in a new way helps employees to better fit their skills to the tasks to be performed. It may eliminate unnecessary work, permit better use of employees’ skills, enable higher flexibility and more effective work distribution. It attracts and retains quality employees. And it promotes a dual agenda – making work more inspiring and motivating to employees while achieving business goals.

From Pyramid to Barrel-Shape Organisational Structure

Across industries, organisations are constantly reviewing and changing their organisational structure to meet evolving business needs. Instead of a pyramidal shape, more organisations are moving towards building a barrel-shape organisational structure with a large middle group. This is partially due to the fact that companies have reduced recruitment efforts. And it is due to the trend to hire mid-level people – experienced people. They do not need to go through the painful learning phase after their graduation.

Going forward, many of our traditional assumptions about the course of a person’s lifetime career will not hold any longer. Workforce availability and the need for workforce will not match any more. For example, there will be too few “higher” level positions to provide everyone in the workforce with sufficient opportunities for variety, learning or increased compensation – particularly as the new generation cohorts become more eager for frequent change and less willing to remain in one position for extended periods of time.

If you overlay the changing demographic patterns with the changing nature of value creation – the growth in knowledge-based work – our common parameters around time and job design come into question. Most jobs today are still described in terms of a unit of time – a 44-hour workweek or an eight-hour day. In Singapore, the majority of people are now employed in service industries; and already more than half of those are knowledge employees, paid for writing, analysing, advising, counting, designing, researching and countless related functions, including capturing, organising and providing access to knowledge used by others. Time-based jobs make little sense for these employees. Who is to say how long it will take an individual to write a report, conduct an analysis or produce a piece of software?

Consequentially, it does make less and less sense to measure performance on time spent on the job. Jobs need to be designed in a way that measures the output and gives people flexibility in terms of organising their work. Of course, this greatly depends on the jobs being done.

These trends show a high maturity level of workforce in our society. However, these trends need to be accompanied with new methods of human capital management. This article aims to show-case situations on how organisations deal with the new situation. The focus is on of redefining the workplace for the new workforce.

#1 – Job Redesign to Attract the Right People and Retain Them

High turnover in a laboratory setting in our Healthcare sector was partially driven by high workload, some monotone, non-challenging work and inflexible work arrangements. After analysing the Time Allocation for scientists in the lab, it became obvious that highly-trained staff with partially many years of experience in the laboratory environment typically spend only 59% of their time on the jobs they are hired for, the primary analysis work.

Job Redesign Needed - Time Utilisation of Highly Qualified Scientists

Figure 1: Time Utilisation of Highly Qualified Scientists

Another 17% was used for preparatory and support work that can be done by less qualified lab personnel. Even more surprising, a whopping 24% of their time was used for admin and logistics tasks. These tasks could be done by personnel with minimal or without any lab knowledge (Figure 1). This means not only a major waste of highly qualified manpower that is not easy to find in the market and rather expensive. It also means that these people will get frustrated. And, sooner or later they are driven away by the feeling that their skills are not properly used.

Redesigning their jobs to focus on their primary tasks with some involvement in secondary tasks led to a higher job satisfaction, less workload and a better work result. The admin and logistics activities were taken over by a small support team with the long-term plan of outsourcing these doings.

#2 – Job Redesign – Redefine the Work in Terms of Tasks not Time

In a consulting company for instance, there is no need to “go to the office” since consulting mostly happens at the clients’ place. All communication can easily be done via email and phone; and all information is stored in the cloud available from any place at any time. Clients’ emails, faxes and calls are routed to the next available consultant or virtual “office managers”. Since consultants and their office managers can practically do their job most effectively from their home office without the need to waste time in car, MRT or Bus, their tasks can be done any time over the day.

Reorganising the non-customer facing days means, shopping is best – and takes much less time for queuing at car parks, counters and cashiers – during “normal” office hours. Hence, these members of a consulting company are able to free up time by working against the usual cycle, spend time with their kids if needed and pick up their clients’ calls even after office hours happily. An eight-to-five work arrangement is a great hurdle for their work and lifestyle.

The task of measuring their work result instead of their office time is one of the challenges, modern competency-based, results-oriented performance management systems deal with easily.

#3 – Job Redesign – Defining Workforce Priorities

Workforce planning needs to be started at a process level by assigning number of staff and competency required for each step. Studying existing process steps and benchmarking them against the best serve as a guideline for deriving workforce needs. Data gathering can be done during open interviews, structured focus group sessions or even through time study on the process (Gemba Study).

Whereas manufacturing processes are highly structured, regulated and enforced by machines, service processes are typically less stringent resulting in somehow more variation in processing time for certain process steps. Time studies are necessary for processes with rather large variation. A robust set of processing time data is a key necessity for the integrity of the overall result. Moreover, even if customer demand changes in future and processes get amended, the smallest unit, the process step changes at the least degree. Hence, this information will be useful for future planning activities, too.

Job Redesign to Close Resource Gap of one Process

Figure 2: Time Study and Resource Gap Analysis of one Process

After having collected all workforce needs for existing processes, workforce gap analysis (Figure 2) as well as workforce projection can be performed. Using software to build the process-workforce-database supports future workforce planning activities. The output of a workforce plan will be translated into a workforce strategy, which in turn defines HR strategy and HR plan.

Workforce analysis without accompanying process analysis could lead to having the right workforce for the wrong process. Therefore, the logical steps for strategic workforce planning are: understanding business priorities, translating them into process priorities and deriving workforce priorities out of both (Figure 3).

COE Workforce Planning Process - Foundation for Job Redesign

Figure 3: COE Workforce Planning Process

#4 – Re-Framing Mind-set, Re-Defining Jobs

Difficulties in attracting the right candidates and retaining them have challenged a local edutainment setup to rethink the job roles and the working condition for the science communicators that have existed for more than 10 years. The feedback from focus groups and the lifestyle surveys shown that, amongst other factors, working on every weekend and all public holidays was demotivating employees as they struggled to keep pace with their life and social events.

All this was making retention of employees a key issue. Another contributing factor to the low attraction and high turnover was the limiting job scope that became monotonous after a while. There were two different groups of employees with one team performing demonstrations and conducting workshops and the other carrying out interaction on the ground with the visitors. This structure was a result of hiring more resources to carry out the increased workload due to expanded business operating space and also to cope with the retention issue.

The job duties were updated and the processes were refreshed. One condition that had not changed was that the management would still require the two groups of employees to work on weekends and public holidays, to cater for the customers’ needs. It would seem then the only solution was to increase the headcount again thus increasing manpower cost. Job redesign no doubt is about reviewing the current scope of work but finding the best ways to do things is also a key element of job redesign. The situation has challenged the management to rethink the ways things have been done, review the resource planning process and analysis the customers profile and data.

Reframing of the situation allowed them to see that the two different groups of employees who have the same qualifications were capable to deliver all the job duties and this resource could be pooled for resource optimisation. Instead of having 5 employees in each team delivering on a fixed set of job scope, the resource pool had expanded to 10 employees sharing the whole spectrum of work making their job more interesting and motivating.

With this pool of resource, work roster could be implemented and the employees are now working only 1 weekend every 2 months instead of having to work on every weekend. This job redesign and new resource management have allowed for the development of career pathways for the employees and higher employee engagement as they now are given time to participate in company’s projects. Retention rate of the high potential employees has increased by 50% since the revised scheme has been implemented.


In the past, Job Redesign used to be a one-time affair performed by forward-thinking organisations to keep up with long-term changes in an organisation. Now, changes are required and happen more frequently. Hence, Job Redesign needs to happen as often in order to keep track. This modern approach needs to be part of every progressive HR leader’s toolbox.

Job-Redesign can only be done effectively in partnership with business leaders and line managers and it requires understanding their processes along with competencies needed. This gives our open-minded HR professionals an opportunity to demonstrate the contributions they can make to the prosperity of the entire firm, ensuring that they will be key participants in the flattened, dynamic, networked and global corporations of the future.

Recruiting the Right Mindset

There are several invaluable lessons learnt during the different phases of YOG. A significant task has been the recruitment, preparation and motivation of more than five hundred staff and of more than twenty thousand volunteers within a timeframe of less than two years.

It is not new that recruiting people means evaluating, finding skills and experience that make up the eligibility – the aptitude – on the one hand and the suitability – the attitude – on the other hand. However, it is commonly much easier to evaluate the former in detail whilst neglecting the latter.

My Opinion: It’s About the Process

Discussing workforce planning with an HR professional of a government entity in Singapore we explained our approach that starts from customer and strategy, goes via processes and concludes in workforce needs, in short. The answer I got from my client was “Why do you look into operations in order to do workforce planning. We want to do this without dealing too much with processes.”

I was surprised to get this reaction from an HR professional.

Take Care of Your Talent – Or Someone Else Will

Your Lean Six Sigma initiative has taken off well, project teams led by Belts have done a nice work and results are in. Good job so far?! However, this is the rather easy part of your journey. The more difficult part is about retaining and accelerating the trained Black Belts and Green Belts (Belts).

Lean Six Sigma Deployments need Green Belts or Black Belts

Green Belts or Black Belts are the Project Leaders for Lean Six Sigma Projects

Talking to both, Lean Six Sigma consultants as well as their clients, paints a surprisingly consistent picture. Nearly half of the companies who kick-off a Lean Six Sigma initiative lose some of their Belts shortly after certification. Another tendency is alarming. We are not talking about one or two Belts who resign at that point in time. A considerable 20 – 30% of the first batch of trainees may decide to leave.

So, what went wrong?

The answer to that question lies in the approaches companies choose to run their Lean Six Sigma initiative and human capital development. In some companies like Microsoft or General Electric, Lean Six Sigma education and development is part of the management development programme for their staff. Employees see such development as reward and potential for growth within the company. These companies have included Lean Six Sigma as one of the core programmes in their management and leadership development initiative, where staff undergoes action learning by carrying out real business projects with application of Lean Six Sigma tools & methodologies.

For some companies, the most urgent driver to engage the Belts with the business operations agenda is process optimisation or streamlining. Companies fail to look beyond, i.e. career development opportunities for their Belts, or even to recognise some of them as their key talent who are potentially future leaders for their companies. Unfortunately, this reality hits at a time when demand exceeds supply.

General Electric’s Management Development Programme includes a compulsory module about Lean Six Sigma. Without having a “Belt” no one has a chance to be promoted into the upper management in GE.

The pressing question, then, is how to retain our Belts, our talents. And, how can we accelerate the process of nurturing and maturing leaders so that absence of talent is never an impediment to business goals. As with all change initiatives, it only has a chance when the top management sets the tone and invests time and energy so that the talent development is internalised by the entire organisation and truly shapes the company for the future[i].

Excellence in Talent Management

In most companies, the process and tools around identifying potential and accelerating the development of top leadership talent are facilitated by HR. In the best companies, however, strong sense of personal responsibility to spot, nurture and retain talent is deeply embedded in every leader’s agenda, and is evident in how they spend their time. This stems from a perception that the senior management sees talent as a strategic priority, and is a constant champion of those initiatives that drive it.

In this article, we list some ideas on excellence in talent management and on supporting strategies as well as steps for managing talent that truly benefits the business.

Step 1: Begin with the End in Mind – Your Current and Future Business Needs

Effective talent management delivers real competitive advantage when business goals and strategies are the starting point for determining the quality and quantity of the Black Belts or Green Belts you need. It is important to intertwine Belt requirements with the business needs – which means that business and Belt planning process need to happen in sync. The challenge organisations often wrestle with at this point is identifying and selecting the right people to become Belts. Here are two examples for consideration:

We need a robust and systematic tool to select and train future leaders for our company. What I’ve read about Six Sigma so far was about focusing on customer requirements, managing and improving processes, changing the company’s culture, encouraging people and, last but not least, making money. This is exactly the job of our leaders. Therefore, we want to use Lean Six Sigma as part of the management development programme to select and develop the next generation of leaders, the president of an Asian multi-national company responded when asked why he wanted to kick-off Lean Six Sigma[ii].

We are a government regulatory agency. There have been consistently unpleasant feedback and complaints in newspapers by our customers about our service and process turn-around time. Who will be suitable to bring up our customers’ experience by optimising our processes?, was the explanation of a director in a government agency on the question what they want to use Lean Six Sigma for.

As strategic plans and forecasts are prepared for business units or functions, questions about leaders or talent need to be addressed: Who will execute each part of the plan? What skills do they need to possess? What skills do they need to develop to enable them to be successful?

This involves translating requirements into concrete descriptions of the type and quality of talent you need. This means determining critical success profiles for the role (Black Belt, Green Belt), sizing up both the quantity and quality of your leadership bench in relation to current and future business needs.

Step 2: Selecting Belts – What Kind of Talent Does The Business Need?

Our experience over the last decade with Belts who succeed and those who could not make it has led us believe that the performance is linked to the following traits:

  • Personal Interest in the programme is one of the most important factors. It is much easier to teach methodology and tools to people with the right mindset than making a disbeliever (typically low interest) a Lean Six Sigma evangelist.
  • Organisational Knowledge And Business Acumen provide focus for individual’s energy and drive key business initiatives & priorities that will expand business, increase market share or improve profitability.
  • Competencies are the broad challenge to which the Belts must step up, to drive successful execution of the strategic priorities (e.g. driving change, generating ideas, controlling costs, developing others, etc).
  • Personal Attributes – such as customer orientation, be it external or internal customers – is essential for succeeding in Lean Six Sigma and a major step from process improvement towards customer satisfaction. Self motivation and risk taking are other key personal attributes to ensure success in this role. People management skills comprise of a list of key strengths that are fundamentals to win.

Against the common belief, statistical knowledge is not a criterion for selecting your Belts. However, the capability to acquire new technical skills, to apply these skills successfully is an important prerequisite. More important is the aptitude to involve, motivate, coach and train people, to lead and manage teams towards delivering results and to communicate effectively with different levels in the organisation.

A Belt candidate with the right mindset and with the latter strong point will be able to overcome a technical weakness easily by building on the strength of his team members, whereas a technically competent candidate without “People Skills” will most likely fail. Hence, selecting Belts with less people skills needs special development steps in order to avoid frustration and ultimately resignation. Moreover, traditional Lean Six Sigma training focuses on building and enriching technical skills and is typically very weak in developing people skills. Adequate training and development measures need to be considered.

All these traits provide the foundation needed to drive subsequent steps in the talent management process, and other HR systems such as on-boarding and performance management[iii]. Our experience is that such attributes are most essential to measure Lean Six Sigma Belt candidates’ potential or potential derailleurs. At the same time they are critical for selecting staff into other critical jobs or assignments.

Step 3: Developing the Potential of Belts

Consequently, talent management is not about putting the Belts through the Lean Six Sigma training and getting them to deliver a couple of business projects, but is about enhancing them to support organisational leadership capability on a broader scale. This important step acts as screening mechanism for those most likely to become tomorrow’s leaders, providing a basis for a flexible pool, which individual – for any number of good reasons – move in and out of as years go by.

Many common mistakes companies have made at developing the Belts include:

  • Selection without subsequent diagnosis of additional development needs
  • Focus on current performance alone
  • Inconsistent assessment criteria
  • Only focus on strengths (no consideration of leadership potential derailleurs)

We see three components as key to optimising the potential of Belts:

a)  Evaluating Current Performance

Assessing the effectiveness of Belt’s performance and behaviour in their current role should be done before evaluating potential. We believe that sustained high performance in the current role is a pre-requisite for potential.

It is important for the managers to define clear performance expectations and measures; commit time to managing performance by observing, coaching and giving feedback; and balancing consideration of results with behaviours.

Tanya used to be a team leader responsible for renewal of policies in an insurance company. The senior management team wanted to use Lean Six Sigma for improving the relatively low renewal rate. Because Tanya was the only person in sight who knew the process good enough she was hesitantly selected to become a Green Belt and “to fix the renewal rate problem”.

It was an uphill task for her as she was a rank & file manager without any prior management or leadership development. However, Tanya has the key personal traits, her desire to learn and developing others. This and her hard work with her team – Lean Six Sigma work was additional work for her – had made her a successful individual in the organisation.

She delivered excellent business results; the management team was amazed by her hidden leadership qualities and business understanding. Tanya was promoted twice within four years subsequent to her excellent performance.

Today, Tanya is one of the members in the senior management team of that company.

b) Identifying Leadership Potential

Determining individuals with the most growth promise is often done superficially. Uncover the hidden potential of the individual by leveraging on the individual’s strength. And provide space and confidence for the individual to grow. The behaviours of such individuals are:

  • taking best advantage of and
  • responding positively to differential development opportunities,
  • supporting the organisation’s values, as well as
  • being able to apply what is learned productively within the organisation.

If you can identify the potential effectively, you can focus your investment on these individuals who will generate the highest ROI in terms of their ability to grow quickly and broadly.

c)  Creating Opportunities For Acceleration

Once you have screened for leadership potential among the Belts you have developed, those meeting criteria are admitted to the “talent pool”. More accurately, they are target for rapid development – an “acceleration pool”. The beauty of such a pool is that it provides flexibility and eventually greater organisational self-sufficiency for current and future talent needs. The pool becomes the first in mind when high-value roles need to be filled and special assignments emerge.

Senior Management supported by HR take personal ownership of the “talent pool”. I.e. they request  realistic assessment of readiness and focused development for pool members. And, they keep regular, thoughtful communication with the pool. The communication should make clear that being part of this pool is an opportunity but not a guarantee for promotion.

Step 4: Assessing the Readiness of Belts for Leadership Transitions

How do you minimise the risk of promotions when the pace of business means that you often need to test people in untried roles with new responsibilities? Using Lean Six Sigma projects provide assessment information of your potential leaders and hence helps in the selection decisions. Additionally, the following approaches may be considered:

a)  Individual Readiness

There are many assessment tools available. They have different strengths and need to be applied appropriately to help you and other stakeholders make better talent decisions. Tools such as Performance Feedback, Personality Inventories, etc.

COE’s approach to assessment using 360 Degree Survey (360ELP) complement with coaching/mentoring, focus on others’ perceptions of performance in a current role is a powerful diagnostic for development.

b)  Organisational Readiness or “Talent Pulse-Rate”

Increasingly, decisions about strategic direction and organisational structure (or restructuring), mean decisions about talent. Which talent ‘you want on the bus’ (Jim Collins: Good to Great) impacts not only your ability to execute but also your stakeholders’ confidence in that ability, which can amount to the same thing. A thorough review or audit of what you’ve got and how far it’s likely to be able to take you in your chosen direction – the Talent Pulse Rate[v] brings visible assurance to stakeholders. It provides a solid basis for decisions on restructuring, talent redeployment and development, whatever might ensure decisions around placement.

Step 5: Developing and Driving Performance

After the assessment, it is essential that the participant is given thoughtful feedback and has the opportunity to buy-in and agree on development priorities. They focus on individual growth areas or strengths that match what the business needs of its leaders, their own role requirements, personal goals, aspirations and objectives.

Besides undertaking real business projects that require using Lean Six Sigma methodologies, development can be in the context of a new job assignment, or in structured training for fundamental leadership skills.

Set of Belt Competencies

Set of Belt Competencies

Executive Development will likely be more individualised, where action learning can meet the needs. The figure shows COE’s perspective on the set of Process Excellence Leader Competencies. There are four roles process excellence leaders will grow into over time: Business Advocate, Process Excellence Expert, Integrator and Change Agent. However, this cannot be achieved by doing one project and leading a team to successful completion.

In any context, though you need rigor in how development is executed. Effective development requires a blend of activities including mentoring, classroom learning, coaching, action learning, etc.


Belt selection is a critical step in ensuring a Lean Six Sigma initiative contributes to the business as intended. Belts are your talent pool, who has proven to be able to perform in their job and whom you would like to see growing in your organisation. They need to have interest – or you need to enkindle this interest respectively. Additionally, they need to have some basic people skills. And, they need to be open for discovering new ways of looking at problems. All these requirements are basics for leaders.

Use Lean Six Sigma to develop your next generation of leaders – and communicate this carefully. If someone fails to deliver, give him/her another chance. If this person fails again, you know that he/she may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


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People Development – The Smart Way

A couple of years ago, I was meeting the President of an Asian multi-national mid-sized service company for a Six Sigma Training on Saipan, a nice sunny pacific island south-east of Japan. Together with a colleague we were sitting at the beach, wearing swimming suits and preparing the next days session whilst getting sun-tanned. When the President arrived – he was in shorts and ugly slippers! – we had a casual briefing for the Leadership Team session and the Staff Awareness Sessions we were about to run during that week.

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