Implementing Lean Hiring: The Revolution Gets Serious

The goal of the hiring revolution is nothing less than making hiring top talent a systematic business process. Everything else is secondary ó processing resumes, reducing costs, improving time to fill, even metrics. While these sub-objectives are important and will be addressed, they do not drive the process. Many hiring mistakes are made when one of these sub-objectives becomes the primary focus. To gain more insight into what it takes to create a systematic process

for hiring top talent, I’ve decided to go to the source: world-class manufacturing companies. I’ve started taking tours of well-run factories, since they offer excellent role models for how to systematize multiple activities with limited resources and under intense time pressures. “Lean” is one of these manufacturing concepts that can be directly applied to the hiring process. Here’s the translation from lean manufacturing into lean hiring:

Lean hiring is a systemic approach to hiring which is based on the premise that anywhere work is being done, waste is being generated. Productivity can be increased by the elimination of this waste. Lean hiring is a core step to achieving a Six Sigma process.”

Eliminating big chunks of waste in the hiring process is a good way to quickly obtain improved performance. To begin implementing lean hiring, it’s useful to break the hiring process into four broad stages:

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  • Stage 1: White Zone. Except for networking, this relates to everything that is done to get candidates to apply. This could be branding, advertising, website design, sourcing channel development, writing ads, referral programs or college recruiting. The big time-waster in this zone is developing sourcing programs that don’t work and not knowing it soon enough. Writing boring ads is an example. To make matters worse, metrics come out too late to be useful, and when they do, they ignore candidate quality. Sourcing channel effectiveness must be immediate, and it must directly measure candidate quality.
  • Stage 2: Yellow Zone. This is the stage of processing people who have applied to determine if they are qualified for the current job opening. Typically, 5% of applicants will meet this criteria. Processing applicants can be a huge time-waster, so recruiters shouldn’t do any of it personally. Yellow Zone processing must be done automatically, with the few candidates meeting the selection criteria pushed, not pulled, to the recruiter’s desktop.
  • Stage 3: Red Zone. This is the stage where potential candidates are further evaluated to determine if they should be interviewed by the hiring manager, if they are worth networking with, or if they are a strong candidate for another position. Recruiters must only talk with these important people, and do everything they can to prevent dealing with anyone else. Above all else, recruiters must be careful of how they spend their time.
  • Stage 4: End Zone. This is the stage when strong candidates are interviewed, assessed, tested, and reference-checked to see if they are a candidate worthy of an offer of employment. If so, the offer must then be prepared, negotiated, and closed. For most positions, three to six strong Red Zone candidates are needed in order to have one finalist. You must make sure that everything you do ensures that a top person you’ve made an offer to accepts it. If not, everything you’ve done up to this point has been wasted.

How much time do you waste reviewing resumes of unqualified people, calling unqualified applicants, inputting and processing data into your ATS, data mining, direct sourcing to find names, trying to recruit people cold, and handling unproductive administrative activities? Recruiters need to spend at least 80% of their time on Red Zone and End Zone activities. If you’re a recruiting manager, assess your team to see where they’re spending their time. How much is spent dealing with unqualified people in some way? Our audits of over 200 corporate recruiters indicate that the best recruiters (the top 10-20%) spend 80% of their time in the Red and End Zones, and fight like heck to minimize their time in the Yellow Zone. If you’re a hiring manager, do you see too many resumes of unqualified candidates? If so, are your recruiters capable of determining who’s qualified and who’s not? Here are some short-term things you can do to minimize your time in the Yellow Zone:

  1. Pre-qualify all applicants before you call or look at their resume. This means all referred candidates (from vendors, employees, other candidates, or anyone) must pass a qualification filter of some type before getting into the pool. When networking, make sure you ask the referrer why they think the person is qualified. For employee referrals, add a qualification screen.
  2. Proactively seek out pre-qualified candidates. Get your best employees, vendors, and candidates to give you the names of highly qualified people (see my article on networking semi-candidates for more on this). These are candidates who instantly make it into Red Zone.
  3. Turbocharge your applicant tracking system to batch process resumes. Most applicant tracking systems do a decent job of sorting and rank-ordering resumes. Go through the first group of 20 resumes. Once you get one or two potential candidates, start your Red Zone processing to push them through the system. You need to get good candidates into the system immediately to make sure they don’t get picked up by someone else. If you don’t find enough good candidates in the first group of 20 resumes, go through another batch of 20 resumes. Do not look at any more resumes if the best 40 don’t pan out. This is the biggest Yellow Zone time-waster of all. Change or improve your sourcing programs instead.
  4. Don’t ever (ever, ever) call a data-mined candidate unless you have some proof that the person is highly qualified. This is another big time-waster. Instead, send an email describing your opportunity in compelling terms. Then ask the person if they are still available or would be open to exploring an opportunity if it were better than their current situation. If yes, then ask them to send you a current resume and a one-paragraph summary of their most significant accomplishment related to your job needs. This is an example of how you can automate a Yellow Zone activity.

Longer term, you’ll need to change how you source candidates. As you know, I believe job boards offer an antiquated solution to the hiring process, and should be outlawed in their current form (to say it mildly). Job boards are the cause of more unnecessary Yellow Zone processing than any other source. This point was raised on my recent factory tour at RW Lyall, a world-class industrial parts manufacturing company in Southern California. This company had doubled production with half as many employees in the last few years, while increasing quality, so they were a good place for new ideas. My first question to them was what they would do if a vendor sent in 99 bad parts out of every lot of 100. Their full answer can not be repeated here, but it had something to do with never using the vendor again. Why then do we tolerate a job board that sends in large amounts of unqualified candidates? Why should the customer be responsible for sorting through thousands of unqualified candidates that some other customer also needs to sort through? By accepting this state of affairs, we’re then forced to buy an applicant tracking system based on how well it sorts these unqualified candidates. Recruiters and hiring managers then need to spend unnecessary time cleaning up the mess that these job boards create. Why can’t job boards pre-screen candidates before we ever see them? Most of the resumes should never be submitted in the first place. I believe job boards should be responsible for cleaning up this mess. Short term, we have to live with job boards, but longer term they must be eliminated in their current form. This is a core goal of the hiring revolution. Unfortunately, most applicant tracking systems accept the sad state of affairs, aggravating the problem. Together with job boards, they form a true axis of evil that must be broken if hiring top people is to ever become a systematic business process. We’re now working with some of the best applicant tracking systems, who recognize the problem and are developing true solutions. In the future, these applicant tracking systems will become multi-layered sourcing engines automatically pushing highly qualified candidates directly to the recruiters desktop. Join our focus group, the Band of 176, if you’d like to help determine the key features of these next generation automation tools. If you want to become a better recruiter, first categorize everything you do into these White, Yellow, Red, and End Zone activities. As a first step, you must minimize your time spent doing Yellow Zone activities. They will only slow you down. Instead, you must figure out a way to spend 80% of your time in the Red and End Zones. Once you achieve this balance, you then must become great at all of the necessary one-on-one recruiter skills. This is The Art of Recruiting, (my new e-book) and includes interviewing, recruiting, networking, and closing. The lean hiring revolution needs to start with you. But it will only start when you decide to stop wasting your time. [Note: If you’d like to help make hiring top people a Six Sigma business process, join the band of 176. Feel free to submit a point or two for our hiring revolution guiding principles. As you know, I’m started my national hiring revolution Zero-based Hiring Tour. This year we’ll be in Chicago on October 15, L.A. on November 5, NYC on November 19, and San Francisco on December 11. We’ll hit the rest of the country in 2004. Visit for our Zero-based Hiring tour schedule. I look forward to meeting you in person at one of our tour stops. Stop wasting your time. Join the revolution.]

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).