Lean Recruiting: Applying the Principles of Lean Manufacturing to Recruiting

Lean manufacturing has been a regular practice in Japan for almost 50 years, where it has helped Toyota achieve high profits and a breakeven point in car manufacturing way below that of competitors. Many American manufacturers have adopted the techniques of lean manufacturing as well, and have used it to keep costs down, to improve productivity, and even to reduce the need to hire more employees. There is nothing difficult to understand about the concepts of lean manufacturing. It is usually defined as a systematic approach to identifying and then eliminating any waste in a process. Waste is defined as a non-value-added activity. Conversely, it is about improving efficiency and customer satisfaction. It also contains the important concept of continuous improvement and letting the customer be the driver of change. In other words, as customer tastes and requirements change, the process should adapt to those new requirements easily. While I am not going to discuss lean manufacturing in this article, I am going to try and show how the same principles can be applied to any process, such as recruiting. I have called it “lean process improvement” (LPI). There are four principles that are at the core of lean process improvement as it applies to recruiting:

  1. The rigorous hunt for waste (activities that do not directly interface with a candidate or hiring manager) and its elimination
  2. An effort to understand what causes change or variability in the recruiting process, and to apply techniques to either eliminate the variability or adapt to it.
  3. The ability to streamline processes and use technology to cope with the ever-changing environment.
  4. To fully appreciate the value of recruiters and make sure they are being used to their best ability.

Let’s look at each of these in greater detail. Waste Elimination Recruiting is a wasteful process as it is normally practiced today. There are many non-value-added activities, including everything that has to do with handling electronic or paper data, all scheduling and report writing, and much of both the candidate and the hiring manager interface. Take a normal recruiting day. A recruiter may start her day by looking at email and at the (probably) hundreds of resumes or electronic profiles that have accumulated overnight for the positions that recruiter has open. A half-day or more may be taken up simply scanning and screening these emails and resumes, with no decisions being made and with no candidate contact. The rest of the day may be taken up with phone screens for the few good candidates, many of whom will turn out to be not so good, or in chats with hiring managers updating them on progress or querying them about the skills or background of a particular candidate. There may be an interview or two somewhere in this mix or even the need to go meet a new hiring manager and determine the requirements for a new position. Out of all of these activities only a small percentage is value-added. Determining what adds value is one of the most challenging aspects of lean process improvement. Adding value in recruiting would be whenever you are talking directly with a candidate to either determine their skills or to convince them to join your organization. It is also whenever you are directly in conversation with a hiring manager about a candidate or a position. Value-added is when you are networking with potential candidates, communicating with candidates, or working on the front-end of the recruiting process. Waste occurs when you are doing data entry, filing, database searching, resume review, scheduling, and even some levels of interviewing where you are not a decision maker. Waste also occurs when you have steps in your process that are redundant or unnecessary. Lean processes are efficient, which means they use the smallest amount of time and resources possible. Recruiting processes are filled with steps that do not necessarily lead to better or faster decisions. Some steps are required by law or corporate policy, but many can be eliminated or shortened. The focus should be on determining what the best theoretical cycle time would be ó the minimum amount of time it would take for the perfect candidate to be identified and hired. If, for example, it were possible to identify and hire a person for a particular position in two days given that everything went smoothly, all interviews took place efficiently, and so on, then that would be the cycle time you should aim to achieve on a regular basis. You can then work backwards and eliminate or reduce all the things that get in the way of achieving that. Understanding Variability Recruiting is often cyclical. There are times when demand for candidates is so high that every recruiter is frustrated and other times when not much is going on. This is true of many functions, and one of the key lessons of lean process improvement is to understand and level out these cycles or adapt to them. One method is to use historical patterns to predict variability. It is common for organizations to have seasons when recruiting is very slow and others when things tend to pick up. The retail world can safely predict a hiring “binge” every October and November as holiday sales increase. By using technology well, using resources in multiple ways, and by being able to quickly reallocate resources, it is possible to smooth out this variability and maintain low recruiter headcounts while still handing a high volume of candidates. Most recruiters could handle significant increases in candidate loads if they used technology better and eliminated waste as we have defined it. Remain Adaptable by Improving Processes and Applying Technology Being able to adapt to ever changing customer demands and expectations ó both those of candidates and of hiring mangers ó is a skill we will all need in increasing amounts as we move into a renewed economy. Technology can help at every step. The web can brand your organization, it can persuade and sell the organization to candidates, and it can screen candidates to a level where an investment of the recruiter’s time makes sense. Technology can automate the scheduling and backend processes that are so wasteful in recruiting and it can give the recruiter the freedom to be adaptable and move to areas that need attention while not being swamped with other activities. Most recruiting functions could find many steps in their recruiting processes that could be eliminated and procedures that could be streamlined or automated by the use of technology. While manufacturing has applied technology widely to reduce the number of workers and to improve speed and quality, we are just starting to think about this in recruiting. There is a lot of low hanging fruit. I believe an average recruiting function could improve its capacity by twofold as well as its candidate quality, with a very tiny amount of technology and process improvement. Use People Well This brings us to the way skilled recruiters are being used today ó often as little more than clerks. Many are processing electronic or paper data, endlessly phone screening candidates that are not really qualified, and fighting internal battles with other departments or with internal policy and bureaucracy. Often they end up spending less than half of their time directly in contact with a candidate. While recruiters need to develop a multiple set of skills that add value, they also need processes improved to allow them to use those skills. One of the keys to LPI is to use people where they perform best. This means that recruiters need to be freed to apply their people skills ó and how well and how much time they spend doing this should be how they are rewarded. Understanding the power of lean process improvement and then applying it to your recruiting function can make you much more effective and can improve candidate and hiring manager satisfaction. Look for more on this topic in future columns.

Kevin Wheeler

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.