Lean Is Not an Initiative, But a Lifestyle

As a Lean leader, Mitch Sparber, the Head of HR Service Center Operations at Farmers Insurance, understands Lean isn’t an initiative, but a company-wide lifestyle. In this interview he shows how Farmers Insurance leverages lean concepts to streamline its operations to better serve the internal customer.

Building a lean culture takes time – what are your suggestions on managing expectations and setting realistic metrics along the way?
You are correct, Lean is a journey. It is important that leadership continually reinforces this with team members. While highlighting our Lean efforts during team meetings, I try to make an effort to remind everyone that Lean is not an initiative but an approach that we are trying to embed into our day-to-day activities.

Since success is highly dependent on engagement and commitment from everyone, it is also important to establish the ‘right’ pace of introducing Lean concepts and tools. Lean introduces new terminology, such as customer value-add and tools like time analysis. It is easy for employees to become frustrated in the application of these new concepts. As a Lean leader, I wanted to make sure I was personally involved in our initial Lean events. For example, during our first Kaizen (a four-day event to identify process improvements), I made it very clear to the team that while the outcome is important, it was even more important to me that participating team members obtain a solid understanding of how to use the various Lean tools to identify process improvements.

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate Lean achievements. Recognize the commitment being made by your team members. Leverage food days to celebrate the completion of a process improvement event. Provide special recognition to employees who achieve Lean certification.

Could you share with us how you use lean concepts to support your True North vision by providing all employees with a world-class HR experience?
One of the best examples of supporting our True North vision is by introducing the concept of communication cells. The communication cell is a 15-minute meeting during which a team meets to review and discuss the previous period’s performance, the work plan for the current day, KPIs and continuous improvement opportunities.

Similar to a team huddle, this daily meeting has been the catalyst for getting the team to begin to understand lean concepts. The daily meetings are centered around a Comm Cell board. These boards make information about people, performance, and process improvement easily available to all team members. This activity, coupled with a goal to improve communication between team members, supports our True North vision by leading to better customer service.

What are the top tools you use to engage HR employees in Lean?
We’ve implemented several tools around visual management to engage our employees in Lean. These tools make our progress and results visible. For example, we have our HR Lean News You Can Use bulletin board, which is located in a high-traffic employee area. HR Lean news and success stories including certification requirements and training dates are displayed in quick, easy-to-read formats.

In the true spirit of Lean, our team is constantly checking on its progress. We’ve posted our objectives, targets, and metrics. Making our results visible and linking them to strategic drivers of the organization has been a key focus. When people walk by and see it posted on the wall, they’ll start thinking about metrics in their own areas. By making them visual, people will learn to think about metrics as part of their daily work.

Is there a new or emerging technology you can point to that you think will transform Lean within HR Shared Services?
While I don’t see any special ‘technology’ to transform Lean within a team, I see an organization’s commitment to provide ongoing Lean education to all team members as a key driver of success. For us, all new hires are required to complete a one-hour e-Learning course on Lean. Within the first six months, we ask our newly hired employees to attend a Problem is a Buried Treasure course where employees learn about the 7 Wastes and problem solving techniques.

With this basic knowledge, we now encourage employees to complete their first process improvement exercise, called a “Just Do It” submission. Embracing a Lean learning environment during an employee’s introductory time with the organization allows us to develop a culture in which Lean is the way we do our work, not just something extra to do.

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