County News Home Page
March 26, 2007
NACo Home Page
NACO Home Current Issue Back Issues Editorial & Advertising
County News

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Some Assembly Required

One of the HR Doctor’s newest toys is a folding workbench for the garage. It opens up to look like any other such device, but can be easily retracted up against the wall so that it sticks out only five inches. The idea is to have a useful work surface that does not take up a lot of space unnecessarily, thereby preventing the garage from being used for its original intended purpose of housing a car.

Unfortunately, “some assembly required” was a bit of an understatement in the instructions and required me to actually pick up and use a power tool. Any member of the HR Doctor’s immediate family understands the inherent danger present when I come anywhere close to a tool, let alone a power tool. In this case, however, the workbench was assembled and functions well. The process only required two trips to the home improvement store.

The idea that we can create a workbench capable of easy retraction to save space and prevent waste is a wonderful metaphor that we can apply to our public service, not to mention our lives in general.

How many of us wish that those words which just jumped out of our mouths inappropriately at a meeting or in a conversation with another employee could be quickly and easily retracted? How many of us wish that a public policy which has perhaps outlived its usefulness could be folded up and put away? How many of us wish we could save precious wasted time in our lives or use that freed up time for more useful work or play?

The public policy examples are many, but since the HR Doctor writes about HR (most of the time) let’s start there.

Human resources, purchasing, information management departments, payroll and other internal service functions are often perceived by other departments as holding them back from success in doing their own work. For example, much has been written, including three articles by the HR Doctor, on the need for reform in civil service recruiting, testing and selection processes.

These concepts performed brilliantly in meeting the needs of government agencies at a time of great change in the growth and technology of public service. Unfortunately, that time was in the late 19th century. There are many reforms and process improvements that can make civil service or merit systems better balance the need for efficiency and nimbleness with the imperative in a world of lawyers to manage risks and liabilities stemming from poor HR practices, such as sex or race discrimination or bullying.

Now let’s turn briefly to government purchasing. I recall speaking on a program before a large audience where the president of a national group of purchasing management professionals preceded me. He described the purchasing process as the process by which epoxy is poured into the wheels of government to make them run better. Although I am sure he felt that the humor behind his statement would be well received, the HR Doctor’s observations as an audience member were that the laughter and nods of agreement were offered sarcastically. The people in the audience, by their own experience, agreed that many purchasing practices in the name of fairness, conflict of interest avoidance and getting the best price on the best product for the taxpayers, had somehow morphed into a cumbersome field of mud, designed to make the manager forget that she had ever ordered the widget in the first place.

One large county loves purchasing so much that it requires two processes to buy various commodities. The one that must be used first in many cases is a separate bid process, in which price is not even a rated factor. It is for small businesses, which may often include women- and minority-owned firms.

Only if there is no successful response from such firms can the second and more widespread traditional bid process be undertaken. Like traditional processes to fill vacancies in HR which can take months, trying to acquire basic commodities can also seem to be a subject for glacial geologists rather than program managers.

Being able to retract such processes and seek out quantum-leap improvements to free up time and space for more direct public service is part of the holy-grail search for 21st century public administrators. It is, in fact, the search itself and the application of innovations that really stimulates the best and the brightest of employees. Only when employees repeatedly crash into walls created by the bureaucracy itself do they feel beaten down. They either resign officially or resign in spirit although they keep on showing up for work. Some may turn into plodding retreatists who shrug their shoulders and say “that’s just the system” or “that’s how things are here.” These comments of defeat and disaffection spread in an organization, and harm morale and productivity.

Attacks on these congested processes and procedures, however well-intended, are often accompanied by buzz words such as “balanced scorecard,” “dashboard” indicators or the ever popular “zero-based budgeting.”

Over-use of these convenient catch phrases often results in confusing mixtures of new acronyms or new procedure requirements. In turn, these new processes, ironically designed to bring about improvements and resolve frustrations, end up creating lasting trauma inside the organization. The result is the substitution of new forms of uncertainty for the old forms of static, but grudgingly accepted past processes.

It is very difficult to retract the momentum behind these new process ideas once they have been unleashed with trumpets blaring on an unsuspecting organization. The larger the organization the more complicated it becomes to launch these new initiatives. The more difficult it also is to retract from the path once the locomotive of change has left the station.

The HR Doctor pleads with you readers and leaders to understand that more important than the initiative itself is the need to creatively and inspirationally communicate why change is needed, what lies ahead and how the new initiatives will provide clear and convincing proof of improvement. This means proof that can be seen in tangible ways throughout the organization.

In the HR Doctor’s experience, this kind of communication is absolutely essential or the effectiveness, the hopes, and sometimes the promises made in the name of improvement will go unfulfilled.

By the time that happens and process improvement has become recognized as process annoyance and process failure, much damage has already occurred. Strong performers leave or become more sarcastic than ever before. Liabilities increase and pop out, even years later and sometimes in ways that cannot directly be linked to the process changes begun two, three or four years earlier. Yet, nonetheless, there is a connection.

Administrators and elected officials who succumb to short-range, perhaps short-sighted, calls for tax cuts “ueber alles,” later face problems and complaints when law enforcement response time is slowed, libraries or park programs are cut back and health care is curtailed. As a veteran of attempting resuscitation of services in California in the wake of Proposition 13 tax cutting, this author can testify to the effects!

Starting down the path of process improvements and fundamental organizational cultural change requires much more than buzz words and change for the sake of change. It requires specific and continuous communication in compelling and convincing ways about tangible, visible and positive outcomes to be seen by individual citizens or employees.

The communication must be consistent and demonstrated daily by the principal organizational cheerleaders — the managers, directors and top elected and appointed officials. This is not the communications which a PR firm will create and mail to the organization. Take any one of these elements out of the picture and “process improvement” becomes an oxymoron.

“You can’t unring a bell” say the lawyers. You also can’t retract all of the damage done by process change poorly communicated.

When the ingredients of communication effectiveness are all in place, however, even the most cumbersome, the most annoying, and the most complicated processes, can change for the better and change in ways that make future improvements more “user friendly” for the organization. Positive improvement often paves the way for further improvements.

Unfortunately, all the retractable workbenches in the universe won’t make a difference if change processes flatten people or flatten people’s spirits in the way the changes are pushed through!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


Job Market / Classifieds

Financial Services News

The H.R. Doctor Is In

What's In a Seal?

News from the Nation's Counties

NACo On the Move

Research News

Profiles In Service

In Case You Missed It ...

Tools for Tough Times
Write to Your Editor
Print This Page

Bookmark and Share
NACo Home  |  Current Issue  |  Back Issues  |  Editorial & Advertising
© Copyright 1996-2002 County News