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When HR Becomes iCSI-i

September 7, 2007
Related Topics: Change Management, The HR Profession, Featured Article
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With more than 25 million viewers week after week, the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a certified hit. The crime drama, which demonstrates the use of science to prove how a crime occurred, is so popular that CBS has spun it into a three-series franchise.

    The shows demonstrate again and again that assumptions are often wrong and that situations can be interpreted from a number of different angles. And each episode, believe it or not, is packed with learning opportunities for the HR profession. Unfortunately, analyzing untoward events—even ones short of murder—is something that rarely occurs in the HR function.

    The effort to understand the underlying reason that an initiative or product fails is called root-cause analysis. In management circles, the efforts are also referred to as post-mortems, but some organizations refer to them as forensic HR or HR failure analysis. Companies like Intel, Microsoft, Valero, GE, Charles Schwab and MGM Grand are well known for digging deep into failures to understand how and why they occurred.

    Even if HR had no responsibility for a failure in question, it must become accountable for identifying the causes of the failure and the steps that can be taken to prevent future occurrences.

    You need a failure analysis process: The premise of CSI is that careful examination and application of scientific methods can solve crimes. Prior to the introduction of crime-scene investigation protocols, investigators relied on hunches, treating each case as if it were unique. Today, the protocols insure that a methodical, repeatable process is followed, and point investigators to the answers more quickly as patterns emerge from crime to crime.

    I have visited a great many HR operations and can attest that they rarely conduct themselves like a CSI team. Too many practitioners view HR as an art and not a science. They make assumptions, but rarely implement protocols to test their validity. As a result, numerous HR organizations are constantly putting out organizational fires that could have been predicted and prevented.

    There are lots of reasons why HR is in this bind, but the overriding reason is that HR people traditionally are not trained in financial analysis—the very tool they need to ascertain why something failed. And they find it difficult to get help from finance, because HR typically doesn’t speak finance’s language. It’s like a beat cop who doesn’t grasp the basics of forensic science trying to talk shop with Gil Grissom, CSI’s lead investigator.

    Where to start: Crime scene investigators have learned that ascertaining how—and even why—a victim was murdered must be a methodical, dispassionate process. Organizations that want to understand why things went wrong need to assemble a failure-analysis team and develop a process or a template to use when examining such breakdowns. With a process in place, HR professionals need to acknowledge a harsh truth: Nearly every failure in an organization can be tracked back to workforce issues.

    For example: Post-mortems routinely reveal that organizations make bad hires at least a third of the time. Employees who are let go and top performers who quit must also be counted as failures. Add to that list those top candidates who reject offers, poor union relations and performance management efforts that fail to produce results, and it is clear that most HR organizations are awash in failure.

    Getting to the root: Painful though it may be, you must prioritize your failures based on their frequency of occurrence and financial impact. Then apply the three-step root-cause analysis process:

  1. Define the failure. (In detail, how does the outcome vary from the goal?)
  2. Measure the failure. (How far off were you? Do such failures happen all the time?)
  3. Uncover cause-and-effect relationships. (How do successful projects differ from unsuccessful ones?)

    Over time, or through pilot projects, you can determine if a variance consistently leads to failure or to success. Advanced failure-analysis groups can then go on to identify precursors to a variance. By discovering those patterns, companies can prevent failures in the future.

    Follow CSI’s lead: Give your investigation team the tools it needs, report to the scene of your organization’s "crime" and get to work. What you see before you is an opportunity to learn—and improve business results.

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