Happy New Year. As I reflect on the new year I remember I spent a large portion of my life being what I call “crazy insane busy”. And that part would have been okay, if I had found moments of true bliss – – or even a fraction, of a moment, of true bliss. But all I can remember, from a certain period of my life, is working 12-hour days and getting nothing really accomplished or even vaguely interesting to me. I felt trapped in that rodent wheel. I’ve always been paid well and often that held me hostage. And, some of my colleagues had it worse. I’ve heard it referred to as the golden handcuffs.
But, I was constantly told that I should feel lucky that I had a job in a professional field that utilized my education. In the early days, comments implied, that I was lucky to be a woman in a professional field and to benefit from all the advantages — I needed to bloom where I was planted.
The only part of that message I embraced and that resonated with me, was the rather biblical message “bloom where you are planted”. These days, I think it’s perfectly okay to “bloom where you’re planted” but it is also okay to spit out seeds all around you, and let things grow. This makes your life whole and wonderful and meaningful.
And, I also think when you bloom where you’re planted you should encourage all those bumblebees to pollinate and take your message to other places. I love that Stephen Covey’s major work: The Seven Habit of Highly Effective People was followed up by his book, The Eighth Habit. Because the Eighth Habit is all about finding your own voice and sharing it with the masses.
As the first topic, it seemed appropriate to address what Leaner means to us at SSD Global Solutions. It simply means taking everything that is overcomplicated and making it easier to do. I’m sure you’ve all been in situations where you read and reread articles and information and never truly understood what the author was trying to say. Well, that’s a perfect example of our goal. We want to say things that are meaningful and easy to adopt.
For many years, I worked as a so-called “Executive Level HR practitioner”. I think Northrop Grumman gave me the title because they ran out of titles. And, like many companies, I worked for they were very much into a hierarchy.
I originally worked for BDM international which was purchased by TRW and then again purchased by Northrop Grumman (NG). These companies had a romance with hierarchy as well. But, it was not until I was with NG that I was truly exposed to the fact, that at my level, I was allowed a small plant in my office and a bronze looking trashcan. Those higher on the food chain were awarded by a similar office but their benefits included silver through gold items to decorate their office.
Although I did basically the same work, my title kept changing and I continued to do several things for the HR department. I handled employee relations, training, benefits, and eventually morphed into Organizational Development(OD). My territory was not as exciting as my contemporaries. They were off to Paris, Madrid and even Morocco. My territory remained in areas such as Little Rock Arkansas, Oklahoma City, and Plainville Texas during my tenure with BDM/TRW/NG.
OD was rather new at the time and no one really understood what it meant. But our stockholders wanted an OD person and obviously, that started with creating a steering committee, a policy, and a department because that’s how things are done in a defense firm. I was excited about the new opportunity and started taking classes and reading literature that might help me be the best OD practitioner ever!
But alas, not a lot changed. I continued to work for the same group of people doing the same exact thing. I was introduced, however, at least 30 different meetings that year as the Director of the new and improved OD Department. Since we never had an OD department, being introduced as new and improved, immediately help my credibility. I was probably the most credible person assigned to OD in the history of defense who had no actual OD responsibilities.
Where is my job didn’t change much, my title, because I worked for a large defense firm, complete with a security clearance, many doors were open which led me to my next opportunity. Of course, I had no idea, that at that next opportunity I would end up working for someone who was trying to kill me.
After working at Northrop Grumman and achieving the title of OD director plenty of career opportunities opened for me that were local. Although Northrop Grumman had allowed me to domicile in Denver, even though technically I worked for the Washington DC office, I was traveling almost every week. Telecommuting was in its early phases and so most every job I did require me to physically be there. My goal, of course, was not to eliminate travel altogether but to get to spend time where I lived.
I was hired by a local Denver firm who wanted to start a Training Department. They had a budget and had hoped to develop department into a full-blown OD effort. It truly was a perfect opportunity. I would be in line to replace the VP of HR. I was more-or-less promised informally that she was going to retire, and that HR would embrace all the components promoted by OD. I had held a long belief that HR if they had a seat at the table, could change an organization to an incredible extent. People just needed to understand how powerful we could be! We would make important differences that would impact the bottom line.
I was still naïve and believed I was there for the employee. I had not totally caught on, yet that HR is there for the company’s interest. After all, I had gone to several meetings at NG, who kept telling me we were there for the people and that people were their biggest asset. Never mind, that when I asked for something that would directly benefit the people, I was mostly ignored. I retained the mindset that I serve the employees way past the time it should’ve been obvious that I did not.
Unfortunately, it didn’t appear I was being taken any more seriously, at my new job, than I was at my former company. The job was not the dream job I anticipated, but things were going well. Jobs are never perfect, right? And, I was, I believed, headed in the right direction. Plus, I was sent to places such as Geneva, London, and Sydney. Naturally, I sent postcards to my friends at NG, who were under a traveling freeze. Life was good. I really like Little Rock Arkansas especially their zoo, but Paris was better and seemed like a step up.
It was some time before I caught on, that the person I was destined to replace as the VP of HR, didn’t seem like she was going anywhere anytime too soon. But I found things to occupy my time.
For several years, I had taught at Barnes Business College. I rarely put it on my resume since the college went bankrupt. It is rather hard to camouflage that you work for a business college that wasn’t listening to their own advice. But, I was getting bored at work, and the University of Phoenix offered me a part-time position in their graduate program for HR. So that kept me busy for a while. Due to my travel schedule, I couldn’t always commit to their, then six-week class format, but I did enough to keep me convinced that HR was an important field. After all, there were people studying in hopes of getting a job like mine.
I was invited to become a board member of Colorado Human Resources Association. During that time, I promoted the HR career field to many college students and people looking to switch jobs. I was told by several people that I had inspired them to change careers and join the ranks of HR practitioners. I spoke at regional conferences on the subject and even wrote a book HR Concepts for Project Managers. And, then it happened.
I was happily traveling home and was at DIA when I saw Fast Company had published an article called “Why We Hate HR” Link: https://www.fastcompany.com/53319/why-we-hate-hr
This article had such an amazing impact that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started questioning if I even wanted to be an HR practitioner if this is how the world felt about us. I started wondering if HR, was simply a place for female executives to be kept under control. And, if OD was truly a serious science. The article suggested, that HR professionals have long wanted a seat at the table, but once they have that seat they were ineffective. I had to admit to myself, that I did have a seat at the table and was interfacing with the organization on an international level, but no one truly listens to me.
I really did stay awake at night thinking about Fast Company’s article “Why We Hate HR”. In my Northrop Grumman days, there were a lot of supervisors who would come to our HR offices to complain that “the people were broken.” In fact, the people being broken was the foundation for our profession.
I’m not exactly sure when I came to the realization that it was “the processes that were broken and not the people at all” but the article certainly set me on the right path. I was not the only HR practitioner to be bothered by this article – – it became a hot topic in our HR community. Unfortunately, most of my HR contemporaries just took offense to the article and didn’t really see its merits.
It was almost a religious experience for me when I met a community of people, who believe the same way I did – – if we can figure out ways to improve the process, employees would rise to the occasion. And, that, most people really did want to do a good job it’s just that the rules kept changing and the processes kept breaking.
It was with great amazement, that I stumbled into a science called Six Sigma methodology. I must admit, at first, I found it tedious and hard to understand. (This was one of the reasons why later I started teaching my product Leaner Six Sigma because it makes everything easier to comprehend). But, originally Six Sigma was the only thing I had access to. I loved the whole concept that if we eliminated variation and standardized things and processes were easier to understand that everything could be made better, faster and more cost-effective. This would include the perception that employees are broken.
I presented the idea to the CEO that perhaps we could turn HR into a profit center. He was intrigued and liked the idea. I told him I wanted to teach Six Sigma as part of our OD effort. And, I thought we could bring other companies who did not compete with us into the mix. Their enrollment tuition would fund our own classes.
As enthusiastic as the CEO was at the time it was obvious the company was not going to give me funds to start this effort. Efforts rarely start themselves without seed money.
This is where I feel manifestation comes in to play. Whereas I will not spend time, today, explaining why to think this is a powerful exercise, I did start thinking about what the differences would make to my company and maybe even other companies.
Almost immediately, I read about a grant offered by the Denver Office of Economic Development intended for increasing Quality. I wasn’t exactly sure what that was but when I read about Quality Improvement, I realized that Six Sigma was an example of that type of program. Even though the grant was earmarked for nonprofit, I think everyone else was confused by the terminology. So, I ended up getting the grant partially because I was the only one who applied for it. It was that $110,000 that started everything.
For short time, I was the golden child of my company. No one had ever secured a public grant for our company. I was able to tell the story to lots of people and everyone said you know she will be taking the VP HR job as soon as the person is in the job retires. So, I went back to life being good and I helped develop a Six Sigma program for my company. We did in fact, turn HR into a profit center, by selling classes to neighboring companies. They even built me a classroom.
We saw some significant improvements that we were able to document. And then, the worst thing in the world happened to me. I went on vacation.
The vacation was fine although I’ve had better. I found myself in a country that should have been on the watch list, but I had not paid attention to the news. There’s a reason why the tickets were so cheap. Still, all in all, what I returned to was much worse than my time in Caracas.
The VP of HR had taken an office next to mine. She was huffy and puffy, and I soon learned that my company had hired a Global VP of HR. He had been assigned the office on the third floor that she had been in for over ten years.
This moved everyone in the HR department down a notch and made it clear to me that they would soon be eliminating her role and not replacing it. There were rumors we were going public and it was obvious that during my absence things that happened that would make it almost impossible for me to assume the top position in the HR department.
And, to make matters truly worse, I became convinced, over the next few months, that the new Global VP of HR wanted to kill me.
Okay, so I want to backtrack a bit and explain how I even ended up in HR. HR and quality engineering are almost on separate sides of the continuum as far as career fields go.
Shortly after high school, I joined the military. After that, I went to school on the G.I. Bill. I always loved teaching. I was still part of that women’s history where you were encouraged to be a teacher or a nurse; so, I received a lot of support when I decided to be an elementary school teacher.
Through a series of events much too tedious to explain in a blog, I came to Denver from Austin. This was in the late 1980s. To teach school at the time in Colorado, employers were requesting an additional 12 to 18 months of school to do what I already had been doing for three years. Since I was close to finishing my master’s degree in Education this seems like a totally ridiculous request. So, I took a job at a temp firm and decided to finish off my education and reenter the job market as perhaps an assistant principal. Oddly, at the time, it was an easier job to get with my future credentials.
I had a couple of rather simple temp jobs where I mostly answered the phone and ordered croissants for the executive team. When the temp service sent me out they would promise the employer that I was “really really smart and had a degree and everything”. So purportedly, I got the higher-level admin jobs. I met some people and sometimes the responsibilities were easy enough I could study at my job. It was very low stress and seemed perfect for someone who was working on their master’s degree. Even though they were temp jobs, I was often on the same assignment for several weeks at a time.
On my fourth assignment, with the agency, they sent me to be an HR secretary at a psychiatric facility. I explained to the temp firm I knew nothing about HR and wasn’t even technically a secretary – – unless they counted answering the phone and ordering breakfast. But, they felt I could handle the assignment and I was sent anyway.
This HR department of one was being run by a woman who did not seem all that interested in being a director of HR. Monster was in its early stages and she scanned the job boards constantly. It sounded like a miserable job and I was glad that I was just providing clerical support. Then, one day, she literally threw her arms up in the air and walked out mumbling a few curse words.
I was called into the hospital administrator’s office and told I would just have to manage things until they found someone and that he was naming the Interim HR director. I tried to explain that I was just a temp, but he just waved his hands and asked the secretary to get me out of whatever contract I was in. He then proceeded to offer me a salary five times that of an elementary school teacher. He assumed that I would not be in HR secretary if I didn’t know anything about HR, but he was wrong. So, I learned the hard way and changed my master’s program to HR. This was a relatively new degree of the time and so they transferred most of my credits.
I worked at the psychiatric facility for about five years. My title never changed. The entire time I was considered the Interim HR Director. Because I was still a one-person show and was afraid hire a temp who might take my job, I worked long hours and learned almost everything you could about HR. I changed my degree program from Education to HR as mentioned early
Our hospital was gobbled up by a larger group who offered me a position in Cleveland. I thought about the possibilities, but Denver trumped Cleveland and I decided to look for work. I was almost immediately hired by a small local bank who was interested in building an HR department. This seemed perfect for me and I stayed there a few years. Although my first meeting with the bank’s CEO did not go well. He explained to me that the cashiers at each of the banks handled all the HR responsibilities and that the only reason he was hiring a Director of HR was because his board was making him do so.
For a while, he put my office right next to his and I literally had no business. We were all afraid of him and kept our distance. I sometimes wondered how I stayed so long working for a borderline bipolar individual, but I learned a lot and this foundation got me hired at BDM which became BDM International which was purchased by TRW which became TRW international and then my group was purchased by Northrop Grumman – but you have already heard that story. I think I had 15 different business cards saying the same thing differently.
There were some bizarre things that happened along the way but when I got to NG I became part of the executive HR staff. I was constantly asked what brought me to HR. Some folks were nicer than others but the message was always the same “aren’t you too smart to be doing this?”. Back then, I was super committed to my career path and would defend it and explain why it was such an important department. I still believe that HR is crucial to the company success, I would just like to see HR handled more like project management. There are so many tools in Lean Six Sigma that would make it HR department run better faster and more cost-effectively.
So, I think I carried on long enough about my suspicion, that the new Global VP of HR was trying to kill me. I will now offer proof of that suspicion. When the Global VP of HR was first hired, and we did my initial interview, I’ve already shared that he was not too impressed. He did not get the idea behind process improvement – – after all, we are just the HR Department. Why would anyone invest in being better, faster or more cost-effective? This was an interesting theory since he was supposed to be our leader.
He never really took the time to understand what I did. And, to be fair, by the time he came on board, I was doing several non-HR like activities. We were in the process of going public, having lost our first bid, and one of the requirements to go public was to be able to show that we had an Ethics program. He put me on that project.
This required touching bases with some of our satellite offices and making sure they understood our ethics program once I developed it. At first, I thought it was just his way of keeping me busy but the travel aspect and intrigued me enough in the idea of getting out of the office was even more appealing.
My previous travel for this company had been rather magical, Europe, Australia, Canada – – but the new responsibilities had me traveling to countries had not heard of. Stop one was Angola. There is always something burning in Angola. Next up, was Qatar – – this was before all the pretty buildings were built and I was restricted to a compound. And, then finally, I was sent to Jakarta Indonesia where there was a riot outside my Marriott. I was convinced he was seeking a country where I would contract malaria as my next assignment.
I should also mention that prior to these assignments, I had to have a series of shots against diseases I did not know existed. Because we were trying to save money in the training budget – – a true joke when you consider at some of these job sites there were only four or five people who could have simply read the memo – – I also did not get optimum travel arrangements. On one flight, with an airline I had never heard of, people were joking “it’s the only way to die”. It was much later that I learned that in the Dominican Republic they always clap when the aircraft lands – – but then again, I did not know that at the time, so was more proof to me that he wanted me terminated – – and not just employment wise.
When my late husband, Larry, retired from Northrop Grumman in the late 1990s he decided to start a company called Systems Service and Delivery with a couple of partners from NG. Originally, his company, was designed to do global mergers and acquisitions.
At Northrop, Larry, managed a group of roughly 600 people. In this retirement effort he had plenty of contacts and ideas. Almost immediately, he encouraged me to leave NG and join him in the effort. But, I was of the mindset that someone must have the “real” job that offered things like 401(k) and medical benefits – – we both couldn’t be consultants. Was he crazy? I did agree that I want to spend more time in Denver and less time traveling which led me to that local job. But, after my new boss tried to kill me, I figured what’s the worst that could happen? Sometimes it takes something drastic to make us change.
In the beginning, at Larry’s company, most of my duties for clerical and I had a few HR consulting clients. On the business side of the business it seemed to me we mostly went to dinner, introduce people and then send them an invoice. In the mid-2000s, things were starting to tank economically, but for a while we had a very good ride. Then, clients who were interested in acquiring small companies became consumed with the idea of tightening their belt. This where my product came into play.
Larry had always hated HR and only half listening when I told him my story about Six Sigma. But, one evening, when it was apparent that we would need to change directions if we want to stay in business, I was able to explain the entire theory of process improvement. He was intrigued. I had been preparing for the necessary exams to teach the product and was almost finished. I thought that I’d just go back to work for a firm who taught the subject. But he convinced me to try it at his company first since we already had clients.
In the early days, we just did traditional teaching and we handled Six Sigma just like everyone else. There were lots of grueling hours teaching two days of statistics, another couple of days reading boring case studies and then another three weeks of methodology. This system was well respected at the time and was known as waves of training. So, you marketed companies with Wave One, then Wave Two, and completed the training and Wave Three. These waves were separated by several weeks at a time. This meant some people seeking a Six Sigma Green or Black Belt could be tied up in the training system for several months. I constantly met Six Sigma Green Belt candidates that had been trying to achieve their certification for a year to 18 months.
Our first attempt, at simplifying training, involved getting in a product called Lean. It appeared when we blended Lean thinking with traditional Six Sigma methodology, everything was easier to teach and to understand. There were already a lot of training vendors starting to get interested in the idea of Lean Six Sigma. However, the program that recognized waves of training continued so employers were still having to dedicate large amounts of time to get their employees trained up.
Our first product and copyrighted work was called Accelerated Lean Six Sigma. We simplify the models and the statistics and came up with a different idea about training and capitalized on several adult training techniques. About six years into the business, training Accelerated Lean Six Sigma became our core business and we rebranded as SSD Global solutions. It was an exciting time and I published several books and white papers. It was the right training at the right time.
Probably something that sticks in my mind more than anything else, is that when my husband passed, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue the business. But, using the tools that my company has promoted for over a decade we continue to thrive.
Fast-forward to today, SSD has introduced Leaner Six Sigma©. This makes things even easier to get certified and start using the concepts immediately. Although much of my HR work one-on-one with clients continues, most of the business focus is on this product. One thing I love about this methodology is that it can be used in your personal life as well.
There has been some interesting pushback from the community about making things easier, but I am convinced it is the only way to go and that Leaner is simply a better way to not only learn Lean Six Sigma but other topics as well. When you think about it, Lean Six Sigma is just a clever problem-solving model that engages in critical thinking. I’m looking forward to seeing you next week and talking about some of the trials and tribulations my friends, students and colleagues have experienced during their Lean journey.