Baldrige Criteria and HR: Monitoring Progress, Improving Processes

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Dec 18, 2009
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Five organizations were recognized Dec. 7, 2009, by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke as the recipients of the 2009 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s highest Presidential honor for innovation and performance excellence.

The recipients—listed with their category—are:

“We are thrilled to congratulate the five outstanding organizations that have been named to receive this year’s Baldrige Award,” said Secretary Locke. “They inspire other organizations to be more accessible, more efficient, more customer-focused and more financially sound. They have raised the bar for innovation and organizational excellence and, in the process, help to improve our economy and quality of life.”

The 2009 Baldrige Award recipients were selected from a field of 70 applicants. All of the applicants were evaluated rigorously by an independent board of examiners in seven areas: leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; workforce focus; process management; and results.

Named after Malcolm Baldrige, the 26th secretary of Commerce, the Baldrige Award was established by Congress in 1987 to enhance the competitiveness and performance of U.S. businesses. More than 10 million copies of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence— the guide designed to help organizations of all types improve their operations—have been distributed since 1988, and more than 2 million copies were downloaded in 2008 alone.

HR’s Impact on Process Improvement

Applicants submit a 55-page application in response to an exhaustive series of questions in seven categories. While Category 5—Staff Focus—is most clearly aligned with the HR function, HR professionals will find their impact reflected in all areas of the application, says David Porter, SPHR, principal of David Porter Leadership in San Antonio.

Because Baldrige takes a systems approach, HR is affected in multiple parts of the process, said Porter, who led the HR function at Harland Clarke, a successor company to Clarke American Checks Inc., a 2001 Baldrige recipient. It is the alignment of all business processes, including HR processes, that results in organizational effectiveness, he says.

In fact, “process” is a very important term in the Baldrige criteria.

“Baldrige forces you to examine what the repeatable processes are,” said Jay Kappmeier, a former general manager of product support with Boeing who was on the leadership team at two divisions of Boeing that received the Baldrige award. “How do you support these wonderful, engaged and committed employees, and how do you know what your workforce climate is?”

By taking a really hard look at the questions posed, HR professionals can begin to identify and improve processes that are critical to achieving their own and the organization’s objectives, added Kappmeier, who also served as a national Baldrige examiner for three years.

It can be an arduous process, but those who have embraced it tend to become ardent supporters—even evangelists—of the criteria.

Take Cargill Corn Milling (CCM), for instance, a 2008 award recipient. Based in Minneapolis, CCM is a business unit within privately held Cargill Inc., and a manufacturer of corn- and sugar-based products. From an HR standpoint, says Valerie Blanchett, SPHR, CCM’s HR manager, the Baldrige criteria and the questions posed provide a method to comprehensively look at HR processes as a system relative to specific employee segments.

At CCM, for example, employees are segmented into exempt, non-exempt and production/technical categories. “We have to look at how we’re addressing the needs of all of those employee groups, because they tend to be different,” says Blanchett.

So, in response to a category question of: “How do you determine the key factors that affect workforce engagement?” CCM would consider each of its employee segments individually. The response would address:

  • Approach. What are the replicable processes used? What steps are involved, who is responsible for each of the steps, what are the inputs/outputs, etc.?
  • Deployment. How are the processes deployed across the organization? How are the processes documented and communicated?
  • Learning. How are results measured, and how are these results considered as inputs to continuous improvement?
  • Integration. How is the approach aligned with other key organizational processes?

Those who have used the Baldrige criteria as a process improvement tool note that the experience is a journey. The first step is identifying—and sometimes establishing—a clear approach or process to address the criteria.

Ira Blank, J.D., is a labor and employment law attorney with Lathrop & Gage, LLP, in Clayton, Mo., and a former vice president of HR. He has 30 years of experience helping organizations use the Baldrige criteria to improve processes. In doing this, he says, he likes to focus on “the repeatable process.”

For instance, he might take the hiring process and work with a team to map out the process in a flowchart format. This serves to provide focus as well as to gain a shared understanding of the steps involved. Ultimately, it can help to identify gaps, unnecessary steps and opportunities for improvement—not only within the HR function but in areas where HR interacts with other parts of the organization.

Once an approach is identified and documented, it needs to be communicated (deployed), measured to ensure learning and ultimately integrated into overall organizational processes.

For example, says Blanchett, CCM is currently aware of changes in the marketplace that may impact some of their product lines. HR has been asked to help these internal groups understand how these changes may impact the need for talent in the organization based on the identification of requisite skills, capabilities and competencies to meet changing needs.

HR’s Leadership Role in Process

While those who have been involved in the Baldrige process note that organizational leaders need to be committed to and engaged in the process, they also say that HR can lead the way.

Blanchett recommends that HR professionals find a starting point that is comfortable for them, whether that involves familiarizing themselves with the criteria, going through the criteria to answer the questions or reading other profiles that are made publicly available on the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology web site.

“It never hurts to just start,” says Ron Fiala, CCM’s process improvement manager. “You can start with one section—Category 5 is a good starting point for HR professionals—and start answering questions to see how you match up. It may even lead you to some gaps that you didn’t realize you had and then you can start working on those.”

While being an award recipient is a high honor and recipients are certainly to be commended, the true value of the process, say those who have gone before, are the improvements that emerge as a result of the journey.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer.

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