The HR sausage factory

Every company has a back and forth debate.  The sort of debate that, if you spend long enough in that company, you get to see various solutions attempted at either end of the scale, normally unsuccessfully, before swinging to the other end of the scale. Back and forth. I spent many years working in retail, our back and forth debate, was about customer service.

At one end of the argument was that customers just wanted to get in, get what they wanted and get out (an argument I had some sympathy with given the state of a lot of the stores). At the other end was the view that customers wanted to be given a bit more individual attention, advice and support. We went back and forth, back and forth. The reality was that they probably wanted the latter, but the financial model of the retailer wouldn’t properly allow for it, so they got the former and, well, you only have to read the news to see how that worked out…..

Moving from one end of the alphabet to the other, we arrive at Zappos. There isn’t much to write that hasn’t been written about the American retailer. One thing that amazes people on first reading about the company is their approach to the customer.  The customer is put at the heart of the organisation, even if it means finding a product for them in a competitor’s store.

Now let’s make one gigantic segue into the world of HR. The mainstream agenda over the last decade has been about standardisation, about systematization, about centralisation.  How can we get slick processes that are efficient and allow us to reduce the amount of resource we need to deploy? The answer is simple, you treat employees in the same way that my old company treated customers. You process them.

The thing is about processing rather than serving is that initially it looks like great value for money. It costs less, it moves quicker, it isn’t resource hungry.  So you feed the disease. Slicker and slicker you get, faster and faster, more streamlined, you start to measure, so that you can get even better. And then suddenly you realise… can’t remember why you’re doing this anymore.

In the same way the retailer forgets the customer, you’ve forgotten the employee. This is all about them fitting into your process, not you understanding their needs. In fact, their needs are an inconvenience that gets in the way of your process. Because they aren’t really a “need” in the first place are they?  They don’t REALLY need it, they’re just being difficult.

Humans want to feel like they are being treated as individuals, that they are being listened to and that their needs are being taken into account. Treating people as people isn’t an inconvenience; it is should be the foundation of every half decent company.

Engagement, motivation, retention? So why is it than In HR we talk a good talk, then put on the overalls and get back to the sausage factory?


  1. Sukh Pabial · April 2, 2012

    “Treating people as people isn’t an inconvenience” – this piece really speaks to me. It’s why I wrote a post last week about making lives easier. No-one cares about policy X being needed for action Y in order to process request Z so that you can buy a loaf of bread. It’s ridiculous and detracts from the very thing we are here to do. People come to us with all manners of requests and queries, and the majority of HR folk will slap a policy in their face as the first response, and only consider the human impact after the fact. It’s quite possibly the one biggest failing of our profession that we are taught to worry about costs, understand budgets, talk the talk of the business and lead the way, and at the same time forget that we are meant to be the ‘experts’ at understanding people.

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      I’m not sure that considering the human impact and understanding people can’t come to fore at the same time as worrying about costs and understanding budgets. I’d argue that talking the talk of the business world needs both the former and the latter.

      • Sukh Pabial · April 4, 2012

        Agreed. I think what happens though is that there’s an expectation to just work by the numbers and not worry about the human impact – which is the missing piece.

  2. Helen Frewin · April 2, 2012

    Thanks Neil,

    All fair points as always. I was particularly struck by the title because of a case study DTC @dtctweet and I have started using recently in leadership development sessions.

    Johnsonville Foods basically is a sausage factory – but they treat their people extremely well and are recognised for one of the best development strategies around. See details here:

    It’s interesting then to note that what we assume will be a negative environment – be it a sausage factory or an HR Department taking that approach to its objectives, there are still examples of it being done well. Maybe we can have the functions of in/out processes whilst still maintaining the important individual focus that makes us all feel valued.

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      I think we can have both Helen, but it strikes me that we often forget the human aspect. Take the dreaded engagement surveys for example. Why can’t we just say, “it is important to know whether are people are happy” and instead feel the need to try and link it to profit?

  3. I read a lot of blogs, articles and business advice pieces that proclaim that doing the right thing by others is always good for business, good for the soul, and keeps you on the moral high ground. The Google motto, “Don’t be evil” is a mission statement (remember them?) which can be translated a thousand ways, but is usually accepted as being on the warm and fuzzy side of doing business.

    On balance, I tend to agree, and can see that doing right by your employees, your customers and your suppliers will bring rewards, if not immediately, then further down the line.

    My problem is that so many businesses have clearly decided on a wholly different model, and go out of their way to exploit their staff, take advantage of suppliers and hoodwink their customers. Sure they care about staff retention, supplier loyalty and repeat business, but they have decided they can afford to put up with a certain amount of that, in order to have a competitive advantage. These companies want and need to make profits this quarter, and this year, and cannot afford to invest in principles for a return in 5 years time.

    This, of course, makes the organisations who are investing for the future despair that their efforts are of no consequence, and that nice guys never win. It’s all very laudable to have lofty ambitions for your business, but very difficult to maintain that stance in today’s market.

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      I agree Stephen, although there is an argument that says we mistake shareholder value for long term value creation. As businesses we should be striving to create long term sustainable value, not short term returns for shareholders. It is a tough argument to make in the current environment, as you say, but a drum that I think we need to keep banging.

  4. workessence · April 2, 2012

    Isn’t this just a facet of the HR conundrum – business partner (in this analogy, process focussed) or friend and protector of the employee (customer focussed) – and the struggle to be both at the same time.

    HR in reality has two customers to be focussed upon, with divergent needs – organisation and employee. Until these needs align, its checkmate.

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      I agre that brining alignment in the two areas that you talk about is important. Sometimes that means easy messages, sometimes tough ones. But the thing that strikes me is that it requires a level of honesty. One that is missing in many employment relationships.

  5. Post this to the CIPD – It’s a debate they never managed to resolve in my many years as a Council member.

  6. susanmazza · April 2, 2012

    Very insightful. There is a very high cost of the belief that efficiency is king in an organization. Unfortunately while that may work with machines, as you point out it doesn’t work with people.

    Why is it HR knows better but keeps falling into the trap? Because that is what they are being asked to do. If any of us want things to change we have to find a way to change the beliefs, especially of those calling the shots, rather than wait and hope for permission. It will take courage and creativity, especially because there is tremendous resistance to changing this long and tightly held belief. But is there really a choice?

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      I agree that we shouldn’t be waiting for permission, we should be making compelling arguments. But we need to help people understand what those compelling arguments are.

  7. lisascales · April 2, 2012


    So I am going to come at this from slightly left field and putting a devils advocate hat on from what I would perceive to be an outsiders viewpoint…. . So I have some advantage of no trees or wood to blur my thoughts and I do agree with what you have written but I do think this there is an underlying symptom that has produced this “slicker, faster, processed approach” and I would be interested on your view as you sit at board level in your role.

    For years and years “personnel” was seen as the lukewarm cup of tea, a soggy digestive and a shoulder to wipe your snot on so when “personnel” grew up and became HR it had to get smarter, had to become more measured.

    HR is always told to bring proper ROI metrics to the table to justify existence and be taken seriously. So HR has become this cannibalised version of itself – its being told to sharpen up its act, start doing what Finance / Purchasing / Logistics / Marketing are doing and put it into pounds and pence. Unfortunately a truck of diesel is alot easier to quantify than a middle manager taking extended compassionate leave due to an ill child or something else extraordinary. I feel that HR is asked to prove itself when all the time it should be allowed to sit outside the ordinary as human beings are the most variable commodity you are ever going to get in an organisation. Utopian but why do we try and put everything in the same box?

    Just a thought…..


    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      Thanks for the left field view Lisa…. I think the problem is that HR has failed to define its own value proposition. I agree that the current model is a reaction to the former model, it is the back and forth argument. I think there remains an opportunity for HR to define why it adds value in a different way.

      The thing that strikes me, is that we all accept that if we go to a nice restaurant we need to pay a little more than we do if we go to some fast food joint. In the end the basic product is the same in that we are served food. We don’t mind paying more because we deem the service and the quality of the product to be superior.

      We need to be making an argument that reflects something along these lines. We can feed employees the equivalent of a big mac every time they interact with us, but is that the sort of environment we want to be known for? Are we the sort of organisation that is happy with the bear minimum, or do we want/need to offer something more. As per my original post, customers vote with their feet and employees do too.

  8. Neil, do you think issues like this might be resolved if future HR managers were recruited from other business disciplines rather than the ranks of the vocational HR people?

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      I’m not sure I buy the argument that people necessarily need to come from other functions, but I think it helps if they aren’t institutionalised HR people. And that comes from the HR leadership. I talk to a lot of HR pros who feel the same way, but feel frustrated that their bosses/companies don’t. I’m sure the HRDs would say that they have their hands tied. I’d ask them to look in the mirror and ask them to judge their own performance and ideals.

  9. Flora Marriott · April 3, 2012

    I’m re-reading Dan Pink’s book on the science of human motivation and how that is brought (or NOT!) into the workplace. I totally agree with the perils of HR approaching employees as a sausage factory. To quote Mr Pink: “We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better smelling horses galloping after that day’s carrot…”

    Or do we all know this?

    Lisa – your devils’ advocate argument is really well made. I think that BOTH the lukewarm cup of tea of ‘personnel’ AND the sausage factory are misguided approaches to HR. To not process people could seem at first sight like a step back, but actually it can be far more progressive. A good understanding of things like human motivation, combined with decent business savvy, can result in HR making a really meaningful contribution to an organisation.

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      Agree that there is a middle way, although I can be quite partial to a carrot every now and then! 🙂

  10. Chris Plush · April 3, 2012

    Neil – great post… Thank you

    Mitch – yes!

    As a (commercial) manager in a corporate organisation that is the epitamy of the HR drive towards homogenous, automated process and an approach which is not so much light-touch as no-touch, I am frequently frustrated by the lack of real human support that is available.

    As Lisa mentions above, I think that HR should justify its existence as every other department does but currently it is forgetting what the “H” stands for. It may not be a truck full of diesel, but when you have a increased churn rate of disgruntled employees, then watch for the ton of bricks that will come raining down. I don’t need a HR Business Partner to tell me how to take on more of the HR function, I need one who actually takes responsibility for those aspects of my team’s careers and support infrastructure that they and I have decided are important to them.

    I used to spend about 20% of my time on HR type activity and would now estimate it is getting towards 40%. Mitch – we might get to your point quicker than we think!!

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      Chris – I really welcome your insight on this as someone on the receiving end. I’d like to quote you just to make sure that other people don’t miss this point:

      “I don’t need a HR Business Partner to tell me how to take on more of the HR function, I need one who actually takes responsibility for those aspects of my team’s careers and support infrastructure that they and I have decided are important to them.”

      Thank you.

  11. megp · April 3, 2012

    Ever thought what would happen if – gulp – HR couldn’t justify it’s existence?
    What would happen if we looked at it very differently – ie not how can we make HR better, but what do we need in organisations to ensure the potential of their biggest resource – people – is achieved? It might look very different from HR.

    • Neil · April 3, 2012

      As ever a brilliant insight and great point. Yes, HR would look different, but then it needs to look different. And that means, in my opinion, we need to stop pushing responsibility onto line managers and systemising everything that moves and start taking a little bit more responsibility for making our workplaces better and more productive through a people centred approach.

  12. Good blog post, well written, excellent point, I do hope it makes many HR professionals think!

    This is the reason why I no longer work in HR, it was just too frustrating for me! I believe in treating people as human beings, selecting them for the roles that they will enjoy most, and excel in, giving them the environment & support systems in place so that they can be happy in their work, and hence more productive; so the company achieves business targets.
    Simple eh?

    Except directors just want HR to cover their a****s

    I chose instead to support people in building businesses from scratch, who understand the PEOPLE, the internal team and the customers are THE most important asset of the business!

    Thanks for a great blog post, I look forward to reading more and more like this!


  13. Ian Perry · December 14, 2012

    Neil, following on from my tweet earlier.

    I have a manufacturing and supply chain background in pharma and aerospace, and do not confess to be a real expert on HR although I work in and around it now.

    What struck me reading your blog was that the outsourcing and shared services has a drive toward efficiency, most favoured by the bean counters who look for measures of efficiency and utilisation to drive their decisions. By efficiency I mean producing more with less resource.
    That was fine years ago, but those measures are no longer valid in the manufacturing world.

    In manufacturing and increasingly around services, lean and systems thinking have come to the fore to deal with increasingly complex customer demands and a need for customisation. On that basis I immediately saw synergy with your argument.

    Efficiency and utilisation are the wrong measures. Effectiveness is, IMHO, does the service deliver what you want, when you want it, and gets it right in the eyes of the customer, not through the eyes of the business. My argument and experience is that when you look at service and supply through these lenses you get better results and you’ll satisfy the bean counters too. It may just be that the measures need to change. Its not about giving people everything they want, but its about flexibility, delegating authority, empowering people at the lowest levels to make decisions and provide solutions where they are needed. (I wonder whats the real cost to HR and management of having to manage through the extra bureaucracy and relationships of shared and outsourced services – bet no one measures that?)

    HR probably also needs to look at its processes too. How many are really being done for the benefit of its customers (employees), and how much of the work adds no value? My hunch is that lots of processes have been outsourced, as thats to the benefit of the outsourced or shared service provider and makes their model work.

    Pull not Push should be the mantra!!!

    Hope that adds to the debate


  14. Pingback: Sack the HR department? | change-effect

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