“Give the man a cookie. He’s falling apart.”
Laughter peals from a group of federal employees sitting informally around a small table in a wood-paneled conference room at the Housing and Urban Development Department in Washington. They’ve gathered for an intense brainstorming or “mapping” session on how to fix the lengthy, complicated and seemingly intractable federal hiring process. But they’ve managed to sneak in a little good-natured levity at the expense of the group leader, equipped with a black marker and earnestly scribbling numbers, acronyms, and arrows on white paper affixed to the wall. To the untrained eye, it’s like a cave-dweller’s hieroglyphics.
The employees, from several different offices within the department, are talking about reducing the number of days it takes to vet a job vacancy before it’s launched into the world. At least one participant, a woman from Ginnie Mae, thinks the group leader’s hard work deserves a sweet treat.
Another group of HUD employees across the room is engaged in a similar exercise, though they are focused on a slightly different part of the hiring process – the job analysis. That’s where human resources staff and hiring managers craft the questions, requirements and criteria for the job announcement. Soon, the two groups will switch places, and see if they can improve on their co-workers’ suggestions.
The ultimate goal is to cut down on the amount of time it takes to hire new employees without sacrificing the quality of candidates. This is something the federal government has been trying to do for decades. The Office of Personnel Management cites an 80-day “standard” or average hiring timeframe, but really the length of time varies widely depending on the job, type of posting and agency. HUD is hoping that automotive behemoth and management legend Toyota will help it not only expedite the federal hiring process but improve various other “lines of business,” including grants management and public housing financing. Can the famous “Toyota Way” management philosophy actually take root at a notoriously complicated and bureaucratic government agency?
That’s still an open question. But give the department credit for trying a more innovative approach to problem-solving by bringing in Toyota, which is offering its services pro-bono. At least two key areas of focus underpinning the Toyota Way – continuous improvement and respect for people – were evident during April’s brainstorming session at HUD. Department officials believe that the philosophy’s bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach will empower employees and increase the odds that improvements will stick long after the current presidential administration is gone.
“It’s the people actually doing the work looking at the process, and figuring out what needs to be done because they are the ones who have to do it every day,” said HUD Chief Human Capital Officer Towanda Brooks. “It’s not me trying to figure this out, or writing policy.” Improving federal hiring, after all, is not simply an HR function. Each program office needs to have input, and commit to the goal, whatever that may be.
“Everyone is taking ownership, so it’s not a blame game,” said Brooks, who used to oversee a staff of about 200 employees that is “steadily decreasing” and is now at 150, she said. “We all want to hire because in the end it helps everybody get their job done.”
‘We Want To Work Ourselves Out of a Job’
Toyota first arrived at HUD in 2015. The manufacturer has a plant in San Antonio, Texas, where HUD Secretary Julian Castro was mayor before he arrived in Washington in July 2014. “More than anything, Toyota has a reputation for their process of continuous improvement and efficiency,” Castro said during an April interview with Government Executive. “And when we found out that they do this work to benefit the public sector, we jumped at the chance to be part of that.”
Toyota just a few years ago reached a $1.2 billion settlement with federal prosecutors, on top of other civil lawsuits, over safety recalls involving unintended acceleration in their cars that caused deaths. The company was widely criticized not only for its vehicles’ safety problems, but for failing to be transparent about them. The former mayor said those issues “didn’t really cross my mind” when deciding whether to invite Toyota into the department for management consulting. Toyota’s management evangelists are part of a division known as the Toyota Production System Support Center within the company.
“I think that they generally have a strong business reputation, and this work is about process improvement here at HUD,” Castro said.
Toyota also works with nonprofits on process improvement, and has helped the City of Louisville, Ky., and New York state on certain projects. They have some industry clients who pay a small fee, but the company works for the non-profit and public sectors for free.
When Toyota got to HUD, they first tackled what HR officials call the Position Organization Listing. That’s the initial step in the hiring process when staff figure out how many job vacancies the agency will have in each program office for the fiscal year—a task that requires HR specialists and budget employees to work alongside each other. Toyota officials on-site applied the “go and see” approach to learn how the listing process worked. “They were walking through people’s offices, and sitting at desks, and walking through how people actually do their work and solving problems,” said Brooks. The ideas sprouted during April’s mapping session on the second phase of the hiring process will be further refined over the next three months. HUD officials hope to implement changes by the second quarter of fiscal 2017.
Toyota teaches methodology, then recedes into the background to watch, encourage and enable. Toyota Advisor Tom Jones said he checks in periodically with his HUD trainees and offers input when asked, but mostly, he observes. This is also typical of the Toyota Way. Watching the consultants during the brainstorming session, Jones sounds like a proud coach: “They are willing to talk when needed, but they are also willing to sit back and let the teams hash some things out without jumping in and saying, ‘Oh, here’s the answer.’ ” Ultimately, Jones said, Toyota’s role in such partnerships is to foster complete independence. “We want to work ourselves out of a job.”
Jones, a Toyota employee for 25 years, the last three with the production systems support center, said he is impressed with what he has seen so far in his work with HUD. “What I see is a cultural change,” he said. “That’s what I am looking for. And it’s still in its infancy here. But you can start to see people [say], ‘Oh, that might work, I can be part of that.’ That’s what we look for, a change in the culture. But that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Tania Saldana, external affairs specialist at Toyota, summarized the organization’s goal this way: “We share what we know, but we want them to adapt it to HUD, and make it their own so they can use it every day. We know we’ve made a contribution when they can do that independently.”
Brooks, Castro and other senior leaders clearly are fans of the Toyota Way. “The top leaders here, they love this,” said Greg Castello, director of the transformation division within HUD’s Office of Strategic Planning and Management, who has briefed top officials on the partnership and management initiative. In fact, Castro and Deputy Secretary Nani Coloretti stopped by the April session to offer employees support and ask questions. Coloretti in particular was plugged into what the teams were working on.
But what about middle management? After all, it’s their employees who are taking time out of their normal routine to brainstorm and fix the process.
“When you get to a mid-career, there is a lot more work to be done there,” Castello acknowledged, of persuading people to give the management philosophy a try. “Let’s face it, someone who has been at HUD for 30 years has been managing a certain way,” said the former Defense Department official, who has been at HUD for two years. “And now all of a sudden we’re going to challenge them, and say ‘Hey, look, we don’t need you directing as much as we want you to be a coach and a mentor, [to] remove barriers and let your folks start doing your work.’ ” Castello said he realizes that some may view changes as having to cede turf or power. “But if it catches on, and the momentum starts to happen, people either join the bandwagon, or find themselves somewhere else,” he said.
Jones said that once people let go, they can reap more rewards. “You actually maybe become more powerful in some ways because you have a team that’s going to work for you,” he said.
Buy-in from employees at every level is important, and the best way to get it is to demonstrate results. So, HUD is developing what it calls “key performance indicators” to measure whether the hiring process changes implemented through these collaborative sessions actually produce positive outcomes.
“While reducing the actual time-to-hire is a clear metric that HUD will be monitoring, we are also looking at additional [indicators] such as reducing the number of new position descriptions or job analyses created, and increasing the quality of [job] certificates,” said Felicia Purifoy, director of HUD’s Office of Human Capital Services, by email. For now, it appears that employees are keeping an open mind.
“I hope it will work,” said the woman from Ginnie Mae, who has participated in similar sessions before, though not at HUD. “It will be incumbent upon us to take it back to our program areas, and say, ‘This is what it is,’ and really get the buy-in from the hiring managers. We shall see.”
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