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Creating an Impactful Culture - A View of NUMMI From the Inside

Posted By Laurie Pehar Borsh , Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Contributed by Russ Elliot - Conscious Culture Group


Executive overview

During my formative working life I was very fortunate to be able to work at the NUMMI plant for six years. For those not familiar with NUMMI, the joint-venture was born in an old General Motors Fremont, CA, plant. GM wanted to understand the effective Toyota Production System, and Toyota wanted to see how that system could work with U.S. workers. I realized while I was working there that the experience was the equivalent of a second Master’s degree. It was clear to me that there was something unique and amazing going on at NUMMI. So rather than pursue an additional degree, I dug my heels in and decided to learn on the job.


I learned many lessons during my six years there and implemented many of the concepts during my subsequent tenure in Human Resources.


In this article I want to share with you some of those lessons that can be applied to improve a company’s culture and have a meaningful impact in any organization.


Although each of these lessons can be implemented independently, a culture “system” becomes much more effective when all the pieces are heading toward a common goal or vision. Clarity and intention, or consciousness, are the keys to furthering any organization’s culture.


What can be learned from the NUMMI experiment

At NUMMI, prior to the launch of the Tacoma truck line, I was hired to work in the Human Resources department.  I started in the training and development department of HR and then moved to the labor relations department, doing a final stint back where I started in the training and development department. During my tenure, I was privileged to help develop and build the Problem Solving Circles program (a name we used for the quality circle program).


NUMMI was operating in the same plant as before, with the same workers, and the same union, but everything else was different.  The quality was outstanding and consistently recognized.  For example, the Corolla was ranked “Best Compact Car in North America” in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2006. The Tacoma was ranked “Best Compact Pickup in North America” in 2002 and 2007. The plant was an effective machine.


I have been reflecting on the lessons can be used today from what I learned working at NUMMI during its “experiment” of sorts. This article draws some conclusions and presents what I think are the most important points to review and consider as people in business strive for continuous improvement, effective communication and decision making.


This is both a complex and simple story. The complexity is related to all of the different pieces that create the perception and feel of simplicity. The autoworkers had so much clarity on the job that it felt simple for them to perform effectively. It took great thought by management to be able to communicate what their jobs were and what the proper training and tools were needed for them to be successful.


The following components led to the company’s well-thought-out system.


Clearly understood and expressed values

At the center of the culture were clearly expressed values of mutual trust and respect, teamwork, equity, and involvement. There are many tangible and visual symbols that reinforced these values every day at work.


The four values or cornerstones as they were named at NUMMI are listed here.  They are not meant to be independent of each other, but rather are completely dependent on each other. It is easy to see the links between teamwork, involvement, equity and mutual trust and respect. It is one of the examples of brilliant simplification. The challenge of all organizations is to determine values that truly describe who they are, which then encourages behavior that will make the organization uniquely successful.


Mutual trust and respect – This was probably the most important value at NUMMI. It showed up at work in many different ways. One of the more visible examples was the “andon” cord, a cord that could be pulled at every workstation.  If an employee pulled the cord, the line stopped.  To understand the impact pulling on this cord had, nearly every employee was forced to be idle until the line started up again. About 2,000 employees were placed in waiting mode.  The “andon” cord symbolized that each employee had a critical role in ensuring that every car passing by his or her workstation met with the level of quality expected.  The employees had both the power and obligation to contribute toward that goal.


Teamwork – The plant was set up in teams and groups. A team consisted of about five employees with one team leader. A group consisted of three or four teams with a group leader. Team members, as they were called, were expected to learn all the jobs in the team. To reduce boredom and injury, team members rotated every 2 ½ hours. This required not only cross training, but it also resulted in a balanced workload. Rotation added to the feeling of being a member of the team and the importance of teamwork.


Equity – One vivid example of equity was the open office. Every employee had the same size desk in one of several large rooms. The only exception was the president who had his own office. To fully understand the significance of this, the vice president of manufacturing who had thousands of employees under him was seated several feet away from his direct reports.  And he faced all of their direct reports in the same open area. When I attended a meeting in his area, I passed his desk only a few feet away from the walkway.  This strongly symbolized the equity concept.


Involvement – One of many examples of involvement was the suggestion program. More than 70 percent of the employees provided at least one suggestion, while many provided more then one suggestion. With more than 4,000 employees, there were literally thousands of suggestions that were submitted and reviewed each year. Many of them were implemented. This encouraged employees to use their minds to create continuous improvement in the auto plant.


Make company mindset a critical component

In addition to having clear values, it is critical to have processes, systems and policies that support the intended culture. This is a key part of a conscious culture.


The examples presented in this section are just some of the ideas worth noting regarding how a mindset can be created to further an organization in defining its culture.  These ideas and actions truly brought NUMMI forward in a defined and intentional way. Combining these mindset ideas with organizational values brings clarity, focus and simplicity to organizational effectiveness.


Kaizen – This is the Japanese term that means, in essence, continuous improvement. It was NUMMI’s belief that survival in a competitive industry required continuous improvement. This philosophy showed up in many ways, including the suggestion system, improving efficiency in the workplace and in the Problem Solving Circles (or quality circles). Kaizen accurately reflects the mindset or way of being at NUMMI.


Muda – This is another Japanese term that helped employees understand waste. One of the keys to being a successful auto plant is to reduce different kinds of waste. Employees understood the five different kinds of muda and would work towards reducing all aspects of waste. For example, if there was a way for each worker to spend five seconds less on a process, it reduced the waste of time.  Employees were rewarded when their ideas improved efficiency or effectiveness.


Nemawashi – This is a third Japanese term that speaks to the mindset of effective communication and decision making. There are different levels of nemawashi, and I am sharing a high-level example. The top executives met on a regular basis to make significant decisions on the plant. The meeting often lasted only 15 to 30 minutes. The reason the meetings lasted for such a short time was that all of the conversation and changes to proposals occurred outside the meeting. This allowed for meaningful dialogue instead of a debate of egos in the room. Presenters of proposals spent one-on-one time with all leaders to understand any concerns they had. Leaders were given ample time to reflect on any proposal. Changes were regularly made to any proposal before it went to the nemawshi meeting. Although this took more time, it led to strong buy in by all and long-term success. This mindset of nemawashi occurred at other levels in the plant.


A3 – This is the concept of ensuring that all proposals and ideas shared needed to be clear, concise and well thought through.  A3 refers to the size of the paper in the paper tray (11” x 14”). All proposals, no matter how complex or expensive, were required to be submitted in a specified format on the front (and possibly back) of an A3.  This level of discipline ensured new proposals or programs had great consideration before making it in front of the decision-making body. It was required that all problem-solving efforts be completed using the A3 format.


Problem Solving Circles – I had the privilege of being the lead on this critical program. PSCs started with five pilot circles. Eventually, there were more than 400 circles meeting each week to work on problems for their teams.


One of the key concepts I want to share with you is that the primary purpose of this program was not solving problems, but in fact, team building and leadership development. Each time there was a meeting, the discussion led to solving a problem within the scope of the team’s control.


After team leaders received training in facilitating and leading meetings, and team members along with team leaders received training in problem solving, each circle met once per week for an hour to follow the problem-solving process.


We then had an annual plant-wide competition to select the best example. It was set up as a big event for everyone to see the other examples. I was honored to bring the winner of the NUMMI competition to Japan to compete with the best of each Toyota plant.


A side note of truth is that there were two competitions in Japan: one for the auto plants in Japan and one for the plants outside of Japan. This was only fair because the skill sets and problem-solving levels of the Japanese plants were significantly greater than non-Japanese plants. It would not have been a fair competition if all plants were judged in one contest.


Job titles – All of the manufacturing jobs, about 4,000, fell under one of three job titles: team member, team leader or group leader. This idea is consistent with the values of equity and teamwork. Most U.S. companies would struggle to limit the number of job titles to three for thousands of employees. Each role was clear and the path to move toward team leader or group leader was well-defined.


Job security – There was specific language in the labor agreement that spoke to job security.  The essence of it was that employees would not be laid off unless there were severe economic conditions that threatened the long term viability of NUMMI. Before laying off any single employee, other actions, like reducing managers’ salaries, would take place first. This clearly sent a message that everyone was in the same ship rowing in the same direction. This was extraordinarily meaningful to employees.


On a personal note

I hope some of these ideas have you thinking about the systems, processes and values you have in place or you can put in place to support your company’s desired culture.


You can look at your organizational values, examine processes that can support the mindset, provide training and promotion methods that teach cultural behavior, or modify the hiring process to reduce hiring the incorrect fit.  Take a deep look at what will do to help shape your culture and create the high-performance company that you desire.


There are many other lessons learned that were not included here.  For the full article that includes reflections of training, promotion and employer brand, visit my blog at


About the Author

Russ Elliot, SPHR, is the Founder and Principal Consultant of the Conscious Culture Group, a consulting and coaching company focused on working with organizational leaders to understand and build effective cultures using proven methods and tools that get results. For more than 30 years, Russ Elliot has developed strong expertise in human resources, organizational development and coaching having worked in organizations including Toyota, NUMMI, Texas Instruments and Bridge Bank. 


Contact Russ at

Tags:  company culture  Conscious C  corporate culture  GM  HR  HR West  Human Resources  Leadership  Management  NCHRA  Nummi  People  Russ Elliot  SHRM  Tesla  Toyota  ulture  work 

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Charities tap a new holiday giving revenue source via corporate HR—estimated at $65B

Posted By Laurie A. Pehar Borsh, Wednesday, December 16, 2015

As many of you know, HR West, is an annual innovative and collaborative human resources industry event that has served a community of over 20,000 human resources professionals since 1984.


While in planning and production mode for HR West 2016 (there's less than three months to go!), we've also been looking to solve the problem of how to creatively fundraise for HR West's benefiting charirty, the American Heart Association—through our community members, distributed across multiple companies and counties.


As we sought out a new and innovative way to help increase funding for the conference charity in 2016, we found We2o, a philanthropy platform that epitomizes the fresh approach we were looking for to align with our new “HR in the Most Innovative Place on Earth” maxim!


What is We2o? The We2o platform helps make the philanthropy experience what it deserves to be—fun, engaging, impactful and connected. Michael Vo, an early Tesla employee and former engineering executive, leads the team of passionate software engineers who have developed We2o.


Now, the world class We2o philanthropy platform will provide HR West attendees and volunteers, and its conference production team with the opportunity to donate their unused vacation hours to the American Heart Association or a charity of their choice.


We2o also brings the latest innovations in social media, data and interactivity. The result is a truly transformative giving experience for users, engaging Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs for companies, and a great new source of funding for charities. 

HR West and We2o recognized the opportunity for a 3-way-win between the American Heart Association, employees, and employers. First of all, the charity can access a new source of funding. Secondly, dedicated employees will no longer have to watch unused vacation days go to waste! Finally, employers can reduce vacation time liability on corporate balance sheets, which in turn, saves on accounting overhead and allows for more accurate financial forecasting, as well as a great way to generate positive PR for giving back.


“HR West plays a role in spotlighting innovation in HR and we think this idea is big. During the month of December our employees are donating to their favorite charities via We2o. From there we’ll utilize the We2o platform in our outreach to our community of over 20,000 HR professionals who’ll have the opportunity to donate to our selected conference charity, the American Heart Association,” says Greg Morton, CEO of NCHRA.

On average, $52.4billion is in limbo each year due to employees not taking their entire vacation accrual. This represents a total$224billion liability for U.S. businesses. The annual figure grew to $65.6billion last year alone, representing a 42% increase in unused vacation hours. A study done for 114 public companies covering 377,000 employees indicated that on average $1,898 or 5.7days per employee are unused. In the case of companies with greater than 500employees, an average of $2,609 of vacation hours per employee goes unused. Only 48% of employees take all vacation for use-it-or-lose-it hours.

It's a fact! Americans are working longer and took an average of 16 vacation days in 2013 -- that's down from 20.9 in 2000. To address the problem, some companies today are even enticing employees to expend their vacation days by paying up to 10% over base salary for those hours.


According to Michael Vo, “Despite our connected world and advancements and innovations in web technology, online donations remain well below 10% and charitable giving overall is still only 2% of the US GDP for some 40 years now. The We2o platform is designed to help make the philanthropy experience what it deserves to be, fun, engaging, impactful and connected. “I know from experience—working long hours at Tesla—how demoralizing it felt when you put in long hours and then lose your hard earned vacation time. This is a completely new source of funding for charities that’s never been available. A compelling and substantial bucket of new money can be liberated to support charities and help improve our communities.”


Working together with We2o, HR West is looking to leverage innovative technology and progressive thinking to solve a long standing, pervasive problem that has persisted for years. For more information on the We2o platform, visit  


For further updates on the HR West and We2o partnership, continue to visit: The goal is to help enable employees to donate unused vacation hours to charity during this year-end holiday season as well as into the new year, and support the expansion of a $65 billion charitable giving revenue source, in alignment with corporate HR departments.

HR West is less than 90 days away, register now to avoid the next rate increase.

Tags:  American Heart Association  benefits  business  charity  coprorate giving  giving  holiday giving  hr  HR West  Michael Vo  NCHRA  payroll  technology  we20  We2o 

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Five Ways to Prepare for Transgender Employees

Posted By Laurie A. Pehar Borsh, Wednesday, September 30, 2015

...Creating a Safe, Respectful & Compliant Culture


By Jodi Slavik - Vigilant


In recent months, the public has been captivated with news stories about Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner.  Almost 3 million viewers watched the first episode of the reality series “I Am Cait” and other TV shows with transgender leads are receiving broad viewership and critical acclaim. However, transgender isn’t just a Hollywood buzzword, nor is it isolated to urban office environments.  People identify as transgender regardless of where they live or what they do for a living.


According to a report by the Williams Institute in 2011, approximately 700,000 adults in the United States identify as transgender. This number would likely be much higher today, given increasing social acceptance. Although 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, numbers released by the Movement Advancement Project show that 52 percent of the LGBT population live in states that do not have gender identity protections. That means there are thousands upon thousands of individuals who identify as the opposite gender spread across the United States in every type of work environment, regardless of whether there are laws protecting them.


While some businesses have cutting edge diversity practices, including a stand-alone transgender policy and a LGBT committee, others are still struggling to keep sex jokes off the shop floor. However, some of the best practices in response to transitioning employees have come out of businesses where I least expected it, including transport, construction, and manufacturing companies. Even the dirtiest, toughest environments can respond in the most real, caring way.


Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the experiences of some of these businesses:  


#1. Preparation is Better than Reaction

Assume you already have a transgender employee.  How would you like him or her to feel even if he or she never made a transition request? Creating a culture of respect attracts and retains talent and allows you to nimbly respond if a gender transition request occurs.  In 19 states, including Washington, Oregon and California, you have to comply with non-discrimination laws regardless of whether an employee notifies you of his or her decision to re-assign gender. 


#2. Create Compliant Practices

The first step is to review all of your current policies and practices that could implicate or affect a transgender individual or applicant.  These include hiring practices, background checks, internal record-keeping, use of identity documents, dress and grooming standards, harassment training, and medical leave.  Next consider what new procedures and policies you may need to create, including a bullying policy, diversity training, and an internal transition response checklist.


#3. Respect Boundaries

Sometimes responding to a transitioning employee makes you feel like you’re walking a tightrope.  Whose needs do you need to take care of first—the transitioning employee or the surprised workmates? Instead of panicking about how to keep from offending either side, focus on helping both sides respond to change.  Because that’s what this really is—something new, not something weird.  Introduce, communicate, and respect boundaries (and communicate some more).


#4. Deal with the Bathroom Issue Now

What people are afraid of more than anything else is the bathroom situation.  A recent 8th Circuit decision rejected a religious discrimination and hostile work environment claim because a transgender employee (previously male) was allowed to use the female restroom.  The courts--and your transitioning employees--will expect you to accommodate restroom needs.  Determine now whether you can create a gender neutral bathroom space.  If you have more than one restroom, can you identify one that is reasonably accessible as gender neutral? 

In addition to looking at your facilities, begin the conversation with your employees about your desire to have restroom space that makes all of your employees, vendors, customers, clients, and their friends and family comfortable.  Also, encourage dialogue about the fear or discomfort about sharing bathrooms.  The more frequent the conversation, the more fears are neutralized. 


#5. Stay in Touch

Even after the paperwork is complete, the restrooms are squared away, and the work mates have been informed, you need to regularly check in with the transitioning employee, his or her supervisor, and the crew. Harassment and bullying can rear its ugly head at any time, and you are legally responsible for maintaining a work environment that allows all an equal opportunity to perform his or her best.  More important is maintaining your culture.  Every business I have worked with has respect as a foundation of its culture.  If you can assure respect for all employees, your legal compliance will fall in place. 



About the Author


Jodi Slavik is an employment attorney and regional director of Vigilanta company dedicated to helping companies in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho and California solve their most complex employment issues. 

Tags:  blog  bruce  caitlyn  employee  employees  equality  hr  hr west  human resources  jenner  legal  lgbt  nchra  Policies  resources  transgender  Vigilant  workforce  workplace 

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5 Priorities HR Can’t Ignore in 2015

Posted By CEB HR, Thursday, February 26, 2015

How employees get their work done has changed remarkably quickly; unsurprisingly HR needs to change too.


Anyone who works in a global company doesn’t need to be told that their job has changed enormously in the past few years. Even if their job title – and sometimes their job description – remains unscathed, the number of people they work with, the amount of information they use to make decisions, their day-to-day tasks, and the technology they use have all changed quicker than at any time in their careers.


The changing nature of work is one of five trends CEB’s research shows will shape global business in 2015. And, given the function’s role, this shift in how work is accomplished means a lot of change for HR professionals. Heads of HR and their teams should take five steps in particular to help their firm make the most of the new work environment.



  1. Attract and retain “enterprise contributors”: Data from surveys of HR and line managers show that the average company needs to improve employee performance by 27% just to hit the revenue and profitability targets senior managers have set. HR teams should look beyond conventional performance management based on improving individual performance and develop a cadre of “enterprise contributors.”  These are employees who perform well individually and who accomplish tasks by working effectively with and through others.

    In fact, firms with enterprise contributors outperform their peers by 5% and 11% on year-over-year revenue and profit growth, respectively. This means that the average Fortune 500 organization can increase profit by $144 million and revenue by $924 million. HR should not make the mistake of thinking that most employees aren’t ready or willing to be enterprise contributors. They are, but they’re stymied by structure and culture of their firms. Instead of trying to motivate employees to be enterprise contributors, HR should help their firms reconcile four paradoxes at the heart of performance management.

  2. Don’t make yourself appealing to all job candidates, just the good ones: The volume of people applying for jobs has risen by 33% in the past three years but the quality of applicants has not improved at all. In response, many firms launched employment branding campaigns to establish their company as “a great place to work,” and attract higher quality candidates.

    But this strategy – called “branding for appeal” – produces pools of applicants of whom only 28% could be classed as high quality. This is because firms just add yet more to the mass of accessible corporate information. And all these conflicting messages – some of which are false – means that 61% of applicants say they are more skeptical of what employers say about themselves than they were three years ago. Instead, HR teams should take a “branding for influence” approach to attract the best candidates.

    Instead of releasing a(nother) YouTube video full of smiling faces and an uplifting theme tune, savvy firms spend time and money on messages that are relevant to the most important talent segments, and that challenge applicants’ thinking rather than highlight anything good about the company. Those firms that brand for influence almost double the proportion of the applicant pool that can be classed as high quality.

  3. Teach employees how to learn, not just what to learn: Given all of the above, firms must keep improving their learning and development activities. Most employees are now well aware that constant development is essential and think that the learning and development provided at their firm is sufficient: 84% say their “L&D solutions” are satisfying. But despite this, and the estimated $145 billion spent annually on training, fewer than half those investments result in tangible returns. In response to these poor figures, many firms provide more opportunities for development, across more channels, and advocate that employees take responsibility for their development. But it doesn’t work. Nearly three in four line managers report employees with high learning participation lack the right skills, and the extra learning activity creates a lot of waste. Every day, employees waste approximately 11% of their time on unproductive learning.

    Leading firms increase employee awareness of how to learn (not just what to learn) and use technology that helps employees develop learning behaviors, and not just consume content. This approach doubles the number of employees with high learning capabilities, and makes it more likely that employees will be equipped or the new work environment.

  4. Make the HR team more valuable: Even though most senior executives are keen to stress how important their “people are to the business,” HR teams still struggle to provide the necessary support. Less than one-fifth of line managers rate HR as an effective partner.

    Many heads of HR have invested heavily in developing their HR teams to improve this sad statistic but most over invest in improving individuals and don’t do enough to change the organizational culture in which their teams must work. In particular, there are four organizational barriers that prevent HR business partners – those that support the line – from doing their jobs effectively. Remove these and firms can nearly double the number of effective HR business partners they employ.

  5. Don’t mistake high-performing employees for high-potential employees: CEB data show that firms with stronger leaders enjoy twice the revenue and twice the profit growth. Yet a high-potential employee (HiPo) program, which is many firms’ main investment to develop their future leaders, is statistically more likely to fail than succeed.

    Data shows that 50% of HR managers lack confidence in their programs, and a staggering five in six HR managers are dissatisfied with the results. Despite evidence to the contrary, many firms still wrongly assume that a high performer is also a HiPo. In fact, only one-in-seven high performers are HiPos. The reason mistakes are so often made is that there is rarely an objective selection process in place; decisions are rarely backed by any science. Those involved in the HiPo selection process should assess employees based on their ability, aspiration, and engagement with the firm.

CEB is the world’s leading member-based advisory company with a unique view into what matters — and what works — when capitalizing on drivers of business performance. With 30 years of experience working with top companies to share, analyze, and apply proven practices, CEB begins with great outcomes and reverse engineer to help you unlock your full potential. For further information visit:   Originally reprinted with permission in HRWest Magazine January 2015.

Tags:  2015  CEB  HR  HR West  NCHRA  San Francisco  SHRM 

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HR West App - New for 2015!

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 19, 2015
Updated: Thursday, February 19, 2015

We are very excited to introduce the all new HR West App
for iPhone and Android!




Download and use our (free!) new app to view maps, schedules, concurrent sessions, and exhibitor information all in one, convenient place. Registered HR West conference attendees have access to session handouts, the ability to connect with other attendees and a fun, interactive game to play.

Tap the links below if you're on your mobile device, or search for HR West in your 'store.'

Download in App Store

Download in Google Play Store

View Concurrent Sessions
See the full event schedule, room numbers, speaker details, and descriptions.
Tap "Add to Schedule" to bookmark and house in your personalized agenda!

Connect with Attendees
Connect with fellow attendees by exchanging your "digital business cards."
Your new contacts can be viewed within the "My Contacts" section of the app.

Network with Exhibitors
Discover the organizations that made this such a great event!
Simply tap an organization's name to view a description and contact details.

You must be registered for HR West to enjoy full interactive features of the HR West app!

Not registered? Register Today

             Questions? Give us a call 415.291.1992415.291.1992, or email




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Tags:  2015  Android  App  conference  HR West  iPhone 

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