How a new approach to problem-solving drove Humana’s HR transformation

As a teenager, Kali Hayes worked as a cashier—a good one. She says she’s goal-oriented and likes to get things done, so her line was always moving fast.

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Because of that, whenever corporate reps came to her store to talk about improvements, she often got face time with them. Their interactions typically went one of two ways.

They would say something like, “Let me show you what we’ve made for you,” and detail some new tech, product or process that they envisioned would improve the cashiers’ and customers’ experience. Or other times, they would present an idea and ask, “How can we make this better for you?”

In the first approach, Hayes would attempt to give honest feedback, often be met with disappointment and find little change in the eventual rollout of the new solution. In the second scenario, however, the end product was often met with “delight” by cashiers.

“Two completely different approaches to solving the same type of problem—both with the desire to make my job easier, both with the absolute best of intentions,” Hayes said at this week’s HR Tech Online. One resulted in employees feeling frustrated and like they weren’t being heard, while the other “drove excitement, engagement, increased productivity and ultimately got customers through the line faster.”

That fundamental difference in problem-solving had a “significant impact” on her career, said Hayes, vice president of associate experience and talent acquisition at Humana. She brought this perspective with her as Humana, a Fortune 500 healthcare company that employs more than 67,000 people, underwent a recent HR transformation.

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“We wanted to solve problems the right way,” Hayes said.

3 keys to success for an HR transformation

Over the years, Humana has transitioned into a more holistic “health company,” Hayes said—with increasingly diversified lines of business and talent powering them.

Kali Hayes, Humana
Kali Hayes, Humana

As part of a company focused on customer and community health, Humana’s HR organization focuses on its associates’ wellbeing, learning and development, and employee experience, among other areas—all with a goal of creating “healthy teammates.” As the company has grown in scope and scale, the HR team saw an opportunity to rethink how it was caring for those “healthy teammates,” Hayes said. The way they had solved problems in the past was no longer as effective. Among their nursing population alone, there were upwards of 10 different personas. The team felt responsible for looking through those 10 different lenses to ensure they were truly meeting their unique needs.

“To really reimagine how we offer that care, we knew we would likely need to rethink some of our operating norms in HR,” Hayes said.

The HR and leadership teams came together to formulate a problem statement that would guide their HR transformation journey: “How might we transform our way of working within HR to ensure teammates across the country feel they can do their best work, are a part of the team and are receiving recognition?”

That led to significant HR design and process changes in three primary areas.

Redefine ways of working

HR stood up a product team of varying backgrounds and skill sets, a “small but mighty” group, Hayes said, of passionate problem-solvers who were committed to putting the associates’ perspective first. They worked to establish new operating principles, anchored to Humana’s core value of caring, aimed at deconstructing work in small, iterative steps.

Hayes said there was a heavy emphasis on talking in problem statements and research plans, with specific training on design thinking and agile processes. Particularly helpful was the “4-in-a-box” model, driving collaboration among the product and user experience teams, COE partners and technology leaders.

When it came to tech, team members were encouraged to entrust the technology partners to bring their best recommendation to the table—a deviation from the standard, as COE partners often come to the table with a tech solution in mind.

“But when the entire team leans into their purpose, the results are incredible,” Hayes said.

Understand the end user

To better meet the needs of Humana associates across the employee lifecycle, the HR team brought more precision to the associate journey, defining it in six key steps.

  • Join: the recruitment process
  • Onboard: assimilating into the organization
  • Live: a focus on wellbeing and benefits
  • Contribute: an emphasis on performance
  • Growth: among the most robust steps, encompassing learning, internal mobility and compensation
  • Depart: creating a positive experience no matter how or when the associate leaves Humana

Since the HR transformation, both product managers and COE members are collaborating on each stage of the journey for every associate. This involves documenting each step from the perspective of every persona across Humana, Hayes said—including the tech used, friction points, sentiment and downstream implications.

“It’s extensive,” Hayes said, noting the HR team taps into this data—and ongoing feedback collected from associates—to create new problem statements and continuously improve the employee lifecycle.

“Our goal is to make it really easy for associates to give us feedback,” she said.

Fully align as an organization

To ensure the HR transformation was sustainable, the team needed clarity on where it could make the biggest impact, how to decide on the projects to take on each quarter, and how to measure progress, Hayes said. All of that centered on prioritization.

“There’s never a shortage of new work to go after,” she said, noting a formal prioritization protocol “creates a level of intentionality” about how to identify, select and accomplish that work.

HR worked with leadership to align on three to five “big rocks”—large, complex problem statements it needed to move the needle on in the next three to five years, with a focus on “change-the-business” work, including anything requiring cross-functional teams, such as tech implementations.

This “big rock” approach has helped hold HR accountable and empowered the team to say “no.”

Prioritization is a no-regret investment,” Hayes said. “It encourages so many good behaviors. It drives budget accountability. It shines a light on where teams are spending time, whether or not there is return on investment. It gives an opportunity to the leadership team to take a step back and determine if everyone is moving toward a common goal.”

The true ROI of a successful HR transformation

The HR transformation has not been a fast one—nor an easy one, Hayes acknowledged.

However, by centering all of its work around more effectively solving associate problems, the HR team is delivering more to those associates—and faster, all while protecting the HR team’s capacity.

HR is “being more innovative” and accomplishing more “higher-impact” work, she said, which is ultimately helping the team make “significant strides” toward helping Humana reach its strategic objectives.

“Most importantly, we’re improving the experience of caring for our associates and continuing to ignite our culture of creating healthy, engaged teammates,” she said, noting the transformation has saved hundreds of thousands of hours of work and millions of dollars. “But the biggest return in my mind is we are delivering to the associates of Humana.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].