Lean | Perspective

Lean recruitment – avoid hiring a gourmet chef for flipping burgers

lean recruitment

By on 03/04/2020

This is not about cooking. It’s about hiring. If something is difficult then you hire an expert, right? Not necessarily. You can often do with a lot less if you avoid making two common mistakes. Let’s call it lean recruitment.

Companies often overestimate the competency levels they need to bring in to solve their problems. Let me give you three examples:

  1. Project manager
    “We have problems finding good project managers”, I heard one founder say. He then increased the salary level by 50% to make to make the position more attractive.
  2. CFO
    A company is not paid on time and brings in a CFO to sort it out.
  3. CEO
    A software company where the two founders are getting overwhelmed with day-to-day operations hires a CEO or a COO to fix the problem, so they can focus on building their product.

“Bring in the expert” is the usual answer to a lot of regular business challenges. Sometimes it is the right answer. In many other cases, it is the wrong and most costly answer. Lean recruiment is better answer – just-in-time skills acquisition and standard work.


These leaders make two lean recruitment mistakes (at least):

  1. They try to treat the symptom and not the cause and
  2. they make the assumption that “if I can’t-do this, then it must require an expert.”

Let’s look at the two mistakes so we can avoid making them and practice lean recruitment.

Treating the symptoms and not the cause

Let me reuse the first example from before: Finding good project managers. How do you do this? I would start by asking the following questions:

“Why do you need a great project manager? Are you running huge projects?”

He would answer: “No, I’m coordinating between a client and 3-10 people on our team.”

“Why is this coordination then so hard?”

“Because requirements, roles and tasks are fluctuating a lot. People are stepping in and out of the project. “

“Why is this?”

Staff works their own ways. Each person does it differently. This creates confusion.

In other words, they’re firefighting because they haven’t defined ‘standard work’ when it comes to projects. It’s like solving the same problem over and over. This is not exactly lean recruitment.

And the company that is not paid on time? Perhaps their current accountant must validate invoices before they are sent, then call to make sure the right person gets them and finally call on due dates to show the company cares. This is basic cash flow management and it doesn’t require a CFO.


In these examples, the problem is not that the job is complex. It is the way of working that is. Fix the way of working and avoid hiring top-level people for fixing problems – let them run with growth opportunities instead!


The companies don’t necessarily have competency problems that require new hires. They lack ‘standard work’ – clear business processes and work instructions done the same way each time.

“If I can’t-do this, then only an expert can”

If you have created a company that is running well, or if you have been hired to run it, then chances are that your ego has become bigger than average. It may be well deserved and needed. You’re used to giving directions and instructing people on what to do. Once in a while, you come across challenges that you can’t resolve in the usual way. That’s when many jump to the conclusion: “I can figure out most things, so if I can’t do this then it must be really difficult”. They then automatically start looking for the best people around.

With only a little knowledge of the area they are recruiting for, they look for something that indicates expertise. Previous employers, universities attended, etc. A proxy for competence. Think of a Harvard MBA who is now a McKinsey consultant. Maybe he is competent – but is his high compensation ‘value for money’ in a routine position?

Accurate job profiling can save you money

Take another perspective on this. Consider all the personality profiling models and tools that are out there (Insight, DISC, Myers-Briggs, etc.). Tools statistically proved to accurately profile people.

Have you ever profiled yourself? If so then you may have found that you’re an extrovert entrepreneur or sales type, or something else. My point is that your personality type may explain why you find “project management” or “account receivables” very difficult. The good news is that there are thousands of people out there who have profiles that turn them into pigs in mud when it comes to accounting.

So, hire a person with some experience in your problem area, give them a simple work instruction and see if this will not fix the problem. This would be just-in-time lean recruitment.

At some point later you may need that CFO but why not let the accountant (with a salary that is 10% of his) pick the low hanging fruit? You wouldn’t hire a gourmet chef for flipping burgers, would you?

Lean recruitment is to wait with the expert hire

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hire CFOs or expert project managers. It’s about pushing the decision out into the future.

It’s about documenting your business area and its ways of working when it is still relatively small and then hire people to follow the processes. This alternative way forward can deliver value quickly, minimise the risk of hiring expensive people before you need them and generally allow you to develop and learn so you know exactly what you need when the time comes. Or for the final analogy:

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