Sonae is a multinational corporation with a portfolio of brands, including retail, health, and beauty among others. The largest private employer in Portugal, Sonae has 40,000 employees in its 1,250 stores. The five-person Employment Law Department is part of Human Resources rather than the in-house legal department, and specializes in legal counseling and litigation, ensuring labor and data protection compliance, and support for company strategy. The department implemented Agile Principles in 2016 in response to an economic crisis that began in 2009 and drove the need to define procedures, cut costs, and improve efficiency.
“Because we work with people, we had to adapt to the new reality where efficiency was a key issue. We tried to challenge ourselves to work with efficiency metrics that were established for Lean projects without endangering the quality of our work. After the initial doubt about implementing Lean in a legal department, we realized that we can always improve,” says Duarte Sousa, Senior Legal Counsel.
One of the Employment Law Department’s largest portfolios of work is managing and tracking disciplinary actions of employees in collaboration with 970 interlocutors. The internal proceedings are very demanding and bureaucratic, with many pressing deadlines imposed by Portuguese employment law. The far-flung placement of employees and managers, including on islands off the Portuguese coast, made coordinating and carrying out these proceedings an enormous challenge. The average duration of disciplinary proceedings was about 90 days, and there was a pressing need for shorter lead times.
The team conducted a process mapping exercise that was informative: “We learned that we had too many contractors. We learned that we needed to have a process that guaranteed accuracy of the information, and that would provide stakeholders with quick and easy access to that information,” says Marta Azevedo, Director of the Employment Law Department. “As lawyers, we could not control all the documents and all the deadlines,” Sousa adds.
Through monthly meetings to discuss the challenges and new ways to collaborate with the HR managers, the team discussed how to reduce procedure costs and bring greater value to the team and its partners.
The team began to conceptualize and develop a process management software solution that would meet multiple goals:
- Comply with Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation
- Integrate with enterprise resource planning
- Promote the digitization of tasks
- Reduce Sonae’s ecological footprint
- Enable the electronic registration and tracking of all labor and social security proceedings
- Facilitate direct interaction with the 970 interlocutors
Working with Sonae’s internal IT department and an external IT consultant, the employment law group created a tool that performs all these functions and integrates a knowledge management platform organized by topic that archives all documents relevant to the proceedings, including drafts, meeting minutes, and memos that can be adapted and shared. It generates indicators that allow users to monitor the evolution of cases through dashboards, and issues automatic notifications of key deadlines and milestones.
It was a collegial and productive collaboration, says Azevedo. “The brainstorming between those of us with a legal mindset and the people from IT, who often had very different visions for things, yielded fantastic results in this platform.”
Duration of the disciplinary proceedings was a key performance indicator for the department. In the first 18 months after rollout of the new platform, duration dropped to 63 days, a reduction of nearly 30 percent. The team now has the ability to handle more cases each year, increasing from 456 in 2017 to 508 in 2018. Further, 92 percent of decisions resulting from all the legal actions have been favorable to the company.
The Employment Law team also embraced technology to train HR operations managers on the use of the new platform. Previously reliant on up to seven monthly in-person training sessions that were time-consuming and expensive, they created a new training format called Quicktalk. Using Skype and podcasts, the team conducts monthly hour-long training sessions that ensure all attendees receive the same information at the same time. This new method has allowed the team to reduce training costs by 95 percent due to the avoidance of travel and accommodation costs, which approached €26,000 in 2016, and helps them to keep the managers up to date on the frequent changes in labor and employment law. As Sousa observes, “We can train the entire country in one hour, and people are more satisfied.”