Non-Profits and Lean Thinking

I had a conversation recently with my management team about capacity challenges and capacity building. I did so because it is not uncommon for those in our organization (and those in others as well) to “feel” like they are maxed out in terms of the work and challenges facing them. We work pretty hard at Bissell Centre and I can understand how that sentiment can surface.

An organization’s capacity is generally expressed in terms of its:

  • Human Resources (how many staff, volunteers, their skills, their knowledge and experience, as well as how they are organized to meet demand)
  • Physical Resources (land, buildings, layout, equipment, vehicles, etc.)
  • Financial Resources (operational, capital, reserves, credit)
  • Information Resources (information technology, databases, accounting software).
  • Programmatic Resources (materials, programmatic design and processes, models).

This is no doubt not a complete listing, but often capacity challenges that arise – which manifest as barriers or obstacles – have to do with one of more of the above.

When faced with undertaking an innovation or exploring a new programmatic concept (perhaps through prototyping) or improving services, it is not uncommon for managers to question whether or not they and their staff have the capacity to tackle such elements of our work. Often voices challenge the new undertaking by stating they require more people, more money, better technology and so forth. And of course sometimes that is true, perhaps often. However, one cannot assume these things to be true just because someone thinks they are.

For example, there is an old maxim that goes something like: we fill up what time we have with things to do. Problem is that the things we fill up our time with might not be the right things or the most efficient things. In order to understand organizational capacity we also need to assess the extent to which our current work (i.e. the things we do) are:

1. Priorities compared to other options.
2. Efficient in terms of how long it takes to do what we do.
3. Offering maximum impact or results.
4. Optimally relevant to our clients in terms of meeting needs and aspirations.
5. Being delivered to appropriate standards of excellence and quality.
6. Being delivered to the program’s intended capacity to serve an identified number of people.

If we are markedly deficient in one or more of the above, then we have to ask ourselves if we need to adjust what we are currently doing in order to get better at what we should be doing. In other words, we have to make adjustments to our organizational capacity, not necessarily increase organizational resources.

Clearly, if we are not working to our priorities or working in a way that maximizes desired results, then something is wrong. Saying we are too busy or too “full” of work to change is also saying we prefer to max out our capacity on things that are not priorities or that do not achieve optimal impact. No one would say that outright, but if we resist change via a default “we are maxed out” position, we are in effect sanctioning an unacceptable status quo.

Same goes for efficiency. We can be delivering high impact programs but inefficiently. Things might take too long or cost too much, and if we can solve those problems, then we will have more time to deliver more impact and better quality, right? More efficiency then could very well mean more value.

I suggest that one of the major challenges facing non-profits is how to maximize results while getting as lean as possible. By “lean” I do not mean cutting staff and just expecting them to handle as much or more than before the cuts were made. That’s not being lean; it’s being mean. Our staff deserve more consideration that just coping with cutbacks. And by “lean” I certainly am not talking about the common depiction of non-profits as a cheap alternative to service provision. I have actually had government bureaucrats tell me they see organizations like mine as the means by which they get cheaper services. I have been told to use more volunteers as if volunteers can do anything and everything paid, qualified staff can. For some odd reason it never occurred to those folks that we actually provide better value than if they did the work themselves. In other words, perhaps we rock at what we do.

That said, I am all for maximizing impact and being lean about it.

I heard on CBC recently about how some hospitals in the States are adopting lean technology, the kind that made Toyota famous. In that company they are continually questioning processes and fine tuning what they do while maximizing quality. The hospital representative being interviewed mentioned that by adopting the ways of Toyota – albeit adapting them as well – they were able to cut wait times in emergency wards by 40% in one year while improving quality of care (fewer deaths) and saving money.

I am far from an expert on lean technology or even the process one might undertake to become a lean enterprise, but I understand enough to imagine a place for lean thinking in my organization – perhaps yours, too. Before I say much more about that, I do want to give due attention to the fact that more often than not, non-profit organizations, in particular human services organizations, face some different, if not unique, challenges that many for-profits do not.

For example, a production line at Toyota is all about making the automobile that the line is responsible for. There are specification; the right materials are presented for use at the right time, and people are trained to deliver on those specs and materials. And there are to do this within cost guidelines and while meeting health and safety standards. This does correlate to some of the work we do in our organization, but the transference of lean technology principles may not neatly apply to some of our work.

We work with human beings who are coming to us with a set of complex problems; they are seeking assistance and what assistance they can receive depends on what problems and needs they share. One could argue that our “help” is the product they seek and in part that is true, but it is not like a company that offers a variety of smart phone solutions and plans. Helping people with complex needs is not easily addressed through a line of products. Often our “product” involves customization and its success is highly connected to the trust we build we clients and the time we are willing to spend.

That said, I think there is merit to applying some lean thinking to the work we do. One of the key lean principles of offering improved services is about “specifying value from the standpoint of the end customer by product family.” That’s from the Lean Institute’s five principles of lean techniques (source). My version of that principle is: “specifying value from the standpoint of the client as it relates to the services he/she seeks.” Or something like that!

Imagine if we applied that principle to the identification of outcomes; even better, imagine if we engaged clients in the process of identifying the outcomes they require or seek. Yes, easier said than done, I know. But still, it makes sense doesn’t it?

I am not going to reference all five principles in this posting, but here is another one for now: “Identify all the steps in the value stream for each product family, eliminating whenever possible those steps that do not create value.” Again my non-profit version might go like this: “identify all the steps in each service stream experienced by the client and eliminate whenever possible those steps that do not create value.” Note that “creating value” is the paramount benchmark, not saving time or money. Chances are, however, time and costs will be reduced if we do not need as many steps to help the people that come to us for assistance. Creating and maximizing value is the goal. We don’t set out to reduce steps solely or even primarily as a cost reduction exercise.

Organizations need the capacity to deliver maximum value and I believe that rethinking how our capacities manifest in our work can not only increase value but in the process, better manage human resources, finances, and the other resource that together make up organizational capacity.

Here’s a small example I want to put to the test at Bissell Centre. No one at the agency knows about this yet, so it will be interesting to see if anyone reads my blog! I guess I will find out.

We provide free clothing to people who can’t afford to buy clothing. Clothing for men, women, children and so on, including coats, other winter gear, shoes and boots, etc. To get access to free clothing, individuals need to see one of our workers who does an assessment to see if indeed they are too poor to buy their own stuff. Then based on our assessment we decide if they get anything or not, or less than they are requesting. We tell ourselves that this process of intake also allows us to check in to see if the client has other issues or problems we might help them with. At this writing I do not know how often that actually happens. I know it does, but my question is how often? If it is only once in a while, I would like to know that.

As well I want to know how often we tell the person, sorry you don’t qualify for free clothing. My understanding is not often, perhaps rarely if at all. Fact is the people who come to Bissell Centre come here because they are down and out. There aren’t too many people of means coming through our doors to get free, used clothing. So, if we hardly ever say no to such requests and if our interview process rarely results in the identification of other, bigger issues to address, then I would think we need to change our system. Perhaps we just provide free clothing to those who request it. Or perhaps we need to adjust our interview process so that it has a better chance of uncovering other issues we can help with. Or perhaps there is something in between.

I think it makes sense to find out if we are going through unneeded steps to help someone who needs some clothing and to find out if our intake processes are effective in discovering other challenges or issues the client is facing. Maybe there is something we can help out with now before it becomes a crisis. Better value through a leaner process might just be the ticket.

Perhaps by doing away with our interview process to get free clothing, my staff will have more time to address more complex needs and challenges. That would be a good thing, too.

I’ll let you know what happens after we review the free clothing service. Stay tuned.



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