How to Start a Process Improvement Initiative at a Public Housing Authority

I am back in the USA and working in the public housing industry.  With that comes my return to using six sigma lean methodology to help me with my projects and work.  I loved six sigma lean from my first introduction to it because it gave me a way to work through issues/projects.  Everything I learned seemed to make so much sense and on top of that the tools were not really complicated.  With my return to the housing world, I am thinking through how I might launch lean initiatives with colleagues and departments within the agency I work at.    I started a six sigma lean initiative at another Housing Authority in 2014/2014 but it was more of a bottom up approach.  Dozens of staff were interested and many were trained.  However; I did not do a great job getting leadership buy in.  I do not work there anymore but I am not sure I did a good enough job instilling it throughout the organization for it to last.  Before going on, I should explain some of these terms.  Below is a chart that gives a little more detail on what lean is and what six sigma lean is.  In short, they are both process improvement methodologies.


Now that you have a little more background we can move on.  I still think that getting staff excited is a great approach but actually sustaining it and creating a culture that can stand the test of time is much more important to me now.  People tend to think of lean as something that a few key people can do and that those people will bring unbelievable improvements by themselves.  Real lean transformations happen when leadership and staff come together to understand their respective roles.  Staff empowerment and management support come together to help create a culture where real continuous improvement can take place.  Of course, training and knowledge acquisition must take place.  On top of that, you often need some key facilitators and project leaders to help track and guide projects along.   Everything above is just points that I either read or experienced firsthand but do not get me to the point where I can say, “This is the best way to implement lean at a housing authority.”

Maybe there is not a perfect way to implement lean at a housing authority but there are certainly different options to explore.  Let’s take a way at how you can bring continuous improvement to your agency.

Start with an interested leader

I learned from mistakes in the past.  While I will not say you have to have 100% leadership approval across the agency to do something, it will be a hell of a lot easier if you have at least some.  I recommend starting lean where there is at least some strong interest and or support.  Starting from a position of strength will allow a business unit, department or specific area to begin building lean. If you start in an area where leadership is not interested or half interested, chances are it will fall apart with the first crisis or fire in some other area.


What do you want lean to be within your agency or department.  How big do you want to start and who are your key staff members?  Who will facilitate lean events and how will you track projects and daily lean management.  Spend some time thinking through these key questions before launching.  It is usually wise to have a lean committee of some type that tracks and helps different business areas with project selection and wrap up. Below is an example of setting up and visioning an implementation.



  • Facilitators: Once you get an area to begin, train up some of your key leadership within that area in lean.  I am talking about people who can facilitate and move lean initiatives forward.  They do not need to be managers but do need to be people who can relate with staff and have some measure of respect.   Find some options in your community for the training.  Sometimes it is a university, sometimes a community college and sometimes state or local government agencies have training options.  Get some basic training under leaderships belt about the principles of lean and the various tools.  If the lean course does not focus on facilitation, some basic facilitation courses could go a long way.  You need leaders who can keep lean projects moving and facilitate day to day lean.
  • Leadership:  For department directors and managers, the degree of lean training might vary.  Even if you are not going to facilitate projects and meetings, you need to understand the concepts and be supportive.  At the very minimum, you need to take a basics of lean course to start.  I recommend trying to learn more as a true lean initiative means leadership is starting to talk in senior meetings about lean initiatives, how to move them forward and managing from a lean perspective.
  • Line Staff:  Line staff should all get some basics of lean or intro to lean to start.  The nice thing is this training might come from staff depending on who you have in your employee pool.  If you have a few trained facilitators or managers who really are good teachers, you can put together some internal lean training’s and start rolling it out to staff.  If not, some into to lean courses will go a long way.  Make sure that you do not roll out the training faster than you have capacity to use the staff.  If you do not have enough structure around the initiative, you will waste excited staff.  Waste of knowledge is one of the forms of deadly waste after all.

Daily Lean Management:  This comes back to your visioning.  Without a vision, it will be hard to sustain and grow your lean movement.  Ensure that lean management is happening on all levels.  Leadership meetings in a business unit should include talk about the overall lean initiative, process improvement projects and ways to improve.  Lean committees should be looking more in depth at the lean projects and working with the various teams and facilitator on what is being chosen and the health of projects.  This team should be giving direct data and information back to leadership.  At the line level, daily huddles, checking of goals and visual management are all a part of day to day lean.

Conclusion:  There are a million websites, books, and services that can give you information on how to implement lean.  As a housing authority, try to focus on resources that understand lean in a service and or government environment.  We have a frustratingly high level of work that we do that is mandatory even though it is wasteful.  I have found working with consultants from the manufacturing world is not as helpful as finding people who know what our work is like.  Do your reading and do not get overwhelmed.  At some point, you need to pull the trigger.  Getting your head wrapped around how you want to roll it out well help ensure there is some structure and thought.  You will learn more and as you do, your initiative will improve and grow. If you start your lean initiatives in one area of an agency, continue to share successes with the rest of the agency.  Continue to educate.  Real agency transformation will come when there is agency wide adoption.

Are there any other public or social housing authorities that have launched process improvement programs?  What were your results?

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