When I first started using lean methodology in my work, I usually looked for ways to deploy lean tools to solve problems throughout the agency. I would use the 5 whys, cause and effect diagrams and process mapping to look at issues as they were brought to my attention. Doing this allowed me to study problems and work with teams throughout the housing authority to improve upon the trouble spots. The tools and lean methods helped without a shadow of a doubt. I got the opportunity to work on projects as wide ranging as improving the time it takes to hire staff to improving self-sufficiency programs. This is a lot of fun but is severely limiting because I can only take on so many projects at a time and still go through the analysis and measurements needed to successfully complete it.
What I failed to do in past jobs was build up a culture and situation where everyone involved on the team were problem solvers. I acted more like an internal consultant and helped solve the issues by embedding myself for a short period of time with a team. The team always had the answers but I pulled out the lean tools and helped them work through it. What would have happened if we activated the team members as problem solvers instead of just simply sitting in as part of the team describing the issues and discussing possible solutions? What if the team all learned simple process improvement tools and ideas and could turn the magnifying glass on their own work? Is it possible to create a culture where all of our employees feel safe enough to look at the waste in their own day to day work and come up with ways for reducing or getting rid of it?
Lets examine the facts. Housing Authorities are not getting any extra money. It seems like there are new policies and regulations coming at us everyday that complicate our work. We talk about becoming more efficient and protecting the publicly spent funds we are responsible for. In reality how much time and energy do we invest in doing so? Yes we can hire consultants to look at inefficient work but what good will it do when they walk out the door and their ideas are left to be implemented by staff? How likely is it that staff will take the advice of outsiders once the normal busy day to day work piles back up? Chances are things will go back to the way they were.
One of the main concepts around lean is respect for your employees. This respect means we trust our staff to be the experts at their jobs. Respect means we create safe places for them so they are not nervous at exposing errors, decencies and waste and then looking for ways to improve upon them. The reason true lean is so hard to really implement in any agency it because it flattens out decision making and problems solving to such a degree it can be shocking to those who are not used to it. Yes I am talking about managers and directors but I am also talking about line staff. When you train an employee to be an everyday problem solver and empower him or her to decide what works better, it is a completely different way of doing things.
Go to the Gemba: This is one of my favorite sayings in the lean world. It means go to the work or go see where the work is actually being done. I take this to heart on every project I work on. I do not believe improvements or process improvement can happen in a boardroom or conference room. You need to work hand in hand with staff and see their daily situations. Ask questions! Experience what your staff is experiencing. When your staff sees the respect for their work, they will tell you what is not working and what could work better. 90% of what a consultant tells you your staff could already tell you. The trick is to enable them to make the changes that are needed and support and coach them along the way.
Conclusion: Lean is a big subject. There are a lot of steps and barriers an organization needs to get over to truly get to the place where all staff are problem solvers. The first step is acquainting yourself with lean as a methodology and the different tools that are used. Access your organization and decide if this is truly a movement you are welling to undertake. Remember you will never truly realize all that lean can offer unless you are willing to empower your staff and began the transition to creating an agency full of problem solvers.
If you have questions about first steps, shoot me an email. firstname.lastname@example.org. I am not a consultant but I as well as several other employees of public housing authorities in the Pacific Northwest are happy to give tips and ideas for free to colleagues in the public and social housing world.