Public Housing and Process Improvement: (Lean Transformation)-Addressing Challenges to Change

Today I welcome my friend and co-worker Job Pangilinan to my blog to help co-author.  You can visit his LinkedIn page here-

In an environment where everyone is expected to do more with less, implementing process improvement programs and initiatives is not easy within the affordable housing arena.  Sometimes it is the perception that introducing lean would mean changing many aspects in the organization which could be costly, and with less resource – to utilize status quo comes out to be an easier option. From the staff engagement standpoint, undertaking experimentation s as an integral part of lean scientific problem solving can be seen as work disruption – “Where the heck can we find time to do that with our busy schedule?” – is a not unusual response we get. We (Josh and Job) propose that although implementing lean can be a challenge in public and affordable housing, it is not only possible but necessarily important to address the issue of doing more work with less resource.

Let’s examine some of the issues/challenges and see if this proposal has leg to stand on!

1. “We are too busy.”

How can a housing authority launch process improvement while keeping up on day to day work?  How can we engage staff out of their jobs to do process improvement when it means getting behind?  I need my inspector inspecting, my line staff processing annual reviews and my property managers collecting rents and doing compliance.

Answer: (Josh) In many ways this situation is screaming for lean.  If an agency is overwhelmed with work and does not have enough time to think about looking for improvements, it is probably a perfect candidate.  If you wait until there are enough staff/resources, you will never ever ever take the time to improve processes because you will never find the time.  Taking the time to do improvement work cannot only provide relief but also reenergize staff.  If an employee has been cranking annual reviews for the last ten years, taking the time to improve the parts of his or her work that drives them nuts will be exciting.  Well, at least for many it will be. (Job) On one of the improvement projects a team worked on, 68% of the work are defects (forms that come in incomplete and had to be sent back to tenants).  Currently, the team had improved it down to 28% which translates to a 40% improvement. Conservatively, this brings a 26 hour capacity per month to the whole team as against a total 3-hour meeting used by the team members to define the problem, map out the process, identify the root cause, and choose countermeasures (24 total work hours for an 8 member team).

2. “Lean does not specifically provide answers to my problems.” 
We both agree that we have never stumbled across a magic book, or a blue print,  that gives the answers on how to deal with housing authority specific policy/procedural or process issues.  However; lean provides framework and ideas to tackle any issue.    

Answer:  Again, there are no magic bullets here but instead a set of tools and a management system that helps an agency align through every layer.   Applying lean scientific problem solving as a daily lean practice helps every stakeholder in the process figure out what is upstream and what is happening downstream (especially on a value stream mapping). It also helps bring alignment on what the organizational goal is (management) and how the operations would able to achieve it (line staff).  In reality, it provides answer to both ends of the spectrum.

3. “Right Now Is Not A Good Idea … Republican Congress and Republican President Creates Uncertainty.”

It is not surprising to hear people within the industry to color our situation with political uncertainty. Agencies powered by taxpayers’ money will always be subject to accountability scrutiny. We do not know what the funding for affordable housing will look like for the next four years – many would say.  Is that reason enough to stay on status quo?  Should we shut down shop on process improvement and wait for “better” times? 

Answer: (Josh) The changing tides of politics and funding are exactly the reason why we should be pushing for lean within the workplace.  Getting staff engaged in improving practices and focusing on strategic goals throughout the agency will help us weather any political storm.  In times of budget shortfalls, lean can ensure that the agency is laser focused on what is important and drive continuous improvement in those areas. (Job) One important aspect of lean transformation is becoming a data-driven organization. Change brought about by politics is fleeting and subjective but decisions that are driven by numbers are more permanent and objective.  It transcends politics. I even think this management system can get support from all parties, green party included J

4. “Lean focuses on Customer and A Housing Authority Has Too Many.”

So identifying customers in public housing is an interesting challenge.  A leader told me recently, “We are not only trying to help low-income families but must keep HUD, the state, the city and multiple regulators happy.”  This broad spectrum of customers is no doubt not an easy case sample.  

Answer: (Josh) If a housing authority or affordable housing provider has multiple customers, is it not important to make sure the agency is clear about what is value added in those customers eyes?  Should we not be focused on delivering exactly what our customer bases want and not anything more?  Do we need to create extra bureaucratic work on top of what HUD or other regulatory bodies already created for us?  The answer is no but we tend to do it anyway. Lean tells us not to fear these bodies but to open the doors and ask them to come in and help ensure we know what their requirements are.  Being clear about competing priorities from different customer bases will help us fine tune the work we are doing day to day. (Job)“What is the value to the customer?” Peter Drucker even believed that this may be the most important management question to ask yet least often asked. Lean often times define waste as anything that does not give value to our customers. Our primary lean goal is to identify these wastes and to either reduce or eliminate them.

5. “I am worried more about my ACOP/ADMIN Plan or MTW Strategy.”

Many agencies might say, “I do not need lean, I need to focus on keeping up with my policy.”  From my experience working with housing policy, it often leads to implementing something.  Getting a policy from public hearing to actually up and running is usually a process.  The best laid policy will die on the vine without operational awareness. 

Answer: (Josh) I started working with lean when I noticed policy I worked on was not translating well to operations.  It had nothing to do with operations, instead it had everything to do with a bad policy making process that did not involve the end users.  Even worse, in some situations a policy change is made when a simple process improvement event might have been the answer.  If you want to effect change with policy, you better make sure you have the operational I.Q. to back it up.  Lean management systems can help ensure we are bridging the gap between policy and process. (Job) Most, if not all the improvement projects I’ve worked on touch on policy, directly or incidentally. What makes it so interesting is alignment of both policy (why we do things) and process (how we do things) is pertinent to creating a sustainable agency. For instance, an interim or special review is required as a matter of policy. Study of the process shows that there are so many loose ends (waste) that policy alignment is impending for its effective implementation.

Conclusion:  There will always be wide ranging challenges in implementing lean and or other process improvement methods in the affordable housing industry.  Start small and model out lean systems and process improvement within a sub-area.  See what is possible when you align day to day work with agency objectives/strategy.

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