Lean Problem Solving with Charities

A month or so ago I was asked if I could run a course for local charitable organisations, by BITC connector Chris Watts. Chris wanted to help managers working in this sector, where money for training is often tight, to get access to the kind of training managers in commercial businesses might get. We arranged a free workshop on problem solving using Lean ideas and tools, which I delivered last week.

BITC (https://bitcconnect.org/about)¬†connectors are a great initiative. The basic idea is that connectors work with businesses in an area to connect them with people dealing with social issues. The focus is on the ‘win-win’ partnership between business and charities, which I’m very much in favour of. It’s a win-win situation, because the business provides resources and in response receives opportunity to promote its work, to develop staff and other add-on benefits. The charities provide diverse opportunities for businesses and benefit from the skills and resources the business can offer.

I spent a bit time thinking about the content of the course should be. There are lots of things you could do on problem solving, but for a 3hr session I wanted to make sure people went away with some practical tools as well as things to consider further. I decided to focus mostly on the PDCA cycle and also give a quick skim of the A3 problem solving tool, including 5 Whys.

PDCA or Plan-Do-Check-Act was popularised by W.Edwards Deming last century and forms a basis for the learning culture needed in Lean organisations. We quickly skimmed over the theory and applied the cycle to a practical exercise – moving 100 plastic balls from one end of the room to the other, making sure each delegate touched each ball with both hands. The delegates successfully went through a few test cycles using PDCA, ie they planned an improvement, eg to pass two balls at a time; did it within a 30s period; checked how many balls were moved; and then acted on that, eg trying a new plan.

The delegates successfully completed the exercise and we discussed the benefits of PDCA over a more ‘just-do-it’ approach, in particular the benefit of creating a learning/problem-solving culture in your organisation.

We went on to look at the A3 report and how it can be used to provide a structured move through the PDCA cycle. An A3 report is essentially a way of structuring a brainstorm exercise by recording the content on an A3 sheet of paper. To help structure the problem solving approach, you can run through steps, which follow the PDCA cycle. We worked through another exercise (putting dismantled electrical plugs together) using an A3 report.

We also discussed the 5 Whys technique, which is a great way to do root cause analysis, an important step on the A3 report. The idea is fairly simple. We start with a problem and then ask Why it is like that. Once we have an answer, we then ask Why again, and repeat. It doesn’t necessarily have to go to a depth of 5 Whys, but that udually is about the right depth to come up with the underlying issue – which can then be addressed.

The delegates enjoyed the course and indicated it had been beneficial. One commented that it was the first time (in many years of working in the voluntary sector) that she’d heard such ideas. Another wanted to borrow my A3 template to use to address an immediate problem he was dealing with.¬†As much as there will be some Lean gurus out there who will be appalled at superficially teaching techniques without really looking at the underlying Lean ideas, the delegates did seem to benefit from the practical application and have a feel for Lean philosophy.

From my perspective, it was fun to try out material in a different way and I think I would definitely offer the workshop to other clients in future. There was some interest in future training work from the delegates, but even if there was no direct financial gain from this course, it promotes the George T&D brand further.

Of course, the delegates who attended are all doing great charitable work and hopefully we’ve contributed a bit to helping them solve any problems that hinder that, so that’s positive in its own right. I look forward to doing more sessions like this in future.