Making Work and The World a Better Place

ISE Magazine April 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 4

By Andrew Parris

We all have that feeling from time to time: Something is wrong. It can be better. It should be better. I want to make it better. I will make it better.

This seems to be the basic sequence of feelings that motivates industrial and systems engineers. Most of us have received a university education to pursue doing this more effectively. Many learned the thinking and tools of lean and Six Sigma and applied them to improve our workplaces.

We aspire to develop our professional skills, to become better at improving to take on larger and more complex challenges. We aim to take on additional responsibility, to grow in influence and, along the way, inspire, teach and coach others to improve. That’s why you’re an IISE member and read this magazine.

This article explores the basics of how development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work and the surprising – at first, but later rather obvious – similarity between the work of ISEs and that of NGOs. We describe a vision for process excellence that seamlessly integrates concepts and principles from both lean Six Sigma and the NGO world. Finally, we offer some practical ideas for ISE practitioners to join the fight against poverty and relieve suffering.

A quest for transformational development

The book Walking With the Poor by Bryant Meyers, a former senior leader at World Vision, explains the organization’s approach to helping communities out of poverty. The basic idea is that World Vision “development facilitators” don’t come into a poor village and tell people what to do or do things for them. Instead, the development facilitator (DF) helps the community envision a better future and describe changes they want to see. The DF works with them to identify the causes of poverty and develop interventions to help move the community out of poverty.

The DF builds up the capacity of the community along the way. He or she teaches and coaches people on what they need to know and do to improve their lives and to continue to make things better long after World Vision has left. Ide-ally, the community helps create the plans and it owns them and the projects that are undertaken. Community members provide expertise and at least some of the resources to do the work. The facilitator’s genuine love and respect for the community and its members, especially the most vulnerable, strengthens relationships, helps overcome challenges and enhances the magnitude and sustainability of the trans-formation.

World Vision’s standard approach to community development, LEAP, builds on design, monitoring and evaluation, a problem-solving structure similar to Six Sigma’s DMAIC and lean’s PDCA. The LEAP (Learning through Evaluation with Accountability and Planning) framework includes:

  • Defines the “why” of a proposed program or project by collecting and analyzing information on the com-munity and the context
  • Plans the program and project interventions to ad-dress root causes
  • Refers to routine collection of information to establish activities that have occurred; it supports basic management and accountability, tracks actual performance against plans and informs needed adjustments.
  • Systematically and objectively assesses relevance, performance and success, or lack thereof, of ongoing and completed programs and projects
  • Reflect. Planning and putting time aside to analyze information and to make informed decisions and recommendations about necessary changes in current projects and pro-grams
  • Refers to ending (or changing) support to communities; World Vision aims to assist communities in a way that empowers them to sustain program outcomes after its assistance has ended

Because the root causes of poverty often lie in unjust systems and structures that oppress the poor, World Vision complements its community development work with advocacy. This aims to persuade governments and other key influencers to create, modify and implement policies to benefit the poor. It also empowers individuals and communities to understand their rights and responsibilities and mobilizes them to engage constructively with governments and influencers.

Transformational development, lean Six Sigma similarities

What will strike you most, as it struck me when I first learned about transformational development, was how similar it is to lean Six Sigma. Both share these characteristics:

  • The improvement expert does not tell others what to do or do things for them they can do themselves, but rather facilitates improvement by teaching and coaching others to make improvements The expert does not set the goals for the community or organization but asks them to dream of a better future and to set and work toward goals they wish to achieve. The expert draws on the expertise of the people he or she works with to identify problems, causes and solutions and builds up the capacity of those helped, who then own the implementation and must sustain the changes.
  • Understanding the current state through measurement and analysis of root causes provides the foundation for many incremental improvements that address root causes and together help move toward a desired future. The improvement plan is not a guaranteed recipe for success but a structured scientific method consisting of many hypotheses and a plan of experiments (improvements) to be carried out, monitored and adjusted along the way based on reflection and learning.
  • The improvement expert should be courageous to face the great challenges and inevitable failures; humble to learn from and respect others; creative and disciplined to adapt and apply the concepts and tools in new contexts; persistent because deep transformation takes time and energy and encounters many obstacles; and inspirational because people with deep-rooted problems need someone to give them hope and a reason to invest in the hard work of improvement. Finally, only the improvement expert who loves the people being helped will treat them with the dignity and compassion they deserve to earn the trust and personal commitment required to achieve sustainable transformation.

These similarities can be seen in a quote from former World Vision International President Graeme Irvine (see Figure 2) that hangs in the main hallway of the WVI offices in Monrovia, California. I had only to replace two words to make it apply to lean Six Sigma. As I understood these similarities, the simple explanation became clear to me: Process improvement does in an organization what transformational development does in a community.

Providing relief and recovery

Medair ( and other humanitarian NGOs also follow the same basic framework as development NGOs, but in unpredictable and volatile crisis contexts and generally on a much shorter time frame. Thus, humanitarian work involves doing more things for people and giving things to them. However, even in a refugee camp, NGOs strive to build the capacity of the people whom they’re serving.

The humanitarian sector has developed the core humanitarian standard (CHS) which codifies the commitments to improve the quality and effectiveness of assistance. These are to: provide assistance appropriate to the need; provide assistance at the right time; avoid negative effects and build capacity; inform people of their rights and our plans and involve them in decisions; welcome and respond well to complaints; coordinate with others providing aid; learn and improve over time; treat employees fairly, ensure they are competent and manage them well; and manage resources effectively, efficiently and ethically.

The CHS guides a humanitarian NGO (most also applies to development NGOs) to be accountable to the people and communities affected by crisis for whom it serves. In humanitarian work, we see the same similarities to lean noted above.

In an example, Medair South Sudan focuses on child mal-nutrition. In a possible crisis, we assess the level of malnutrition of children under age 5 and pregnant and lactating women. If the levels are above emergency thresholds and no others can respond, we establish a feeding center and encourage communities to bring underweight children. We measure them and admit severely or moderately malnourished children.

We also test children for and treat malaria, diarrhea and vomiting and acute respiratory infections, common conditions that may cause or are aggravated by malnutrition. We treat them and assess their progress regularly. A severely malnourished child may receive up to six months of supplementary food before being discharged.

Medair follows internationally recognized standards of diagnosis and treatment. Its holistic approach combines supplementary food for malnourished children younger than 5 and nursing and expectant mothers with interventions designed to prevent malnutrition, such as primary healthcare, access to water and sanitation, and lessons on how to better care for young children. When possible, we work with and build the capacity of local clinics.

While our primary goal is to save lives, we always try to promote sustainable changes that will prevent future malnutrition crises. Both during and after each project, we measure and analyze how things are going and our impact so we can learn, adjust and improve.

Challenges of humanitarian and development work

When Toyota decides where to build a new assembly plant, it places great value on having a good transportation network and supply chain infrastructure, an educated and available workforce, and favorable government policies and laws.

When a development NGO decides which community to help, it generally looks for exactly the opposite. The poorest people live in hard-to-reach places with poor infrastructure and high levels of corruption. They have little formal education and spend most of their time trying to provide food for themselves and their families. Government policies and laws and how they are or are not implemented often hinder the poor and efforts to help them.

In short, development work happens in very challenging contexts that place great demands on the people doing the work and on the processes and systems they use. In humanitarian contexts, additional challenges include unpredictability, instability, violence, acute suffering, destruction, lawlessness and inaccessibility.

Yes, most private sector companies have many challenges and face stiff competition. But humanitarian and development NGOs face challenges that are bigger, more frequent and more chaotic than companies encounter in their optimally located offices and factories. Therefore, the need for lean Six Sigma and other ISE thinking and tools in humanitarian and development work is even greater, both because of the greater challenges and the greater mission: saving and improving the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Genesis of a process excellence vision

After I joined World Vision, I saw a great need for improved processes. Based on what I was learning about transformational development, I developed a vision for process excellence that seamlessly integrated key elements of lean, Six Sigma and transformational development. I wanted to present lean Six Sigma to my colleagues in a way that connected with the thinking and working that were part of their DNA and would motivate them to improve how they work to have greater impact.

I knew corporate world priorities of effectiveness and efficiency were also important for an NGO, but not the whole story. Transformational development showed me that a frame-work for thinking about work needs to encompass more. I saw the importance of being flexible and appropriate to context, in both lean and development work. I next tried to integrate ideas that were increasingly recognized in the lean world about people and the need to build the capacity of those one works with and to empower them to be agents of their own transformation rather than tell them what to do.

Finally, I wanted to convey the central role of continuous improvement in all of these areas. Out of this emerged the five attributes of process excellence: effective, efficient, appropriate, empowering and continuously improving. (See Figure 3.)

Process excellence provided a common long-term goal and direction for process improvement. It showed everyone what both great and better look like in a way that naturally resonated with how they thought about transformation. Furthermore, process excellence applies equally well to internal support processes such as recruitment, procurement and payment, and to the customer-facing, value-adding processes of partnering with beneficiaries to help them out of poverty or bring them relief.

One sentence defines each of the five attributes of process excellence and another describes each of its three elements. They seamlessly integrate the most important concepts and practices of lean and Six Sigma with those of transformational development.

  1. Processes are reliable, timely and enable transformation.
  • Reliable: They consistently and safely deliver quality, valued outputs and results.
  • Timely: They flow smoothly (minimum hand-offs, de-lays, rework) to provide output when it is needed.
  • Transformation: They contribute to or facilitate contribution to “Life in all its fullness.”

The first and most important goal for any process is to achieve its purpose. For World Vision, this means transformation – helping a community work toward “Life in all its fullness,” part of its vision statement. Next in importance are the quality of the goods or services provided and safety of the people involved. In the often-dangerous contexts of humanitarian work, this is essential, as in every factory and office.

Help provided too late is often no help at all, so timeliness is also important for work to be effective. That includes the key lean concepts of flow and pull.

  1. Efficient. Processes are simple, standard and integrated.
  • Simple: They are intuitive, clear, concise, visually organized and easy to perform correctly.
  • Standard: They use defined, common workflows, tools, roles and responsibilities, policies and expectations.
  • Integrated: They seamlessly integrate with other processes and into a larger, optimized system.

A process that is simple, standard and integrated will naturally provide the best value for the money. Simple includes the lean goals of eliminating waste, visual management and making it easy for people to succeed in their work. Standard draws on the goal of standard work from both lean and Six Sigma that provides the springboard for improvement and the basis for sharing best practices. Integrated, as all systems engineers know, addresses the fundamental need of all parts of a larger system to work together.

  1. We respect all stakeholders, remain flexible and use appropriate technology
  • Respect: We honor all who are involved in or affected by our work and their values and beliefs.
  • Flexibility: We adapt to different contexts and respond easily to changing situations.
  • Technology: We use reliable technology that is appropriate to the purpose, user and use environment.

Here I change the focus to the people performing the process. Appropriate draws heavily on transformational development concepts relevant not just to how field staff interact with beneficiaries but also to how people performing a process treat their customers and stakeholders. This begins with showing respect to everyone. Flexibility prioritizes the dual needs of adapting to different contexts (for example, in different countries) and of responding when things change (as when a drought develops or sudden disaster strikes). Appropriate technology stresses the importance of using proven tools that are fit for the process, the people and the environment.

  1. We make decisions locally, partner with stakeholders and have needed capacity.
  • Local decisions: We make decisions transparently and as close to the action as possible.
  • Partnering: We work with stakeholders to increase capacity, teamwork, output and results.
  • Capacity: We have the tools, skills, knowledge and work culture needed to achieve outputs and results.

Empowering also focuses on the people involved and draws heavily on transformational development thinking. It begins with making local decisions that are transparent and made by those most affected by them. Partnering highlights the need to build capacity of the people being worked with, a key not only to increased impact but also to greater sustainability. Capacity means giving and building in the people who do the work what they need to succeed.

  1. Continuously improving. We are accountable, correct problems quickly and apply learning.
  • Accountability: We own, measure, report, review and act on process performance, outputs and results.
  • Correcting problems quickly: We make problems visible, promptly investigate them and address root causes.
  • Learning: We reflect and proactively develop, apply and share learning, best practices and innovation.

Continuously improving is strategically placed at the center and over the other four elements in Figure 3 and emphasizes the need for everyone to always work to make things better. Accountability presents the need to measure what is happening and to make changes based on what one finds. Correcting problems quickly draws on ideas in Steven Spear’s The High-Velocity Edge of revealing problems and quickly solving them. Finally, learning emphasizes the need to reflect, to make proactive improvements, share lessons learned and spread best practices and innovation.

Excellent processes allow a team or an organization to deliver the greatest value with the fewest resources at the right time in the right way. While process excellence is an unacheivable ideal state, having it as a guiding vision provides vital inspiration and guidance in the never ending pursuit of excellence.

What does it mean for us?

The similarity between the ISE approaches of lean and Six Sigma and the community development approach of trans-formational development demonstrates that these seemingly different domains have a great deal in common. At their core, both are fundamentally about transformative improvement achieved through structured problem-solving, showing respect, building capacity, caring for others and more.

When I first shared this vision of Process Excellence with colleagues on a trip to East Africa, the response was positive and strong. They asked me to come there to help them improve how they did their work. Within a year, I moved to Nairobi with my family, and for three years trained and coached my World Vision colleagues to improve processes. The World Vision article “Improving Processes for Good in East Africa” describes what we did and the amazing results we achieved. I have been applying a similar approach in my current role as process excellence manager with Medair. This experience demonstrates that lean and Six Sigma readily apply in development and humanitarian work.

A number of other NGOs and nonprofits are also applying lean, Six Sigma and other ISE principles and practices in their work. IISE member Brion Hurley has documented some examples in his Lean Six Sigma for Good website, www.lean, and books.

But the need is great. Many NGOs and nonprofits, especially smaller ones, could benefit from ISEs providing pro bono training, facilitation and coaching. My friend Sammy Obara, a senior partner in Honsha, helped me find a handful of outstanding lean Six Sigma experts who provided valuable training and coaching for World Vision and Medair. This experience shows that each of you can also reach out to local and international nonprofits and NGOs to help improve their processes.

I encourage all NGOs and nonprofits to improve how they work by applying lean and Six Sigma, which embody the thinking they use to help communities and people suffering from poverty or crises. And I encourage all ISE professionals to consider how you can partner with NGOs and nonprofits in this valuable and necessary task. Together, we can help make work and the world better.