Posted Thursday, February 9, 2017 by Greg Tipping

Why Human Services Must Be a Lean Machine

Human beings make mistakes. Period. And even though we’re big believers that social workers and caseworkers are super heroes, we know they make mistakes sometimes too.

Ever lost or misplaced a document? Skipped a step when scanning it into the system? Filed it in the wrong place? Overlooked a key piece of information when reviewing a case file?

Mistakes happen. While it may not be likely to eliminate errors completely, there are many changes a human services agency can make to reduce the possibility of errors being made. It all starts with simplifying processesand in doing so, creating less opportunity for errors to occur.

A Quick Introduction to “Lean” Process Improvement

For those not familiar, “Lean” is a popular methodology for creating processes that eliminate waste and require less time and effort, but still increase quality and value for the customer. GreyCampus, a leading provider of training for working professionals in the areas of Project Management, Big Data, Data Science, Service Management and Quality Management, provides a more detailed overview in its article 8 Fatal Lean Wastes: How to Identify Them?

According to the Lean Enterprise Institute:

"Lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.
A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it."

For the past few weeks, Northwoods has been working with a consultant to examine our own key processes, identify where they can be streamlined or improved, and eliminate what we like to call “the clunkiness”all so we can focus solely on what needs to be done to provide value to our partners.

The more we learn, the more we realize how much human services agencies could benefit from these principles too.

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Decrease “Downtime” to Eliminate Error

One of the key Lean principles is eliminating “waste”any step in a process that doesn’t add value, or isn’t required to get the process done. By removing these nonessential steps, there’s less opportunity to create error, and more time to focus on what actually needs done.

“Downtime” is a popular mnemonic for remembering the 8 “wastes” to eliminate:

Lean process improvements: how "8 wastes" apply to human servicesGraphic credit:

Let’s look at each type of waste from a human services perspectivein this case, having to rely on paper documents or an outdated document management system. It quickly becomes clear how an agency could benefit from removing that waste from its document management processes:

  • Defects: When forms aren’t filled out correctly or case files are missing information, how can you be confident you’re making the best decision for a family?
  • Overproduction: If you print out hundreds of paper copies of a form that changes or becomes outdated, you’re wasting agency resources and risk the possibility of collecting the wrong information the next time you talk to a client. (Read more: Pitfalls of Relying on Too Much Paper in Human Services)
  • Waiting: Waiting on documents to get scanned into the system could mean delaying a client from getting the help they need. (Read more: Not Your Average Electronic Document Management System)
  • Non-utilized talent: Spending too much time on clerical work takes away from being able to focus on actually managing cases and creating more quality time with clients.
  • Transportation: If you already have limited time for a client visit, do you really want to spend it driving back to the agency to grab a paper form you forgot?
  • Inventory: When it’s time to prepare for audits, workers can get pulled away from providing services for hours or even days if they have to search for, locate, and organize individual documents or paper case files.
  • Motion: Getting up from your desk may be good for your health, but it’s inefficient if you have to wander the office and search through filing cabinets every time you need to find a case file.
  • Extra processing: Not only is it inconvenient for a worker to have to fill out the same basic information in multiple forms, but you also risk losing a client’s trust if you have to ask them for the same information twice.

What has your agency done to eliminate waste? Have you applied any other Lean principles to improve your processes? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Check out these resources if you plan to invest in new technology as part of your Lean process improvements:

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Greg Tipping helps agencies uncover and solve their most complicated, challenging, and unique business and technology problems. Equipping agencies with custom solutions to deliver services better, Greg can fulfill his mission to make a difference in the lives of folks that rely on support from agencies.