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WNY nonprofits reduce waste by learning the Lean way

Paticipants in UB TCIE’s Certified Lean Professional program included employees of Baker Victory Services, Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled, and People Inc.

By Tracy Puckett

Release Date: January 5, 2016

“The return on investment in this partnership has been invaluable.”
Lindsay Goodenough, vice president of administrative services
Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Maureen Brown has recently found herself asking the same question – “Why did you do that?” – when conversing with co-workers.

“All of us have to take ownership of what we do,” said Brown, director of purchasing at Baker Victory Services (BVS) in Lackawanna. “Are we doing the right thing, and for the right reason?”

Brown and 13 other professionals from BVS, Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled (CSDD) in Buffalo and People Inc. in Williamsville are taking a fresh look at service delivery through a different lens: the Lean methodology of decreasing waste.

Their immersion in learning the continuous improvement approach materialized from an idea presented by the University at Buffalo Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), which connects the business community with the expertise of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

One of TCIE’s goals is to help organizations operate more shrewdly, thereby increasing competitive advantage. In this instance, it brought together the three previously mentioned groups to help them achieve greater efficiency.

The nonprofit reality    

In an ever-shifting landscape where every penny counts and serving the client is the top priority, the nonprofit sector is increasingly adopting a corporate business mindset.

“The reduced government funding climate forced us to look in the mirror,” said Terese Scofidio, chief executive officer of BVS. “If we want to keep the high level of service the individuals we serve depend on, we have to be willing to change.”

The environment at BVS is comparable to that of many nonprofits, which have operated the same way for decades, with limited scrutiny of efficiency. Funding sources change and are attached to regulatory burdens. For example, New York state’s move to Medicaid’s managed care model is creating more complexity, demanding greater delivery coordination and altering the reimbursement scheme.

“The industry is changing and resources are growing tighter and tighter,” said Bonnie Sloma, senior vice president at People Inc. “We know we can’t do business as usual. We have to find creative ways to do things to improve the lives of the individuals that we serve.

“We’ve always been ahead of the curve,” she added, explaining the agency’s reputation for innovation among regional providers that serve people with developmental disabilities. “It’s the fabric of who we are. We don’t want to lose that.”

Sloma, like colleagues at BVS and CSDD, anticipate that Lean and its knack for identifying the root cause of problems will help guide their evolution.

The consortium model

Cognizant of the constant tug on nonprofit finances, TCIE tapped its Rolodex of community resources and introduced the agencies to the Workforce Development Institute of Western New York. BVS and CSDD received a grant from the institute to help cover training costs. People Inc. is incurring the full expense, and added more participants than originally planned after reviewing the curriculum and considering the abundancy of opportunities.

Learning began this fall, with TCIE Lean guru Julie Stiles educating participants in the methodology and its tools via UB’s Certified Lean Professional (CLP) course. The 39-hour course featured seven sessions packed with reality-based examples, class interactions and opportunities for networking.  

CSDD is hopeful that the course will serve as a springboard to “grow the existing relationships we have with other agencies in the Western New York area, and to encourage future collaborations among our senior-level leadership,” said Lindsay Goodenough, vice president of administrative services. “We also would like to learn from each other’s best practices.”

Participants from the three nonprofits came from various divisions. Some serve in leadership roles and volunteered after prior TCIE trainings. Others were selected because they are today’s and tomorrow’s managers.  

“It’s not easy to have staff leave for daylong trainings. It’s extremely difficult in a nonprofit, when your staffing model is pretty much directed by the funds you receive,” said Jeffrey Bell, BVS director of community development. “We’re committed because we believe in it. I think more and more agencies need to recognize if you want to stay viable, this is something you have to do.”

Commitment involves participants applying what they learned to individual improvement projects, which are ongoing. Projects range from reducing time to prepare a room for a new resident to eliminating paperwork errors and subsequent rework. A successful project report plus passing an exam earns certification.

Efforts flop if the project leader has no support. So, Stiles educated about a dozen staff members at each organization. The eight-hour sessions incorporated a Lean overview and simulation to demonstrate tactics.

A revolution in thinking

As someone who has spent the last three decades working in the nonprofit industry, with the majority of those years at CSDD, Earl Cohan admitted it’s easy to become stagnant and approach tasks the same way.

The course sparked a “rejuvenated passion” for his career, he said, opening his eyes to the problems lurking behind habits.

“It really taught me how to constantly look at things,” said Cohan, director of community based services, conjuring up Stiles’ insistence on examining processes, acknowledging that some decades-old systems no longer suffice, and digging for the real cause of regularly occurring issues.

Brown, of BVS, has also been energized. Her purchasing roles over the last 30 years have exposed her to numerous inefficiencies. She is not shy to voice concerns about wasted time, money and resources. The course is empowering her to fix problems.

She is encouraged by BVS’s investment in Lean and takes solace in knowing “I’m not the only one talking this talk and walking the walk.”  

CSDD participants are thinking differently about their day-to-day work, according to Goodenough.

“The return on investment in this partnership has been invaluable,” she said. “We see a change in how our managers work together, a change in problem solving and how we address challenges in our field.” 

Sloma is witnessing a shift at People Inc., too, as Lean principles are applied daily.

“We hope that they bring others along with them,” she said, referring to the course participants, “so that there will be a culture shift with the organization.”

TCIE is Western New York's bridge to excellence; it provides a dynamic link between UB’s expert resources and the region’s business community. Its core focus on engineering solutions and operational excellence drives continual improvements, and ignites innovation and technological advantages. For more information on how TCIE can assist Western New York businesses, visit www.tcie.buffalo.edu or call 716-645-8800.

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