Lean In Non-Profits

Lean Six Sigma for Non Profits

We always like to hear about people applying business methodologies and mechanics in arguably unorthodox ways or markets, and today I stumbled across a LinkedIn discussion that happens to exemplify exactly that sentiment. User William Falquero seemed to be onto something interesting as he posed a question for other professionals:  Could non-profit organizations benefit from Lean Six Sigma thinking?  If so, how would they be implemented, what would the challenges of this sort of endeavor be?

Only a few users jumped in right off the bat, but, lucky for our purposes today, they were some critical thinkers with some useful insight and examples to offer up. Today, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the use of Lean and Six Sigma thinking and tools within non-profit and charity organizations.

Are Charities Good Candidates for Lean?

One of the first and most important things to establish when considering implementation of Lean in any company or organization is to figure out how they could benefit from the systems. In the case of charities, one user points out that room for improvement from Lean is readily apparent simply in the mindsets of the people who work at them:

“The sweat and tears the non-profit workers and volunteers shed and the effort they put forward is focused on those they serve, with less thought on HOW they are served”

This is what Richard Petty had to say of an organization he actually had the experience of implementing Six Sigma with. One thing he goes on to highlight and elaborate on is the fact that many volunteers and non-profit workers are so focused on those they want to help that they may get blinded as to the mechanisms that can take them there (and these are the places opportunities for improvement present themselves).

Even in other more traditional workplaces, we see this sort of “tunnel vision” as fairly common:  It can be hard to get workers to take a step back from the endgame results they’re focusing on – because, let’s face it, that’s what they’re paid for – and instead look at the processes that are supposed to take them to those goals.

In charitable organizations, this type of focus on the end result, namely on helping people, can manifest in the same way.

What this ultimately creates, as Petty and others brought up, is an environment with a lot of what Lean practitioners would define as “waste.”  Where there’s waste, there’s opportunity for improvement, and that’s reason enough to explore the possibility of bringing tried and true improvement culture into non-profits.


One of the biggest barriers to overcome when trying to bring LSS into a business is the natural resistance from workers and management set in their ways; it’s an issue we write about often and one that continues to plague practitioners.

That said, one of the great things about working with a non-profit, as also mentioned by Petty, is that workers are generally in it for all the right reasons, and have a passion for making whatever changes they need to to better serve their target audience. Plus, when profits aren’t the bottom line, no Scrooge McDuck-ian manager is going to be fussing over short-term inconveniences (re-training, moving things around, etc.).

Petty mentioned that, in his own experience working with a community charity, purely illustrating and talking about how implementing LSS could help the organization better serve people was enough to get people on board.

Of course, most volunteers aren’t going to know much about LSS at all before you get started, which means that you’ll need to supplement their passion with a little something extra…


User Sufian Lau gets right to the point in suggesting DMAIC for getting started with Lean in non-profits. More generally, he is highlighting the need for a quick and easy way to help get those in the organization understanding continual improvement goals and how you plan to get there.

You don’t have to use Six Sigma’s characteristic DMAIC framework to do this, but you do need to make sure that what you’re doing isn’t completely foreign to those you’re trying to help. Sure, you’re the expert, but they’re going to be the ones left to maintain any improvements and new systems you make after you take off. A good tip is to mentor someone within the organization who seems to exhibit a curiosity in what you’re doing. You don’t need to make a Lean expert out of a soup kitchen worker, but you can certainly leave behind someone who has a grasp on what it will take to keep improving processes in the future.

These considerations are also going to fluctuate in their degree of necessity depending on how much employee involvement you’ll actually be requiring. For example, you may be working by yourself in more of a directing role or you may be working with a team of professionals then will help you in actually implementing changes; both situations elicit different participatory needs from the client organization. That said, there is always a need for everyone involved to have a basic understanding of what’s going on, if for nothing else but to avoid headaches.

“Defining the value and eliminating non value adding steps should come naturally to non profits, especially when using volunteers,” says user Sandor Farkas, and he’s got a point.

One of your first steps should be to become intimately familiar with all of the goals of the organization you’re working with and determine what, when all’s said and done, is the service or item of value being provided.

Having a clear, boiled down picture of what end users are expecting will help you quickly identify which parts of the current process further that goal and add value, and which of them do not. A great side-effect of taking this clear-cut approach yourself is that you’re also putting the goals and reasoning behind what you do in terms that are relevant and understandable to volunteers and workers.

Let’s say you have an organization that is providing blankets for the homeless. Every single step of their process can now be analyzed with “does this help you provide more/better blankets to more people than before?”  If not, workers can quickly see that something in their process could be cut out to save them time and resources.

It is also for this reason that several users echoed the sentiment that Lean (which focuses on waste elimination), and not Six Sigma (which, strictly speaking, focuses on minimizing variability), is probably the most natural place to start with non-profits.

And It Works!

One of the best parts to see about this discussion was something that’s all-too-often missing from forum debates and editorials on social and professional networking sites, and that’s a real, “case study” idea of potential results. Petty cited beneficial changes in several important metrics during his stint implementing Lean in the non-profit sector; these changes ranged from increases in communication with clients to reductions in appointment no-shows to and increased volume of overall clients served – I don’t think any charity is going to argue with double digit improvements there!

So get out there and see what you can do! Not only are some non-profits able to become steadily paying clients, but volunteering your own services or those of your LSS consulting firm can be a great way to give back, make connections, and garner social capital.

Creative Safety Supply Helps Non-Profits Improve Safety and Efficiency

Creative Safety Supply has partnered with many non-profits within the Oregon area such as, Habitat for Humanity, Oregon Food Bank, and the Portland Blues Festival. Some of the donated products included, safety marking floor tape and safety signage which helped to improve overall safety and efficiency. Creative Safety Supply’s core mission is to work diligently to provide the necessary safety/efficiency products and supplies to help create a positive outcome for  organizations in need.

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