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Quality Improvement & Lean Management

Every nonprofit of any size is resource constrained. We all have more to accomplish to meet our mission than we have resources available to get the job done. That is why it is so important that your staff has the skills, technology, knowledge, and well-thought out processes that are going to make them as effective as they can be.

Quality improvement, lean management, continuous improvement, and process management are all term that relate to doing the work we do in a way that makes the best use of our people and financial resources while doing our work with the highest possible quality.

What is "Lean"?

Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. These efforts can seek “incremental” improvement over time or “breakthrough” improvement all at once.

Lean is a philosophy and a methodology for continuous improvement. Lean methods maximize your resources to more efficiently deliver services. It improves your effectiveness by balancing a focus on process and results, ensuring they align with the impact you intend to create. Lean reflects a new way of thinking about your programs, processes, and services.

A popular misconception is that Lean is suited only for manufacturing or healthcare. Lean applies in every organization, for-profit as well as nonprofit. Lean is not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a transformation of culture for an entire organization.

Approach Philosophy

Lean philosophy has two core tenets:

  • Continuous Improvement
  • Respect for People

Continuous improvement entails taking steps to improve operations DAILY. Leaders in a Lean organization take an active role in setting the direction and building systems to support staff to practice improvement. A Lean management system helps ensure that everyone on a team can see what results were expected each day and what actually happened. With an ability to see the gap between the current and desired state, leaders are able to learn about the effectiveness of their organization’s theory of change. Likewise, staff are in a better position to launch into daily experiments to improve processes and services. (A “theory of change” explains exactly how what we do creates specific results. For more on theory of change visit or the Harvard Family Research Project.)

Respect for people is the second core tenet of Lean philosophy. Lean methods intentionally develop and engage people through team problem-solving. The people who do the actual work are the ones who know the problems best and how to resolve them. Within a Lean organization, staff and their customers work together to improve processes and innovate services.

Problem Solving

Lean organizations teach employees the methods to innovate, think systemically, and be scientific. Similar to learning the method of multiplication or addition, everyone can learn methods to improve and innovate.

Lean provides a scientific approach to manage and improve nonprofits’ programs, processes, and services. The fundamental model for improvement is the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle.  Most of the Lean problem-solving methods and routines are based on this model.

  • Plan: Identify a problem or opportunity and plan for change.
  • Do: Implement the change on a small scale.
  • Check: Use data to analyze the results of the change and determine whether it made a difference.  Reflect on what was learned.
  • Act: If the change was successful, implement it on a wider scale and continuously assess your results. If the change did not work, begin the cycle again

Using Lean can help you improve your efficiency and effectiveness while controlling resources, so you can create the optimum impact. Lean thinking and tools enable organizations to create more value with the resources they have.

The links below provide more reading about Lean and its applications:

Contributed by Christian Anibarro, Impact Consultancy LLC