In today’s episode, I interviewed Tracy O’Rourke, who has over 20 years of process improvement experience, working with nonprofits, government, education, military and the for-profit sector. She teaches Lean and Six Sigma at the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), is the co-host of the podcast and video series, Just-in-Time Cafe (with Elisabeth Swan), and is a co-author of the book, The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit: A Surprisingly Simple Guide to Your Lean Six Sigma Journey.
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Brion (B): Okay, welcome, Tracy, to the Lean Six Sigma for Good Podcast. Thanks for joining me and it’s good to talk to you.
Tracy (T): Thanks for having me on, Brion. I’m really looking forward to talking with you. It seems like we have a lot in common, stuff we work on anyway.
B: Exactly, yeah. So I wanted to get you on and learn a little bit more about some of your work. You’ve done some work in government, you’ve done some nonprofit work, some work in education. So tell us a little bit about your background, who you are, what you’ve done over the past years, and what led you into process improvement work.
T: Okay. Gosh, okay. So I’ve been doing process improvement since the late 90s. I started at GE Appliances when Jack Welch was there at the helm and he was very much into Six Sigma back then. When I first started at GE Appliances, my first week, I was in a simulation, a live simulation for new employees. It was in process improvement. And what was really interesting about that was the guy that was instructing it, it was literally my first week at GE, and the guy that was instructing it, I had this sort of like, I’m going to be his doing his job someday. I just had this thought, like I don’t know, it was just kind of like– and I was a brand new employee, so you know how you get overwhelmed and you’re like, okay, whatever, and then you just try to figure out what you’re doing, and so I forgot about it.
And so I was doing process improvement as an employee. I was a Green Belt at GE, but GE is a very flat organization. So one of the things that they do is you openly talk about what you want to do in the future with your manager, which I was not used to. It’s kind of an unusual conversation to talk with your boss about how you’re going to leave and go and get another job somewhere else. And they’re asking you, “What do you want to do?” So one of these times– and I had already had three jobs with GE. I moved around already three times. And, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I’m actually thinking I want to be a Black Belt.” And so I called my Black Belt and I said, “I was actually thinking that I think I want to try your job,” and he said, “Well, great, because I just applied for another job so I’m going to recommend you.”
So anyway I had only been a Green Belt at that point and I applied for the job. About 20 people applied and I got the job and I was really surprised, actually, that I got the job and I asked them, “Why did you hire me?” Because my first day literally as a Black Belt was in Black Belt training, so I’d never been to training or anything. And they said they had a new position that they wanted me to do called a field Black Belt position. And that would be where I was helping educate GE Appliance customers on what Six Sigma was, what it can do for them. And if they wanted to do a project, I would be their free consultant helping them.
So I did that for the entire Western United States for any GE Appliance customer. So if they had an interest in learning about Six Sigma, I lived in San Diego at the time, I would fly to wherever they were, I would teach them about process improvement, basically like a Yellow Belt level. And then if they wanted to do a project, I would be there to help them and I would continue to fly out there if they were working on a project. So it was kind of like GE was training me to be a consultant and I was a free consultant to GE customers and I helped them with transactional processes mostly. So when I went to Black Belt training, it was all manufacturing, all statistics, design of experiments.
I actually thought I’d made a mistake. I’m like, oh my gosh, what have I got into? And then when I was in the field, they just wanted their processes to work better and faster. How do we eliminate these errors from our delivery? Why do we keep shipping the wrong thing to the wrong customer? How come we have to go out there six different times? Why can’t we get our money faster? So it was all these transactional processes. I was sort of burdened with the translation of how to apply it– in a manufacturing training. I was trained as a manufacturing person, and then I had to go apply it in a transactional situation. And that was what I first initially did.
And then after GE, I ended up becoming a consultant. I had asked people that I had already been helping because they said they were– so basically, I did that for many years, but then they decided they were not going to educate customers anymore and they asked me to move to Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t want to move to Louisville, Kentucky for another job. I wanted to stay here in San Diego, so I actually asked GE, I said, “Well, if you guys are pulling the resource, could I ask these GE customers if they’d be willing to pay for me for my services now because the resource is going away?” I wanted to make sure GE didn’t think I was doing something wrong. And they said, “Well, you’re not selling appliances, so it’s not in competition with us, and if you’re helping them, they’re just going to sell more appliances,” so they’re like, “Yeah, go help them.”
B: Were these projects mainly their own internal problems or was this interacting with GE in terms of sales and orders and inventory?
T: I’m glad you asked that, Brion, because initially, they said, “Make sure you work on projects that are going to help us sell more products.” But originally, I said, “Look, that’s not what they want to work on.” So we would try to find some processes that weren’t working, but in general, it was other things, things that were much more painful in other areas. So I said, “This is what they want to work on,” and they said, “Okay. Help them fix anything.”
B: That’s interesting.
T: Yeah, it was good. It was a great experience and I really enjoyed it. And then, it’s funny because a lot of people, once they get hired by GE, they are just GE. That’s their retirement plan. They stay at GE and they do whatever job there is and they move around, but their retirement plan is GE. Well, my retirement plan was process improvement. Actually, that was my career plan. And so I really loved it and I didn’t want to switch when they said they had a different job for me in Louisville that wasn’t a process improvement job and I really fell in love with it.
And honestly, Brion, I thought there was something wrong with me before I found process improvement because I get bored really easy. I’m just like, “I need something else to do. I’m kind of bored.” process improvement is so not boring. I’ve been doing it for 25 years almost and I love it and it’s because it’s always different. It’s always a different industry, a different problem, a different root cause, a different scenario, a different industry.
B: Different people.
T: It applies everywhere. I sometimes tire of certain industries and like as of late, I’ve been helping more government, military, nonprofit, and education and that’s where I’m finding my passion is because there’s so much opportunity. They’re good people, you know what I mean? They’re just good people. It’s not about making more money or turning a more of a profit. It’s about helping people achieve their purpose and their mission and reducing pain, and trying to make it as easy as possible for them to do what they are here to do. You know what I mean?
B: Yup. Absolutely.
T: I’m sure you feel that way too, right?
B: Yeah, because that opportunity is very large.
T: Yeah. So that’s kind of how I got started. I became a consultant in 2002, so I started my own consulting firm in 2002 and I’ve been doing it ever since, and now it’s 2022. So it’s like what?
B: Time flies.
T: Yeah. I’ve met people along the way and I started teaching at UC San Diego seven years ago, so I teach the Green Belt there. I really like a mix. I like to teach, but I also really like the consulting part, helping people in their jobs, like in their workplaces, because it helps me see, culturally, what they’re struggling with. It helps me really help them figure out the puzzle for how does this work here? Because the structure of process improvement doesn’t change really. It’s either PDCA or DMAIC or it’s ultimately root cause analysis. Understand the problem, understand the situation, get a grasp of current condition like what’s happening here, what’s really happening with this process, find the root causes. And once you find the root causes, then what are you going do to address those root causes? That structure pretty much stays the same with problem solving, but how you implement it at a company, and what are some of the cultural barriers that are getting in the way for people not able to do that, that’s always interesting to me.
B: That translation with people on their own processes and the training, I think that’s kind of the fun part of trying to get them to think about, no, you are doing something every day. It’s not a deliverable item, but there are things that you are doing. It’s an email or it’s a call that you have with somebody. That is your service that you’re providing to them and how many times do you do that a day, and how good is that result, and how long does it take? And so, yeah, I find that part pretty fun.
T: Yeah, definitely, and just the repeatable part, like you said. Even if it’s a few minutes. If you shave a few minutes off something that you’re doing many times a day or many people are doing it many times a day, you’re saving so much time and now they can work on other things that are more important. And so I always am trying to stress that too because I sometimes feel like when people learn this method, they want to solve world hunger. It’d be great to solve world hunger, but let’s focus on something manageable and meaningful, something you could get done in like two months or in a week, and that’s hard to do. So I’m always reducing scope. I’m finding I’m getting people to reduce scope a lot, like what’s in your control, what can you affect, those kinds of things.
B: Nice. And so as part of the program at UCSD, are these students? Are these professionals? Is it a mix? Are they doing projects at the school or are they doing them at their work?
T: Yeah, great question. It’s all yes. So what I really like about the course, it’s through the extension so it’s a public course offering, and most people, I’d say 90% of the people that attend, are professionals. They have a job and their company often has sponsored them into taking the program. The company is paying for them to go through this program. So what I love about the offering at UC San Diego, and there’s multiple offerings, by the way, too, but you can have people from Illumina and Dexcom or healthcare. There’s a lot of people that are from UC San Diego, they’re employees and they’re coming through the class because UC San Diego is implementing process improvement at the university too, so that’s really cool too. And it’s kind of nice because some of the students that are coming in from Peloton, they get to see that there’s people in the class that work at UCSD and they’re customers of UCSD. So it’s kind of nice for them to see, “oh, they’re implementing process improvement too. That’s cool.”
And it’s really diversified, so they get to hear the problems, because we do these virtual sessions where the students talk to each other and they review their fishbone diagrams or their SIPOCs, or whatever the methods and tools are, and they get to see and learn a lot about other industries. So it’s very interesting for them too when they go through the class because that’s one of the biggest learnings is they get to hear other people apply it and they get to see it applied maybe in industries they’re not familiar with, so it’s great. So yeah, all different.
And then we have some students because, in the project management program at UC San Diego, this is an elective. Green Belt is an elective so they can take it, so that’s where we see the students come in. But it is required that you have to do a project and it needs to be work-based, and so often if we have some students in there, they will join a team, someone else’s team in the project, so that they can get that experience.
B: Great. Do any projects come to mind related to work at UCSD and what are some of the things that they’re trying to improve on as a school?
T: So what’s also interesting is UCSD is pretty loud about getting other University of California institutions involved. So they’ve been collaborating with UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, different other universities, and some of them come into our class too. And we’ve done full cohorts at UC Santa Barbara too, for their employees. So some really fun, interesting ones. And it’s funny because they could be so creative. So we’ve had one project called Softwear. It’s like people, they have all these applications. They don’t know where to go, they don’t know where to get it, it’s confusing. So they did a whole process to improve the flow and help direct people on where to go to reduce the lead time to get up and running in an application as an example.
There was another project called You Stole My Bike. So this is UC Santa Barbara. UC Santa Barbara, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on this beautiful campus. I’ve had the pleasure of going there because some of the cohorts were in person. Everybody rides their bikes on campus. It’s everybody’s riding their bikes and so guess what? Some of the students sometimes park it illegally and then they come out and the bike is gone, and then they have to go and figure out what happened to the bike. They find out that it’s been confiscated, and they come into the office and they say, “You stole my bike.”
So their process that they were trying to improve was, okay, now let’s focus on what we could control. Can we train every student? They’re probably still going to have some occurrences where they’re going to be putting their bike where shouldn’t, but what they did decide was they needed to improve the cycle time from when they showed up to when they actually got their bike back. Sometimes that took a long time. Sometimes it took as long as four hours to get it, so they reduced that.
I’ll just give you another example. So we’ve had a couple of HR projects at UC San Diego with improving onboarding, so how do we make sure that the people that are getting onboarded as employees are getting the equipment they need, the software they need, the accesses they need, all that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of customer-student geared processes too where they’re trying to make it easier for students to find classes, for students to register, to book a lab, all of those things that are student geared too, which is always nice.
B: That’s great.
T: We’ve seen lots of processes, which is awesome. It’s really fun to see.
B: Yeah, and I think those are pretty generic too. I would think that a lot of schools can see examples like that and say, “Oh yeah, we have something very similar.” I can imagine that a lot of schools could find similar ways of improving and it’s not like they’re doing anything too different, I would imagine, especially onboarding.
T: Yeah, even I’ve seen a couple of projects as well about bringing on new instructors, new professors, and how to improve that cycle time where why is it taking so long to onboard a new professor? And review processes, just all kinds of things. It’s pretty impressive to see what they can do with this method. That’s actually my favorite part is I go and teach the whole class. They have to do a project, so they talk about their projects all throughout. Like day one, we start talking about what project are you going to do. And then we go for about six weeks where they see me every week, and then there’s a break and the goal is that they need to finish whatever they haven’t finished because we realized projects have a different lead time. There’s a lot of variation in start and stop times for projects, so we add six weeks to finish whatever you weren’t able to finish during the class time, and then they have to come in and do final project presentations. And so that’s my gift is I teach and I like to teach, but I love it when I get to see what they’ve done with it and it’s pretty impressive.
B: Yeah, that is the fun part. What kind of topics are you covering? How in-depth are you going? Is it Lean and Six Sigma combined? Are you getting heavy in statistics at all or staying pretty high level on that?
T: So the Green Belt level, what we’ve decided is that we really want people to be good at process analysis, recognizing that it’s a process. People sometimes don’t think process. Recognizing that it’s a process, make it visible because that’s one challenge we have in transactional, things are invisible, people can’t see them. So how do you really make it visible and then analyze a process? That’s really what we’re honing in on and there’s a lot to learn around that. So current state, what are you doing to analyze and understand current state? SIPOCs, process maps, swimlanes. Okay, let’s think about your thinking. Let’s put it on an A3. What do you think is the current condition? What do you think the problem statement is? What’s your target? So these are all things, and then the whole root cause analysis, often, most people just skip right through that. In real life, they don’t do. They’re like, “Okay, here’s the solution.” You’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute.”
B: Or the solution’s already embedded in their problem statement like, “We need to standardize processes,” or, “We need to implement this software program.”
T: Exactly. So it’s a different way of thinking. I think that’s there’s enough meat to cover in Green Belt to really– I actually open every class this way. I say my goal is to curse and infect you with Lean Six Sigma eyes so you never look at things ever the same way again.
B: Yup. “Sorry in advance, but you will not–”
T: “You’re going to be cursed from now on.”
B: “Everywhere you go, you will not be able to unsee the waste.”
T: That’s exactly it. And so again, and I know I’m successful when, after they’ve done their project, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, we have this that we’re doing, this and this and this and this,” and they just have this long list of things that they want to work on now.
So I feel like the statistics part has a place, I just feel like there’s so much to learn with the Green Belt and that process piece and flow and waste. How the courses are designed at UC San Diego is that you get the statistics in Black Belt. So you understand hypothesis testing and confirming your hypothesis with data and with observation, with process walks in Green Belt, and then we say, okay, and here’s your formal hypothesis testing in Black Belt. Here’s all your hypothesis tests, here’s the process for a formal hypothesis, your null and your alt. Here’s your T-tests and your one-way ANOVAs and all that, but we really want to make sure people understand the process piece first.
B: Yeah, I think that’s a good approach to not overwhelm them with too much right away. And like you said, there’s a lot to learn in just the process evaluation and understanding that. Yeah, that’s a lot.
T: Yes, and I get probably more asks about the statistics piece by industry. So manufacturing, sometimes ask me a little bit more for the statistics and then also healthcare, believe it or not, because I think they’re just the scientific method and they’re more exposed to it. But again, it’s never been an issue. They still appreciate what they’re learning in the Green Belt.
B: Great. And you mentioned some other sectors you’ve worked in, the nonprofit, government. Do you want to share some of those examples and experiences?
T: Yeah. So let’s see, which one should I do first? Mostly, it’s interesting because government, And I don’t know, you’ve probably experienced this too, but government is really interesting and I hear from other consultants, “Oh, I don’t help government. They’re such a mess and I don’t want to have to deal with the procurement process,” and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll do it all,” because I love it. I love working and helping government and it’s mostly because of the people. Most people are there because they want to make a difference. They’re not there to get rich. They’re there to make a difference. They have a higher purpose; they want to do something good. Okay, maybe there’s a few that are just there to collect the paycheck and have good benefits and, yeah, sure, you’re going to have some of those people everywhere, but most people, their head is in the right place in my opinion. They’re stuck in these processes that are cumbersome, painful, long, unnecessary complicated, and anything we can do to make that better. And sometimes it’s significant, sometimes there’s significantly things that you could make better with very simple solutions so it’s been very rewarding.
And so I’ve done somewhere work with King County, Kern County, LA County, the state of Oregon, state of Washington, city and county of Denver, San Diego County, city of San Diego, lots of different at every level. The federal even, Department of Veterans Affairs, the military, and I just see the same thing. Sometimes it is harder to do, but I always hone in on what can you control? And if you can’t control the whole thing, what are some people that are close to you that you guys can mobilize together and make a difference in that piece of the process because there is so much opportunity.
B: Yeah, you mentioned just kind of scoping things down for people and saying, “Okay, this is daunting.” It’s overwhelming probably for a lot of people. And if you could help them try to hone in and say, “You control this,” or, “You have influence over this part of it. Let’s at least make this part work a little better,” and maybe that would get them started or feel like they’re making some progress.
T: Yeah, and it could be very just simple, eye-opening things like walking a process. Government does tend to be risk-averse. Nobody wants to be in the papers, and so there’s kind of a built in fear about that and I think that’s where people struggle. The whole idea around process improvement culture is, “Give them the power,” and government’s like, “Oh, that sounds scary.” But to me, it’s about, okay, give them some calculated risk at least. It doesn’t mean, okay, I empower you to do whatever you want. It’s empowering people with boundaries, like start there.
I’ve had various success and I’ve had teams with various success in government. Some people have huge improvements and savings. The city of San Diego, they had brought a project into my class at UC San Diego and they saved 8 million. Like what? And then there’s some that the experiment didn’t go very well and they didn’t have much of an impact. And so guess what? You pick up, you get back in the saddle, and you try again.
B: Yup, that’s all you can do. I think the fear of, and I’ve dealt with this too, is they’re like, “Well, it didn’t work.” I’m like, “Okay. Now what? We’ve got to keep going. The project isn’t over just because you tried something. You’re not done.” We had to go back to the problem and say, “You’re trying to resolve this. That was one attempt. Okay, that didn’t work. Maybe we can back up a little bit and see why it didn’t work and try something else.” But I think that’s what happens normally without some structure or these improvement tools and methods is it’s just kind of like we’ve come up with an idea and we try it and it doesn’t work for many different reasons. Maybe it wasn’t implemented well or rolled out well, or wasn’t really the right solution for the problem. And then it’s like, “Oh, well. Well, that didn’t work,” and it’s like, “No, you’ve got to keep going. I don’t know what else to do, but try something different.”
T: You’re right. And in government, you can have employees that have been there 20 years, 10 years, and they’re like, “Oh, we tried that 15 years ago. It didn’t work. Oh, we tried that 7 years ago. That didn’t work.” And so it’s like, okay, well, it doesn’t mean it won’t work today because processes change, people change, technology changes, you always have to reassess.
B: Yeah, absolutely.
T: So one, this was with King County and we had a lot of projects originally in some of the early cohorts. When I say cohorts, it’s like we take a group of let’s say people and we train them and we help them do the projects and we’re coaching them. We’re managing them by cohorts. I guess that means we’re batching them. So there was a group of cohorts and we discovered that there were these improvements that fell under this bucket. We called it Just Stop Doing That.
Like this girl in HR, she was like, “Everybody keeps filling out this form and sending it to me. They don’t have to fill it out anymore because we changed the process and all the information we need has already been collected in this other system that didn’t use to be available but now it is, so they don’t have to do that anymore. They don’t have to fill out the form,” and this is for the entire county, 36,000 employees and however many agencies they had. She’s like, “Just stop doing that. Everybody’s submitting this form and they don’t need to.”
And then another example was travel reimbursement. For whatever reason, there was an improvement in the process and part of it was they were sending in too much information. One example is anytime they traveled they would send a map, a Google map, printed out of the miles and where they drove and we found out that you don’t need to do that. You don’t need to send it in. Stop sending it. We’re trying to make it easy for you. You don’t have to send it. But were talking about breaking habits for people have been doing for whatever many years, and so it was just stop doing that. Like it’s too much time-consuming. You don’t need to do that anymore. And of course, we say it with love, like we don’t want you to have to do that anymore.
B: Yeah, I run across that too. It’s just like that was changed years ago and yet it never got communicated out or rolled out or shared that we don’t need that anymore or that doesn’t need to go there or you don’t have to fill that out or there’s a simpler process. The improvement was there, but it didn’t get fully rolled out into an organization actually where people were checking to see have people switched over yet? Have we seen that the numbers are getting better? They just kind of said we launched that process and now we’re done and were off to some other project. And then you go back and find out it just never really got fully rolled out.
T: Yes. And then the other one that I often see, and again I’m sort of generalizing but just to give you an idea, adding signatures that just don’t need to be there, signatures and information, collection of information that just doesn’t need to be done or that it’s done in another area now. Some of that work was removing signatures that just didn’t need to be there, removing reviews of too many people, like people insert themselves. Honestly, there was one leader, she was basically telling me– she was kind of new. She had been there about a year to help. She goes, “I have approved so much stuff, I don’t even look at it. It just comes to my desk. I don’t even know why I’m supposed to look at it.” She’s like, “I don’t want to have to look at the stuff anymore because, honestly, I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I know that there’s two other people looking at it besides me.” And so thank you. Thank you, leader. I wish all the leaders would do that. And so that was interesting. And then just too many approvals. Do we really need this approval? I kind of start talking about it like we’re getting in our own way. How do we get out of our own way? Because we can control that part of it sometimes. So it’s been fun. The work in government is fun once you get in there and once you get through the procurement process.
B: It’s a different project to work on, how to get the procurement process streamlined a little bit.
T: Yeah, I actually did get to work on that. Wow.
B: Yeah, the few that I’ve filled out, it’s like how is this relevant? How do you need to know all this detail? It’s almost like an exercise in filtering out people to say do you have the patience and the persistence to go through this lengthy process? If so, maybe you’ll end up being a good employee or consultant for us. It’s pretty wild.
T: You know what’s really interesting too is one organization I was helping, it was FBOD, Finance Business Operations Division, and he would go around. He was doing what they call roundings, process roundings where he would spend one hour a week just visiting an area and he would just say, “Just tell me what your process is.” It was really him to learn and show respect for people and there were a couple of times where they would walk through a process with him. I happened to be there that one day and it was in procurement and it was, I don’t know, a supervisor I think and some of his workers. They set the director down for this department, division and he says, “Okay, I want you to go ahead and try to register as a supplier for King County. Go ahead.” 20 minutes, he was like, “Okay, I give up,” and the guy goes, “Exactly.” It was so powerful. You’re like walk this process. Pretend you’re the thing and let’s see how we’ve organized this and that is so powerful. Process walks, to me, have been the most powerful thing to do in government. It is so eye-opening. People are amazed at what have we done? So I love doing that.
B: That’s great. How about nonprofit work?
T: The nonprofit sector for me is probably one of my most favorite and also kind of– I guess I’ve been doing this almost 25 years total, but I’d say in the last seven years, I’ve really picked up more of doing the nonprofit work and it’s an interesting story how that got started. I teach at UC San Diego now. I teach the Green Belt program. Before that, I taught at San Diego State University and I was on the instructor panel for the Lean Enterprise Program and there’s a lot of consultants on there that are in our industry, Mike Osterling, Jerry Wright, Sammy Obara. There was about 12 of us, Ric Van Der Linden. It was a 12-week course and we would all share, so you could have up to six or seven different instructors if you were in the program.
One of the things that Mike Osterling kind of– I taught the value stream mapping two days with him for many years, and what we would do is we would find a company in San Diego to go and host the value stream sessions. So it would be two days and there’s a lot of pre-work. So he would identify who should we have host, and we would pick a company. We would ask them if they were interested in hosting our class, and what they got in return was four of their processes mapped out in a value stream so they got to keep the final product. And so we would break out the class and we would teach them how to do it, and then they would go interview the people at this company and they would put a value stream map together. It was super fun, really engaging. People loved it because you’re on-site, you’re actually rolling up your sleeves now. It’s not an academic exercise, people. This is you’re doing it.
So we did it a couple of places and just before we did it at a nonprofit, it was at Solar Turbines. We had done it at Solar Turbines and they’re great. They’re wonderful and very supportive, but it was sort of like getting all those people in there for the day it was like Fort Knox. There’s a lot of safety and security and I get it. And so we decided let’s try to go maybe somewhere that doesn’t have the levels. It was just we couldn’t get started for like two hours with the class, so we said let’s try a nonprofit. We had been working with some of the people that have gone through the class.
There’s a girl, Alicia Saake, she was the CEO of Feeding San Diego and we asked her if she would want to host. So she said yes and her people got to learn value stream mapping. We went in there and we mapped out four processes at Feeding San Diego and they loved it. And then I so loved that experience that I actually donated some of my services to help them finish executing on the value stream maps, and then it kind of sparked an idea for me and I said I think I want to do this more. I think I want to find a couple of other nonprofits. And again, it’s kind of one of those things that sits in the back burner because you’re so busy and you’re like when I have time, when I have time. Well, who has time?
So what’s funny is one of the girls that I had been helping at Feeding San Diego left and she went to go work for Kitchens for Good, which is this other nonprofit. She called me and she said, “We need your help. Can you come in and help us?” and I’m like, “Yeah. With what?” and she goes, “I don’t know.” And so I met with her and I figured out what they were doing and she goes, “Well, here are some of the issues that we’re having. Can you help us with any of that?” It was a sort of dance I guess to say is I want to help, you want our help, let’s see where we can make this happen.
Just I guess for a little more background, Kitchens for Good is their biggest mission is that they have a culinary school. They’re a second chance organization, so they have a culinary school for people that have been incarcerated or coming out of mental illness or anything like that, so homeless. And so you go through the culinary school and when you graduate, they also have a placement program so that you can get placed into all kinds of restaurants or hotel kitchens all in San Diego. The graduations are like tearjerkers. These people have been through a lot. And their graduation, when they graduate from the culinary school, they get up and they tell their story and so it’s really, really moving.
And so that’s one thing they do is they have this whole placement for the culinary school, but then they also have Project Nourish is what they call it. They’re making meals for homeless. Not only homeless, but for people in need. So they have a production line, basically, for food. So anyways, I got to see what that looked like and I watched the process first and I said, “Oh yes, there’s some opportunity. I think we can help here.” It was such a big undertaking and I didn’t have that much time, so I had asked a couple of other consultants to help if they were interested in helping on a non-volunteer basis. It was Mike Osterling, Sally Tolster, me, and Mike Myers, who used to be in charge of the San Diego State program. We showed up whenever needed and we’d worked together during the line.
We’d do an experiment and we go, “Okay, try it tonight,” and then we’d watch the line and we’d see how it went. It was so much fun. And simple things, simple things that they hadn’t thought about. We’re like, “Look, that workload’s not balanced. We need to balance the line a little bit more. Let’s think about what the tack time is that they have to meet for every meal. Are they meeting it? Are they not meeting it? How many meals do we have to do in two hours and are they going to do it? Maybe we should do a work cell.”
And so we were working with the operations team to do these experiments and it was so much fun. They ended up increasing their production lines by a lot. I think they got to 1200 meals a night and they were only doing 800 or something like that, so it was really rewarding and fun and they were so appreciative to have us. It was just a great experience. So I really like working with nonprofits.
B: Yeah, and I think that desire’s there. Like you said, they’re great people trying to do a great thing, achieve a mission, and either just don’t have the time to step back. I think they’re understaffed most of the time, and maybe just don’t have the background or experience. They haven’t gone through a company necessarily where they’ve gotten exposure to process improvement. So, yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity.
T: It is. And then finding the repeatable processes too. They had a lot of volunteers coming in and I watched the whole volunteer process, the whole check-in process, the sign-up process, and just maximizing that part of it. Like how do you get as many volunteers in here as you can manage? It isn’t just about bringing in all the volunteers, but how many can we manage, and then how many do we really need.
And then the other thing is there’s a lot of repeatable office processes too, but nobody’s ever written them down or created standard work so that they could go, “Okay, here’s what I need you to do. It’s all written out right here.” So any time they got a volunteer, they were explaining it over and over and over again and so it wasn’t worthwhile to them. And so it’s these things that you know are repeatable that you’re doing, and then how do at least document it so that you can get help quickly?
B: Staff training time, we’ve found at a few that we’ve worked with, is just overwhelming. It’s like I’m having to train people again and because training is so long and lengthy, we don’t actually get into doing help right away, and then the volunteers didn’t feel like they got anything done or didn’t feel like they were productive with their time and so they don’t come back, and then you have to retrain new people. So volunteer onboarding I think is really key for nonprofits.
T: It is and, honestly, they felt like– there were some things that I felt like I would do that as a volunteer. I always thought I would do that as a volunteer. Maybe some people wouldn’t do it, but give them the option. Don’t just assume nobody’s going to do that job. They were really concerned about cleaning. We don’t want to have to ask our employees to clean. Why not? Okay, maybe I don’t want to clean the toilet, but I’ll wash the walls or I’ll do all the wipe down of the shelves. I’ll do simple things that probably need to be done regularly that now you don’t have to do it. But there was this assumption that, no, we shouldn’t ask our volunteers to do that. You don’t have to force them. Just throw it out there and if they don’t want to do it, fine.
And then I got an opportunity to see– I started honing in on nonprofits and then I just got an opportunity to see other nonprofits too. So Feeding San Diego, Kitchens for Good, we had a couple of people from Father Joe’s Village come to the class. That was really cool and they were trying to improve the donation process. People were calling and they’re like we’ve got to answer the phone because you know what? If somebody wants to donate their car and we don’t answer the phone, they’re going to call the next group. We’ve got to answer those calls, we’ve got to make sure that we’re on top of it, and so they were trying to improve that whole process.
And then I did not help them specifically; I know the group that did help them. I was involved very little, the San Diego Humane Society. They have the largest pet care place that takes care of all kinds of animals and they’re doing process improvement. They were sharing this story about what they do to make sure that their kittens, their baby kittens, are fed on a regular schedule because you know what? If they’re not fed on a regular schedule, they’ll die. There’s a lot of kittens. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was a lot of kittens, 50,000 kittens a year or something like that. That’s a lot of kittens. And so how do we make sure we’ve got really good process to feed these baby kittens and all kinds of stuff like that, so that was kind of fun and neat to hear. And also the volunteer process there, like how do we get volunteers because people want to volunteer there. Who wouldn’t want to volunteer for the Humane Society? If you’re a dog lover, cat lover. There’s so many animal lovers now.
And then the last one was– this one was the most heartbreaking. I did not help them either but they sent people to my classes. It’s a nonprofit but through UC San Diego Health. It’s called Lifesharing and they specialize in donating organs when someone you love is about to pass. It’s such an awkward moment. Okay, somebody’s going to die and then you would be like, “Do you want to donate their organs?” That could go really bad. It’s just the worst time, like what? Some people say, “How can you ask me that?” and it could go just very badly and people are scared to ask. Nurses don’t want to ask and there’s this whole process of, first of all, they have to ask and then they have to get approved. My mom, she had cancer and died of that. She wouldn’t have been able to donate her organs, and so you’d have to ask them and then you might have to reject them. So just everything that they’re doing to make that process beautiful and meaningful and wonderful instead of painful and unhumanistic, how do you put a price on that?
B: And I think I’ve seen some of these presentations, maybe those Process Palooza videos you had, and also JIT, Just in Time Cafe, you’ve highlighted some of these too. So I’ll link those into the show notes for people to go see more examples there. So do you want to talk about your podcast and also anything else, how people can reach out to you and contact you?
T: Absolutely. So like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time, almost 23 years, but my latest adventure is what I call the Just in Time Cafe, and that’s with Elisabeth Swan. We’ve co-partnered on this effort. Most of what we do is for the community. So we do free podcasts, free webinars. We have free tools and templates on our website. Everything is free and we do that because we love what we do and we love this community so much. We want people to be successful and we want to share stories. It brings joy to us, we know it brings joy to others. And so we do a podcast every month, the Just in Time Cafe Podcast, and we do a webinar. We used to do two webinars a month, but right, now we’re so busy, we’re only doing one webinar a month and that’s highlighting whatever we think is relevant and interesting to our learner group or our audience. And so we’ve been doing that for about a year now and it’s a lot of fun.
And then Elisabeth and I do other things, like we teach at UC San Diego; she teaches there too, and so it’s a lot of fun. We also have a book out. It’s called The Problem Solver’s Toolkit and it’s kind of what you and I were talking about, Brion, is we don’t want to inundate you with just– there are so many tools you could use, and so this book is a tool book, but it’s really around just like here’s the tools that we find most people use in process improvement that seem to work really well and people really like and they see a lot of value out of it. So not hundreds of tools, 35 tools.
B: Still a lot, but that’s a lot less than hundreds.
T: Yeah, exactly.
B: I’ll link it to that too.
T: So that’s our latest adventure. Let’s see, what else? That’s pretty much it.
B: How can they get a hold of you, like LinkedIn or direct through the site?
T: You can always email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also on LinkedIn, Tracy O’Rourke. I’m also the Chair for the SoCal Lean Network. Jerry Wright ran that for about 20 years and he just handed it over. He wants to take a little time to himself and he thought it was time to pass the torch, so he asked me if I was interested and I said okay. And so I try to post a lot of activities on there, like any webinars, conferences, podcasts for anyone that’s joining there. So you can always join that if you want, socalleannetwork.com, and I love doing that. That group used to, and we’re going to do that again eventually, but used to do tours in SoCal. So we would always find companies that wanted to tour that was doing something related to process improvement. So, for example, Costco Optical Lab would be a tour. Taylor Guitars, they did process improvement so people got to see the whole line, how they make the guitars and everything. It was super fun, and then you got to see the final product and all the stuff they’re doing in their line. Solar Turbines did a tour if you were approved to come on-site and you were not a competitor. The zoo, so we got to go to the wild animal park because they’re doing process improvement and they’re also a nonprofit, by the way. And just a quick story about that.
What I loved about helping them is they said, “Well, if we get through our must-haves, like if we can get through our must-haves faster, like feeding all the animals in the amount of time that we have with good quality food, then we have more time to play with them and grow and do fun things with them because that’s the nice-to-haves. We want more nice-to-haves. We want to do the must-haves and we want to do them well, but we want to get through them so we can do the nice-to-haves for the animals,” so loved that too.
B: That’s probably what the staff signed up for is to get to play with the animals, not clean up after them.
T: So anyways, those were some of the tours that were done in the past. The Jacuzzi tubs, we went to a jacuzzi tub place, Illumina, all different kinds of tours in San Diego. I can’t wait to be able to do these tours. We had one scheduled late last year with Costco and we had to cancel it, so now we’re kind of like, well, let’s just do virtual for a while, and then when we start doing regular tours, we can start doing that again. And I hope that some nonprofits will be– I hope we get to go to the San Diego Humane Society to see the kittens.
B: That sounds fun.
T: So anyway, that’s how you get a hold of me, lots of different sources. I think if you Google me too, I come up.
B: Okay. I’ll put a lot of links in there for audiences
T: Just a quick story too. My partner, Elisabeth Swan, you can’t Google her because Keira Knightly comes up in the Pirates of the Caribbean, so you can’t Google Elisabeth Swan, but you can find her on LinkedIn.
B: Or the JIT Café.
B: Well, Tracy, thank you so much. This is really fascinating to hear all your different projects and experience and I hope everyone that listened also found it enjoyable. So really appreciate your time and it was good to talk to you. Anything else you wanted to add?
T: No. Thanks for having me on. And you’re going to come on our podcast too, so I can’t wait for that. Really enjoyed talking with you and thanks for having me and I hope I see you soon. I know I will. And I just always encourage people to just stay on the journey of continuous improvement. How can you miss this? It’s such an adventure.
B: You’re right. It’s always changing, something new, and it never ends.
T: It never ends.
B: All right. Thanks, Tracy.
T: Thank you.