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Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E099: Rethinking Humanitarian Aid with Andrew Parris

16 min read

In this podcast, I share a video of a speech given by Andrew Parris, Process Excellence Manager at Medair. The presentation was given at the Berlin Science Week 2021 that was organised by ETH Zürich.

Andrew discusses how continuous improvement and Lean can make nongovernmental organization (NGO) money go further.

He also mentions there are similarities between NGO work and Lean:

  • Show respect for people
  • Make it simple and visual
  • The goal is to provide value
  • Don’t tell people in need what to do
  • Don’t do for people in need what they can do for themselves
  • People in need are the experts in their situation (not an outsider)
  • Keep ownershop with, involve and use the expertise of the people you’re helping
  • Build up people in need and leave them better prepared for the next crisis
  • Don’t blame people, but identify and solve root causes of problems
  • Create a plan, implement it, monitor the outputs and results, and adjust as needed

But what is missing is the following:

  • Applying scientific thinking to humanitarian operations
  • Applying a proven corporate, private sector management system in humanitarian work
  • Applying development and humanitarian principles inside the organisation
  • Empowering and expecting employees and volunteers to improve
  • Making the money go further by cutting waste, not value

You can watch the entire video (along with other speakers) below, or go to


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Have you ordered the new book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 2)?” The book is made up of 8 chapters written about experiences from Lean and Six Sigma practitioners, to give you tips and tricks to help you work with nonprofits in your area. All proceeds donated to charity. You can also order Volume 1 released in 2019.


Brion (B): In this podcast, I share a video of a presentation called rethinking humanitarian aid. One of the speakers featured is Andrew Parris. Andrew has done a lot of great work, working with NGOs to help promote Lean and Six Sigma in various parts of the world. In this video, he shares his approach and reasons why he thinks Lean is an effective and useful method for helping solve some of these challenges. This presentation was done at the Berlin Science Week 2021. At the end of this, you’ll hear a panel discussion with some Q&A, and we’ll focus on Andrew’s response to some of the questions. A link to the entire video can be found on the show notes. Hope you enjoy.

Andrew (A): All right, so my name’s Andrew Parris again, Process Excellence Manager at Medair, a humanitarian NGO based near Lausanne in Switzerland. I guess it’s up to me to get there. There we go. All right, so I wanted to talk about improving system of work, and in fact, we talked about there are a couple of things we can do. We can reduce the need, we can increase the funding, or we can make the money go further. What I’m going to talk about is reducing the system work through something called Lean. Some of you might ask the question, well, what is Lean? We’ll talk about that. So most of the private sector, and many parts of the public sector, are very familiar with what Lean is. It’s what enabled Toyota to become the leading car company in the world. It’s also at Google, Amazon, and you can see a number of companies who are famous for doing Lean have done to grow their market share, grow their profits, empower their people also.

Specifically, according to the Lean Enterprise Institute, there is this definition of Lean, that it is a way of thinking about creating needed value with fewer resources and less waste. It’s also a set of practices consisting of continuous experimentation – and that’s where the scientific part comes in – in order to achieve perfect value with zero waste. So to rephrase these a little bit, we could say Lean empowers and expects people to improve how they do their work through the scientific method – and we’ll talk about that more – of continuous improvement in order to reduce waste and increase value, the value that a company provides to its customers, or in the case of humanitarian work, to the people in need or people who are in crisis whom we’re serving.

Lean also has the double benefit of reducing the burden on people. It’s a very heavy load to not have enough resources and to have so many out there and to have so many crises that are coming our way, but we’ve talked, initially, about some of the challenges that we face in the humanitarian context. This will help reduce the burden because we’re not stepping over our own toes in order to get the work done, so we’re reducing the burden on employees, promoting their creativity, and also learning within the organization.

So what is the scientific part of Lean? It’s basically this way of formulating a hypothesis about what will work and then testing to see if that hypothesis works. This is the famous plan, do, check, act cycle that was developed by Edwards Deming. And in the plan part of it, basically what one does is define the problem. The problem is the gap between where we are and where we want to be, the number of people with food that they can get daily easily, for example, or the number of children suffering from malaria, or whatever the case may be. But we’re also looking at this now internally to the organization. We define the problem, maybe it takes us too long to get our humanitarian supply chain needs in order to deliver them to people, maybe it takes us too long to hire people, etc.

We measure the way things are currently happening, we analyze it to understand the root causes, and then we put a plan together for how to act, when to act, who’s going to do what, all those things we normally do in our planning, and then we implement, we do, we make the change. Too often, what often happens is people will stop there and say, okay, let’s get going, but the scientific method insists that what we do is we measure it. We check to see did we make a difference, and if not, we’re going to go back around in a backwards direction. If we did get what we wanted to achieve, then we go forward, we act, and we incorporate the new learning, and we move forward with the new way of doing things.

So this is our scientific approach of Lean, which we want to consider how does this work in humanitarian operations. Humanitarians love Toyota vehicles. They are reliable, they are tough, they go the distance, they don’t much repair, but does this system, and Lean comes from Toyota Production System, does this system that was developed by Lean also work? their cars work, but does their management system work in NGOs? That’s the question that maybe this young man is thinking about.

So we can ask the question what could the impact of Lean be in an NGO? Well, I’ll share with you some experience now. The simple answer, it’s similar to what it is in the corporate world. If anyone is familiar with the changes, the impacts, 40% reduction this, 50% reduction that, it’s a similar type of a thing. So I spent some time with World Vision, another large international NGO, living in East Africa, working and training my colleagues there in Lean, Lean Six Sigma concepts. And the things that we were able to do is to reduce over a million and a half dollars annually, in supply chain costs mostly, reduce the span time, the time it takes to do things. For example, in processes where we targeted, we reduced almost 60% of the time it takes to do certain things. We also began to develop a culture of continuous improvement, just getting people thinking about making small changes a little bit here, a little bit there every day. Some specific examples. I won’t go through them, but you can see, similar to what one finds in the corporate world, not surprisingly, processes have a number of similarities, 40, 50% improvements, 80% improvements in various processes that we took on, so we can get these similar results.

Also, what can be the impact, in Medair, the NGO that I currently work in, we’ve also realized significant improvements. I want to point out, in particular, a case study that Bublu and I documented on the Medair response to the Beirut blast back in August 4th of last year, and the ability of people to respond quickly, to adapt on the ground. The leadership and communication practices, etc., were really instrumental in enabling Medair to have a great response, so that’s some reference on that.

Now, one might ask the question, okay, Andrew, you’ve told us about this thing called Lean. What’s so new about Lean? These are some gentlemen who are kind of the founding fathers of Lean. In fact, there’s nothing new about Lean. It’s been around for 30 to 70 years, depending on when you– about 30 years ago when the term Lean was coined, but before that, it was a Toyota thing. Lean now is applied in virtually every sector, every industry, in governments, militaries even are applying Lean. It is a proven approach to continuously improving in the pursuit of excellence, so that’s not the new part. Then the question is, well, what is the new part? Well, the new part is to apply this in NGOs, in the humanitarian work. That’s the thing that’s new.

We recently did a very brief informal survey of a number of leaders in humanitarian organizations asking the question do you know anything about Lean and how much do you know about Lean? 87% responded we know little to nothing about Lean. None of them said we know how to do it well enough to teach anyone else. But on the other hand, 61% said we would like to benefit from Lean. This sounds interesting, but we don’t know where to start. 22% have begun, but still are novices and nobody says they’re good at it, or again, are experts in the process. But there’s an opportunity here where we could light the fuse and get this rocket going if we can apply Lean and really have a dramatic impact in the humanitarian sector and development sectors as well.

So there’s an irony and this is the irony: development and humanitarian principles are very similar to Lean principles, so let’s go through a couple of these. We’ll go through them now. So the first fundamental thing that you learn about when you’re going to do development work or humanitarian work is you need to show respect for the people you treat, the people you’re serving with dignity, and you are there to serve them, not to tell them what to do. You are there to provide value to them. You’re not there to tell them what to do, you’re not there to do things for them. The people who are in need are the people who are experts in being in poverty or in the crisis. They know what the problems are. They often know what the solutions are. We need to ask them, we need to involve them, we need to work with them.

In humanitarian work and development work, we’re also trained to do things as simply and easy, as visually as possible, and it’s a great picture here of a mid-upper arm measurement for malnutrition. It’s a color-coded, very simple technique that almost anyone with a little bit of training can do. It’s a simple approach, and that’s one of the concepts of Lean, interestingly. We build people up. We build people up in order to empower them to make their lives better, and inside of an organization, we want to build up employees to make their processes better, to make their work better.

And there’s this last point here: create, plan, as we talked about, experiment, and monitor the outputs, monitor the impact that we’re having. This is what NGOs do day in and day out. They monitor, they evaluate in the cycle. They do it again and again to see is the intervention working? Are we having the desired impact? So the irony is NGOs aren’t doing this in their own work. They’re not applying the principles that they apply in the field in their own operations. But at the same time, it’s not just an irony, it’s also an opportunity because, and I’ve found this to be truly the case, NGOs will also more readily understand and accept and be able to say, yeah, this Lean thing, this makes sense once they hear about it because it is so familiar to them, it is something that is natural to them.

So the novelty, where’s the novelty? The novelty is in applying scientific thinking to the humanitarian operations, not just to the fieldwork that we do, and seeing if what we’re doing is having an impact. It’s in applying a proven private sector, corporate world approach management system inside the NGO world, which is often nervous about these types of things. It’s also in applying development and humanitarian principles, again, inside the organization, not just outside the organization in the work that we do, and it’s about empowering and expecting employees to improve. We’re building the capacity of our employees to improve how they do their work, and we’re expecting them to do that work, setting targets for improvement and expecting them to work better over time, improve how they do their work. And as we do that, we are making the money go further. What we’re doing, though, is we’re cutting the waste. We’re cutting the things that are preventing us from making progress rather than cutting the value that we’re actually adding to communities who are in crisis. So to summarize very briefly, Lean does help us to rethink our humanitarian aid and to make it better. Thank you.

Question (Q): So are there technological assets or new developments, new tools, new methods, new toys, machines that could aid your particular work?

A: I mean, if there’s a technology to get people to be kinder to each other, that would be great place to start. Transportation is one of the primary challenges that we have, so getting goods from one place to another, getting people, for that matter, from one place to another as well. The communication infrastructure also is a big challenge to us, so internet capabilities, those types of things. Medical, obviously, if there were medical developments, and I know they’re being made progress even now in vaccine or something to prevent malaria, those types of things which would get rid of waterborne and help us reduce waterborne diseases, that’s a primary challenge. So I don’t know that there’s one silver bullet that comes to my mind, but there are a variety of things that we definitely would benefit from greater technological advancements as well.

Q: Lean has been criticized during the COVID pandemic when there were stockouts. Just-in-time was given the blame as the factor for low stocks. How can we tackle these issues, Andrew? Is this the solution or is this the problem?

A: Bublu, I know you can talk about this one also. Maybe you have something to add to what I say. So Lean helps an organization become more flexible and more adaptable, more able to respond quickly to shocks to the system, and certainly, COVID-19 restrictions are a huge shock to the system. Yes, the goal is to reduce your inventory in order to, again, make the organization more efficient. If an organization is ready and able to respond to shocks, then they will be able to respond to COVID-19. So it’s made organizations more flexible.

The thing is having a supplier in China, a long ways away, is actually not a terribly Lean thing to do, so rather, having the supply chain closer to you. If you look at Toyota and where do most of the parts suppliers in the Toyota factory, where are they located, they’re mostly located around the actual factory itself, so they’re actually practicing what they’re preaching. They also have strategic stocks, which is something that’s not talked about so much here. There are strategic stocks that the companies do have in order to address the potential crisis that may occur, and those will then help them through. But if you can quickly start up, somewhere else, another supplier closer by because you know what the design of the part is, you know how to produce it, and you can get another vendor up and running quickly, that is going to make you more flexible and not so liable to stock-outs.

Q: It’s a matter of fact that a huge problem is that all the donations from the countries are mostly bound to certain projects and the NGOs don’t have a lot of access to it or can decide where to put it, and I wonder how your opinion is on how much of an impact has changing the internal system considering that?

A: Obviously, a part of the solution to that is for the institutional donors to have the understanding that life in the field changes and there are these things that are unpredictable. We don’t know how things will progress over the year. COVID may strike us and we need to respond to a different crisis than we thought that we originally had or the floods come or whatever it is. In my experience, our donors are as flexible, try to be quite flexible. They have a certain commitment. They have to be responsible to the taxpayers. The taxpayers give the money, and they say you’re going to feed this many people, you’re going to try and reduce the instances of waterborne disease by this much, and that’s what we work towards.

I’ll say, on the other hand, there is a benefit to having a goal, something that we’re working towards, something hard because the alternative would be, well, here, just go and do good. But if we don’t have targets, if we don’t have specific objectives, honestly, maybe we might not work as hard as we might otherwise might in order to achieve those specific goals.

And if you remember the charter front, the unmet need is huge and the met need is actually quite small. So we’re never going to meet all the unmet need; we’re always only going to meet a part of it. Is that the most absolutely most important part? We don’t know. We try to find that. That’s what we try and propose to the institutional donors and we work on that, and then when things change, we do ask them can we change this? can we modify this? and when COVID came around, we saw that most of the institutional donors are very ready and willing to modify, to say, yes, you can do this. Propose us what you want to do differently, change your targets, change your budget proposal, give us a new thing, and most of them were quite willing and flexible to work with us on that. So I think it’s not all bad. There are challenges that it creates, but there’s also some good side of it, that having specific objectives and working to achieve those is something that motivates an organization to perform well in spite of the crises.

Q: We have a question from cyberspace, and it comes from [inaudible]. He said, currently, where supply chains are failing as an effective post-pandemic– we’re almost done, by the way. We’re out of time. So he says that supply chains are failing in the pandemic. Isn’t it the best time to develop chains with partnerships of NGOs and corporate, so public-private partnerships? What is your opinion on that?

A: The thing that brought me to moving to Kenya, I lived in Kenya for three years working in East Africa, and it was because I shared some of these ideas with the actual people who were doing the work, this was back when I was in World Vision, and they said, Andrew, this is new to us. This is exciting. Come and tell us about this. Teach us how to do these things that you’re talking about. They were actually eager, so there was genuine interest. My favorite thing is when I teach and train someone and the light bulb goes on, so to speak, and they are thinking scientifically about their work. They are applying plan, do, check, act, they’re making their work better, and they’re sharing that with others. The barrier is rather the organization has too many good things that they want to do, and when the leaders don’t know about Lean, about the scientific approach and they can apply what they’re doing in the field inside, then it just gets delegated, it gets deprioritized, and it doesn’t really make the progress. So the people themselves get excited about it, they want to do it, but the organization needs to buy into it, commit to it, and make it happen.

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