Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

EC 056: Applying Lean Six Sigma to Boulder Hospice Care Thrift Shop Donations

33 min read

In this podcast, I share the audio from an interview I did with Lynn McCullough and Joe Wojniak (pronounced why-knock). Lynn runs the TRU Hospice Thrift Shop in Boulder, Colorado.

TRU Thrift Shop sells donated household items and clothes to raise money to provide hospice care services for those in need.

Joe is her brother, and he volunteered to help them improve the workflow, reduce waste hauling charges, and increase revenues with Lean and Six Sigma methods.

I also discuss the future of this podcast, and how I will be changing the name in the future, but still focusing a lot of attention on environmental improvements.

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Brion:  Today, I’ve got a couple of guests with me, Lynn McCullough and Joe Wojniak. They’ve done some great work applying Lean and Six Sigma methods to nonprofit. Lynn, do you want to introduce yourself and talk about TRU Community Care and the work you’ve done at the thrift shop you’ve got going there?

Lynn:  Yes. I’m the thrift shop manager. We opened our thrift shop in 2005 to be a fundraiser for the programs of TRU Community Care. Our organization provides or end-of-life care to those in our community, whether they have the ability to pay or not. We opened the store to receive donations and try to raise some money, and we’ve been working towards that end ever since.

Brion:  And where in Colorado are you guys located?

Lynn:  We’re in Boulder.

Brion:  Boulder, excellent. And Joe?

Lynn:  I got interested in Lean improvement techniques stuff through reading Lean Six Sigma for Good, and after talking to Lynn, she identified some areas for improvement that we could work on at the thrift store.

Brion:  How did you get connected with Lynn at the thrift store?

Joe:  Well, Lynn is actually my sister.

Brion:  That’s a good connection.

Joe:  Lynn, maybe we can talk about we had a Lean tool that kind of helped us with this, with the ease and impact matrix. That kind of facilitated a discussion about different things that could be done. What’s great working with Lynn, she has this long idea list of all the great improvements that can be done, so maybe Lynn, if you can, you can give your perspective of that discussion and deciding upon how much effort it takes for particular improvement versus the benefit.

Lynn:  I think that was where Joe and I started talking is I just was at a turning point with the store. We had grown the business, things were going well, but things were kind of getting out of control. Donations were pouring in at a speed that we couldn’t handle with the staff that we had or the volunteers that we had, sales were suffering because we were getting bogged down in the sorting room, and being a nonprofit, there was really no way to add extra human hours to the problem. We had hit a point where we were at our limit with staff hours as well as available volunteer hours, so it was time to refine our process is a little bit better.

I can honestly say, when I first started talking to Joe about it, I was in just this complete state of overwhelm, not really understanding how to fix the problem but at least being able to see what the problems were. A big problem was that it was hard for me to describe to volunteers coming in what could they do to help. When you walk into a sorting room that is overflowing with stuff, it’s hard to explain to someone how can you make a difference in this moment. I think one of the first turns the conversation took was that I felt like the sales floor was in pretty good shape, we were selling things, fairly organized, but the sorting room was really the point of contention. Staff had been receiving and sorting donations out in the parking lot, out in the elements a lot, and sometimes just the best we could do would be just to bring everything in at the end of the day and fill up whatever little aisles we might have had. So that was the first big like, okay, this is where we can have an improvement made.

Joe, did you want to mention how you helped me figure out some of these things we started to quantify or should I just keep talking about…?

Joe:  Sure. After identifying that the donation room is where we wanted to work, we had some hands-on waste walks, or kind of kaizen events, kind of going to the donation room itself and kind of worked through the sorting and pricing. If I’m remembering right, there’s other four or five departments in the sorting room?

Lynn:  Yes, exactly. We have it broken up into pretty much as clothing, books, things that have to be tested, and hard goods.

Joe:  And so the inflow of the donations, Lynn was absolutely right, it was just a large amount of material coming in every day and it was just hard to get through all that at the same rate that material was coming in. We kind of walked through and kind of did a back-of-the-envelope look at basically line-balancing – how much material was coming in, what’s the max, how much can be sorted in each area, and where does it go after it’s been sorted basically. It can go to the shop floor if it’s in good condition and has been priced, and then if not, there’s several different streams that it can go through. What I thought was neat, Lynn, was you have an area for other nonprofits to pick up materials that they might have a use for.

Lynn:  That’s right. We started a giving room and we were able to partner. There’s a lot of other nonprofits in our area that do good work, so we were able to offer items that we’re not able to sell to shelters and soup kitchens and children’s programs and schools, and so that’s kind of a nice thing to not have to throw those things away. It’s also been a nice networking thing to get to know some of the other nonprofits and what their challenges have been and how, in some ways, they can help us as well.

Joe:  That’s one of the streams. You also work with a clothing recycler?

Lynn:  Yes, exactly. All the clothing that can’t be sold can be sent to a textile recycler, so we’re able to recoup a little bit of money from that, and then they’re able to sell the clothing to other markets. We’ve also been able to partner with scrap metal recyclers as well as eco-cycle, and our area does the single-stream recycling, and they’ve helped us figure out book recycling as well.

Brion:  So you almost have to be an expert in the recycling system and what is allowable to help people, the customers and donors, decide what they can do with their items if you don’t take them and then what you can do with the donations that don’t sell.

Lynn:  Yeah. We made a donations guide that was helpful for people. We can send them on to other places that can take the items if we’re not able to. We’ve also piloted a program where people can make donations for us to take and dispose of items for them that they just maybe don’t want to make that second trip to the hard to recycle center, so it’s been working out pretty well with that.

Brion:  Yeah, I think a lot of frustration with residents is that they feel like they have to take so many different trips to each specialty area. Anywhere that they can reduce that down and say, “Can someone just tell me what to do? I can’t figure it out,” that can really be a nice little benefit for them.

Lynn:  Exactly. And it’s been helpful, too, because it helped us start the conversation with our customers. When we first opened our business, I really was just kind of trying to get the word out and really taking just about anything, trying to figure out myself what is sellable and what is not sellable. Over the years, what people will buy does change, especially with technology items. Something, in 2005, that we could sell, like CDs were commanding really great prices in 2005, and now we’re struggling to sell CDs, things like that.

So we’ve been able to start a conversation with the customers so they’ve become aware, “Okay, I can’t just bring you everything. You can help me, but I’m not just going to dump it at the door. I’m going to come inside and talk to you.” We’ve been able to start sorting the donations with our customers, which was a huge change for us. We were used to people just coming in and dumping at the door, dumping outside the door and just leaving. And so now we’re talking with our customers, we’re helping to educate them, they’re feeling happier and feeling like their donation is able to do more good because they’re able to start refining what they are bringing to us.

Brion:  That’s sometimes counterintuitive for people, too, because it’s going to take a little longer to interact and go through this stuff with them there. But to your point, the education is really valuable for the next time and future trips and their ability to educate their friends and family, so that kind of investment does pay off, in the long run, I can imagine.

Lynn:  Exactly. And that was something, like when I started working with Joe, I was saying, “We don’t have time for this. We can’t do this. I don’t see how this can ever happen.” I think that’s what a lot of people running any type of nonprofit business, they feel that way, “We don’t have the resources to do this.” But when you can make a plan, then you actually realize, okay, this is, in the long-run, saving me time, and it really is. Our customers start to become our advocates and our partners.

Joe:  Lynn, didn’t you also start almost limiting the hours that you would accept donations?

Lynn:  Yes, so that was like a really scary moment. I had told Joe there was just no way that we can close our doors for donations because once somebody maybe gets disappointed, I was worried they wouldn’t come back. That’s was a really scary thing to do, but I took the risk after we gathered the data and realized we need to do something so that we can handle the donations and honor them in the best way. So we closed the doors for donations on Mondays and we started limiting the number of days we’re available to receive donations. We did a plan where we let everybody know in advance that’s what we were doing, and I think that was the key part so people kind of knew this was coming.

The surprise, for me, was limiting our donations days, it gave us that extra time to catch up and it didn’t turn people away. They still came and brought donations, so it didn’t hurt us in any way other than we were able to get more sellable items out to the sales floor. Our sales have actually been better since we’ve limited our donations hours.

Brion:  Yeah, I can imagine that would be kind of scary to try out. What, ultimately, lead you to decide to give it a shot? because I think that is a barrier a lot of people have with improvement is I don’t know if it’s going to work or not.

Lynn:  Joe had kind of painstakingly worked with us as far as getting the staff to count the number of donations coming in and the number of donations going out to the floor, just kind of roughly, and number of donations going out to trash. I could kind of see like we were really spending a lot of our paid staff time, especially on the receiving end, and not enough time on the output side. So that’s kind of what gave me the confidence and, to be honest, I was just sort of at a breaking point. Something was going to have to change. We really couldn’t go on the way we were going, so I think sometimes that helps the argument is to look at the data and then say, okay, it’s worth the risk.

Brion:  And you got into that pressure of not feeling like you’re able to catch up and willing to try something new. That’s great. I guess, how did that go?

Lynn:  It went really well, and we actually limited the number of days we send our truck out into the neighborhood as well, and that was also another scary thing. I think the hardest thing was getting staff buy-in at first. It was hard for me to present to them that this was going to be a positive thing and that nobody’s in trouble, everybody’s doing a good job, but let’s see what we can do that might be better.

Once people, staff and volunteers, started to see that it was working, then that they really got behind it, but it was just getting that first few steps going was pretty difficult. I think Joe remembers a couple of tough days in the sorting room, trying to get the machine going. But especially once the volunteers started having their workspaces back, they started seeing, okay, I can see how my four hours is really to make a difference, then they all started adding their energies to it. One of the best things were the concentrated sorting times. Joe helped bring in groups of people and just being able to have a group of 10 or 15 people, for four hours, in a concentrated way was able to open up the receiving area so that the donations receiving person could have a workspace. I know that sounds funny, but we literally didn’t even have a workspace to receive donations at the time.

Brion:  No, I completely understand. I’ve been to a couple of different donation-based nonprofits and space is a premium. There’s a desire to hold onto everything. You’re trying to keep things out of the landfill and find a home for it and, “Maybe someone else will come in tomorrow and get this,” or, “Someone will need this someday or we might need this someday for a future project.” It’s hard to realize that you can’t collect everything and keep everything. I understand that’s very difficult.

Lynn:  Yeah, and then the other side to that, why it was really great to streamline our systems, is since we do use volunteers to run the store, we really can’t exist without our volunteers and that labor number of hours is variable. People may take time off to travel; they may take time off because it’s a holiday, so the hours are really variable. So if we can have a system that can run itself with fewer people, then it’s much easier to keep things going.

Brion:  Yeah, that flexibility is really key for any kind of organization for efficiencies.

Lynn:  And so having the dedicated receiving area set up, since we’re working with our customers, we can receive donations with one person. It used to take three people to be able to go out to someone’s car, get the stuff, bring it where it needs to go. Now, people are bringing it in themselves, we’re chatting with them, and we can, most of the time, get it done with one person.

Brion:  Yeah, especially since they’re helping.

Lynn:  Exactly, and that was another thing. I was very happy to see that the customers were really interested in learning, they were happy to help, they enjoy learning more. So that was the other thing I was a little concerned that maybe customers would say, “No, I don’t want to help you,” but they were. They were happy to help.

Brion:  I think you’re attracting a very special group of people that would come and donate and want to see your organization succeed. I am surprised, but then also probably not too surprised as well.

Lynn:  Yeah, I agree. People do want to support the programs and, at their heart, that’s why they’re here and it’s just sort of getting to that point where the donations really are making a big difference.

Joe:  In some ways, that practice is combining things that used to happen in two separate steps, receiving and then sorting. So now it’s almost like receiving and sorting all in the same step now that the customers are that involved.

Lynn:  Exactly. It’s been a while and things have been running so much more smoothly, I have to kind of go back in time and think about it. But it’s true, we were just having people bring things in and leave it anywhere they could, and then we had to go back and deal with it.

Brion:  So when someone would drop off something that you didn’t accept or was hidden and the bottom of the bag or underneath something, you guys have to deal with that cost and deal with, if you have to throw it away, you have to have a bin available and get it picked up and pay for all of that, correct?

Lynn:  Exactly. We have dumpster hauling fees every week. If we have large items that we can’t sell, we have to haul it to the dump, so there’s a lot of costs associated with things we can’t sell. By being able to intercept more of the things at the door, that certainly has helped our bottom line. We haul less now, which has been really good for us.

Brion:  Would that mean there were sorting process changes or were there other things that were done to lower the costs there on the hauling?

Lynn:  Yeah. Another part of that was developing a sorting guide that would… Joe took pictures of things that were either desirable or undesirable and he helped to write a guide, that was more from the volunteer point of view, to show an incoming volunteer, in a very cooperative way, what are the things that are usable, what is a good way to approach this. Helping to raise the understanding of volunteers of what we can sell has been helpful. That did translate to the sales floor

I was slowly realizing, with help from data, that we were filling the sales floor with low-value items that just really weren’t selling or were selling for very low prices. So by helping to retrain the volunteers, we’ve been able to get them to come around to pricing desirable items at more of a market value and not pricing things that just aren’t going to sell. You kind of touched on that a little bit, Brion, about that wishful thinking thing like, “Well, maybe someone could use this,” but kind of doing that reality check like is this going to justify the space it takes on the sales floor? every item has to sell to justify the space it’s taking up.

Brion:  Yeah, that’s true.

Lynn:  That helps quite a bit as well just to have in a nice way. Because with volunteers, you always want to keep them inspired, keep them feeling good and not coming down like, “Why didn’t you do this better?” but just bringing them along with the thought process of, “I think we could do this. We need to make sure that this doesn’t go to the sales floor.” And then one thing with our volunteers that helps them a lot is that they know that most things are being recycled, so even if we’re not going to sell it, it’s not necessarily going to be thrown away. That helps them with the mental feeling of wanting to make use of everything that they possibly can.

Joe:  One thing that you had going on, on the shop floor, that I was really impressed by was the stock rotation. Maybe we can describe that a little bit.

Lynn:  Yeah. I had kind of realized that, early on, you can’t just put stuff out to the sales floor; it’s not all going to sell. You hope it does, but not everything sells. Most of your thrift shoppers are regulars, so they come in multiple times a week and they’re going to buy things when they first to them and the things that sit are just going to sit. And so everything we put out to the sales floor has a month code or a month color and that way, we know, in the slower time, it’s every three months, we’re completely resetting the sales floor. We go through it department by department and pull off the unsold items. In busier donation times, that might get compressed to culling every two months or every month, but we’re making sure that customers coming in are going to see new things each time they come in.

Joe:  The shop floor is pulling materials in from the donations room through that cycle happening, so you really get a nice material flow going between donations being dropped off, sorting, pricing, and then going to the floor or going to wherever the next appropriate spot is.

Lynn:  And it’s a balance that has to happen. That’s sort of what I hadn’t realized is, over the years, we just sort of shifted into this really out of balance sequence where not enough was making that full cycle.

Brion:  How do you track and look at donations versus sales? You mentioned some data that Joe was collecting and helping with. Do you guys have a way to track that in some way? I know that’s a lot challenge for a lot of the donation nonprofits, especially the smaller ones that don’t really have a way to track coming in and what’s going out other than maybe dollars or categories of dollars. What’s your current system?

Lynn:  For a long time, we’ve been able to track our sales and I think most businesses do that where you can say, “I sold this much of this department,” but it was important for us to kind of look at… Part of it is more just visually looking at the piles, like how much of this pile did we end up keeping, how much did it go to the sales floor, and then, ultimately, how much got culled off the sales floor. So it’s a little hard to put hard numbers on, but you can certainly do rough estimates, and I think that was what was really helpful for me. And Joe can talk more about that, I think, than I can. Like the tables and the grass, Joe.

Joe:  Yeah. For each sorting area, it’s basically its own department and we just looked at, roughly, what’s the quantity in versus quantity out and where are the largest imbalances. Where are the largest number of quantity of items coming in and then they just kind of get stuck in the donations room? that’s really what we’re working to try to prevent is just try to keep things flowing through the donations room. It’s a middle area and it’s not really helping anybody to have a lot of material there. What’s useful is to get it to the sales floor, get it to the giving room, or get it to the recyclers. If one of the recyclers shows up and the bin is not full, they’ve wasted a trip, so kind of working out the timing of let’s make sure our recycling bins outside are full when the truck comes up to pick it up. I’m trying to think what some of the largest areas were where we showed an imbalance. Was it furniture? I’m pretty sure it was the kind of bulky items.

Lynn:  Yeah, I think furniture. That was one of the things I was really blind to because furniture is a huge part of our business and that’s why we bring our truck out to the neighborhoods and pick up the furniture, but we had hit a point where our backroom was full of furniture, the sales floor was full of furniture and not so much was selling. The way we really improved that was Joe shined a light on it and we talked about what can we do about this. I worked with the driver assistants and we trained everybody a little bit more about what is the furniture that sells for us, what is the furniture that doesn’t sell for us, how can we talk to customers about this.

We updated our donations guide, we produced a fee schedule. So if you’re just in a bind, if you’re moving and you don’t have time to deal with a couch that we just said no to, you can make a donation to cover our costs plus a little bit and we can still take it from you. It’s kind of a win-win that way and we take the pressure of the customer who maybe just doesn’t have time to deal with it. It helps us because, in the past, we might just feel like we had to take that couch that we weren’t going to sell just to be nice, but then we were also having to go to the dump and pay money to dispose of that, so that was a huge difference to do that.

Brion:  I think that’s important because you’re adding value for the customers. They’re in a bind and you’re helping them out.

Lynn:  Yeah, and it makes us feel good, too, because then they, at the end of the day, feel like, okay, I did help hospice in some way. Even if they couldn’t take my item, I was still able to help. That was a really big change for us and that helped quite a bit. We’re able to just bring in more furniture that we know we can sell, so the furniture is taking up a lot less space in the sorting room now so more room for other work.

One of the other changes was kind of inspired by the changes in furniture. The volunteers in the book department got together and spent a lot of time figuring out more about what are sellable books, were not sellable books, what can we do with the books that we’re not going to sell. So they were kind of inspired by what they saw us doing in furniture to try to do a similar thing in books. The book department, at one time, was completely overflowing with books and we really didn’t know what to do. We could price books very quickly, but we would very quickly overflow the sales floor with books that weren’t going to sell fast enough. And so we were able to develop a plan to sort faster what comes in, get a better standard of what we know will sell and what won’t sell, and also volunteers who are skilled in understanding what will sell better on Amazon so we’ve been able to expand online sales to take pressure off the sales floor. We’ve really been able to raise a lot more revenue with books that way.

Joe:  And then don’t you also sell kind of unique items on Craigslist?

Lynn:  Yeah. Actually, we kind of did a bunch of different things to take pressure off the sales floor, reach more customers. Unusual items that we think may take longer to sell, sometimes it’s because it’s a larger piece of furniture, we’ve been able to get it listed on Craigslist. Craigslist is nice because we can list for Boulder Craigslist or Denver Craigslist so we can reach a bigger audience that way and it’s often free or very inexpensive to list, so we’ve been able to pull in customers from further away that might be interested in the things that we have. Those kinds of things, like we were able to do more with eBay and Etsy and that just has helped because we can reach more people that way. Maybe the local area isn’t interested in it, but someone else would.

Brion:  Do you do anything with pricing at all? like if there’s an item that’s been there, is there any kind of discount for the age of the item or do you just use the colors and then you cull out items that have been there too long?

Lynn:  We run a bunch of half-price sales throughout the month. Twice a month, I run a 50% off everything in the store sale and that really helps reduce numbers. And then we do smaller sales too. We might do a clothing bag sale. We try to time that at the end of the month when the clothes have been on the sales floor the longest, so we’ll say, for $8, you can fill a shopping bag with any clothes that you want, that kind of stuff. We don’t, right now, have really much ability to automatically do discounts, so it’s all done by hand, like we go through collectibles and redline things to make them half-price. We’re hoping, someday, to have a system where the discounts could be more automatic.

Joe:  But the discount days really do bring a lot of foot traffic into the store it seems like.

Lynn:  Yeah. The 50% off days, people line up. We’ll have 50 people waiting for the store to open, so it’s a really fun day to move a lot of stuff.

Brion:  Do you have to staff differently those days?

Lynn:  What I do, on those days, is I try really hard – I send out a sales email to the volunteers asking if they can help, so I do try to bring in extra help on those days. Our regular volunteers would normally do a four-hour shift on cashiering, but on a 50% day, the volume is so high that two hours is an awful lot, so we try to just make sure that there’s enough people coming in. It’s not always perfect but we do the best we can.

Brion:  Did you say it was completely volunteer or do you have some staff members?

Lynn:  We do. We have five paid staff members and we’re open seven days a week and we rely on a core group of volunteers. We have a little over 100 volunteers that help us out and they’re anywhere from retirees to students to families, a little bit of everything. We work with a food stamps program as well as community service through the court system as well.

Joe:  And it seems like you work with people, the volunteers, to find out where they have an interest area or a skill. It seems like, for each area, you have almost an expert or several experts.

Lynn:  That’s right. The nice thing about meeting people who want to volunteer, they’re usually interested in the mission and then you kind of get to know them as time goes by. A lot of our volunteers are retired, so they’ve had a lifetime of experience. When I get to know people, I like to show them a little bit of everything in the store, but I can tell when their eyes light up. I can see when they’re interested in something and then we talk more about it.

A lot of our electronics volunteers are retired engineers and they can certainly teach me a lot about how to fix and value electronics. We have a lot of retired teachers that volunteer, so they can help me a lot with how to make signs more clear to people and how to get our systems a little more navigable to someone coming in. It’s really kind of cool to meet such a great group of talented people and find out what they love to do and, usually, what people love to do is also what they’re really good at.

Brion:  Pretty cool.

Joe:  I was kind of impressed that you have an arts and collectibles area.

Lynn:  Yes, and so we have some volunteers, a lot of them have previous either careers in art, like our art expert is a retired art teacher, and some of our volunteers are retired from running antique stores themselves, so they really know a lot about early American depression glass or collectible things that would be hard to find. Not everything has a label on it that you can Google, and so that’s been kind of my joy is I get to learn from all of these great people that come in to help.

Brion:  I think you made a good point on leveraging their skills and knowledge, too, instead of having them back sorting clothes when they could be out pricing valuable antiques and cool collectible items.

Lynn:  Exactly, and sometimes it takes me a while to realize what somebody’s skill is because some people are more upfront about their skills and some people, it takes a while to get to know them, but I have had that experience. I had a wonderful volunteer who hung clothes for me for two years and hated every moment of it and never let on to me at all. One day, she realized that I needed help with administrative stuff, like organizing and making forms and distributing copies of things, and once she got into that, she just blossomed. She had so much fun and she was like, “I always hated the clothes,” and I was like, “Wow, thanks for telling me.”

But you see a huge difference when somebody is happy with their work.

Joe:  It is kind of amazing the finds that you guys make. Is there any particular finds in the last couple of weeks that kind of stick out for you?

Lynn:  Well, we’ve been very lucky, actually. We’ve been finding some great collectibles. We had a nice old Japanese enamel jewelry box with a jade top come through that we were able to sell for $70. This time of year, we’re trying to go through all the artwork and things that maybe we’ve been sitting on because we don’t know what to do with. We’ve had some nice original oil paintings come through that we’ve been able to sell for good value, like in the 200s. The other kind of nice line is less glamorous but we are able to recoup revenue when we find scrap items, like scrap silver and scrap gold, so that’s been really helpful lately to raise revenue. It’s just broken jewelry that has precious metals as part of it, so that’s another layer that we work with as well.

Brion:  Let’s talk about the mission a little bit. How does your store support the mission? as things are getting better, it sounds like things are picking up a little bit, what is done with some of the funds? I’m assuming you guys are providing those funds to another group or you guys are providing some services for people directly?

Lynn:  Yes. 100% of the thrift shop profits go to TRU Community Care. TRU Community Care, we started out as a Hospice of Boulder County, so hospice was really the beginnings for us and that was in 1976. But what we do is we offer hospice services but also grief support to the community. We have, open to the public, grief services, grief groups. We’re one of the only groups in the country that offers that. Our grief groups can cover lots of different things. One of the really maybe more interesting programs is Healing with Horses. They offer children who experience grief can go and be with therapy horses as well to help work through their grief.

Our organization also offers palliative care and then we have opened what we call the Pace Center, TRU Pace, and that’s a service to the elderly who aren’t in hospice, generally still live at home but need support services so they can come to Pace Center and receive medical care as well as social interaction with other people, they do fun activities and things like that. So a lot of different things that the money from the thrift shop goes to support.

Brion:  Do you run just the thrift shop or do you also oversee that part of the operations as well?

Lynn:  I am just the thrift shop manager. It’s a big job.

Brion:  Yeah, I was going to say. I’m kind of glad to hear that, actually. It sounds like that’s a lot of work that’s going on in there too.

Lynn:  Yeah. There’s a great group in philanthropy that does other sources for fundraising for our organization. The thrift shop accounts for about a fourth of the fundraising efforts for the organization.

Brion:  Anything else? this is great. It sounds like you guys are making some great progress. Joe, can you just talk briefly about your background? you jumped right in and started giving some good tips and advice, but you’ve seen some of this work before, right? You have the background in quality. Can you talk about that real quick?

Joe:  Sure, yeah. I first got introduced to Lean in electronics manufacturing and I did that for a few years. More recently, I’ve been focused on quality and compliance in regulatory-related activities. But the opportunity to volunteer and have an improvement focus, I find rewarding and I really like the Lean techniques because you can see results fairly quickly and it’s all pretty hands-on. You try something, you see if it works. If it doesn’t, then you learn from that and you try again. It’s just kind of a neat journey. It was really neat to see how one area starts to improve and then, like Lynn mentioned, other volunteer areas start to improve their own areas on their own with their own ideas. That’s really ideal and it’s just great to see and rewarding.

Lynn:  I will say that’s kind of the end result of all of this, is that the volunteers are happier, the staff, our jobs are easier, we’re making more money, the customers are happier. There’s a lot of nice outcomes to all of this work. I didn’t really expect that when Joe started talking about a quality improvement project. My first thought was, “Wow, I don’t have time for this.”

Joe:  “It sounds like more work.”

Lynn:  Yeah, exactly, “It sounds like more work.”

Brion: “I’m already too busy!” That’s amazing and you can’t really ask for anything better than that, than a win-win for everybody – customers, the mission, the volunteers, the staff, the team, the environment. That’s amazing!

Lynn:  It was a hard journey, but it was well worth it.

Brion:  What’s the duration? I remember Joe talking about this last year sometime maybe. Maybe that’s when you first clued me in on that, maybe you started that a little bit earlier than that. What kind of timeframe are we talking about? because I think some people have different ideas about how long some of that work will take. When did you really start kind of getting serious about this?

Lynn:  It started in the summer of 2018 and I think that the project-project was about six months, but we kind of are still working on things. It’s just been able to get us into more detail as time has gone on, but I would say that the project was about six months.

Brion:  So starting in the summer last year?

Lynn:  Is that right Joe or is that a year?

Joe:  Yeah, the summer of 2018, a really focused effort in that six-month period and then just regular follow-up over the course of the past year or so.

Brion:  I wonder what it’s like for you, Joe, for time. How often were you over there? how much time were you spending during that six months and then kind of ongoing? I think that would be really interesting just to kind of hear the time commitment.

Joe:  It was about a few hours every couple of weeks for me, and that would be a chance to take a look at things in the donations room and talk to Lynn about how the last two weeks have gone, were there any adjustments we want to make for the next two weeks, and then that sort of thing. That was kind of the six-month intensive period was the two-week follow-up.

Brion:  Same with you, Lynn, on your end? I’m sure there was homework that was going on in between the times Joe would arrive, but just the meetings with him when he came in and him working with your team, was that about a couple of hours every couple of weeks of time?

Lynn:  Yeah. I would say the only thing that was really more would be the volunteer days that followed four-hour blocks, so there were a few of those. The time involved was fairly minimal from my point of view. I was talking to people about implementing things, but really, from the beginning, Joe helped me get a cooperative feeling to the project so staff were also welcomed to bring in their ideas and react and things like that. So a lot of people were helping, so it wasn’t necessarily a ton of time for me. I think it was more just mentally changing the way you look at a problem that’s difficult. The real work was being able to slowly change how I did things, how I looked at things. I can remember meeting, after a couple of weeks with Joe, doing a check-in and just being like I don’t know how to change myself or how I’m doing this. That was the hardest thing was changing old habits, but then what’s cool is you get momentum and then the whole culture changes, people. Our habits now are the habits that work better for us and that makes it so much easier.

Brion:  Anything else? What else you’d maybe like to share or any other examples or things we didn’t cover yet?

Joe:  The waste worksheets were pretty helpful and looking at what types of things we might do in the hands-on four-hour time block when we tried to get volunteers in. I was able to recruit some people from where I work to volunteer, and so just kind of the waste framework was really helpful. We did focus a lot on solid waste streams just because of the nature of the donations, but that was a very helpful worksheet to structure and plan the activity with.

Brion:  On the waste walk, then that was part of that four-hour period and then you also mentioned the impact effort, so after you guys identified some opportunities, and you said you also used that sheet to rank them and come up with the ones you wanted to dig into first. Is at all a part of the four hours I guess?

Joe:  The impact and ease matrix was kind of at the idea session ahead of the waste walk activity, and then it kind of helps to talk out the ideas and trying to sort out they’re all good ideas but you can’t do everything all at once. That’s where that prioritization by the quadrants was helpful, I thought. I don’t know, Lynn, what did you think?

Lynn:  Yeah, I think that was really where I started to be able to hone in on some things that we could focus on. It’s kind of coming back to me now. I remember just sort of unloading maybe 15 or 20 items on Joe about things I thought could be improved, but then how do you make that decision? you can’t do them all. How do you know what is the most important thing to start with? so it was a nice visual way to look at what could, potentially, be the biggest gains, like what are the things that might not even take a lot of work to do, let’s start with those and get a little success under our belt, and that did help. There are things you can do very quickly that will give you a big gain and that was helpful to be able to see that.

Joe:  Relying on maybe two or three tools or methods, it really drove the whole improvement effort.

Brion:  Yeah, because I’m sure your brain is thinking of lots of different tools you could implement or try out and it’s hard to keep it simple.

Joe:  Exactly, but keeping it simple helps us to be more effective. It’s not so much about using the tools, but looking for the improvements.

Brion:  Where can people get a hold or reach out to you if they have other questions or want to connect? maybe the website or through hospice and the TRU Community Care, and then maybe contact information or ways they can connect. Do you have a social media account or something or an email?

Lynn:  Absolutely, yeah. Our website is shop,, and we are also TRU Thrift on Facebook and Instagram.

Brion:  And if they reach out to there, they can get ahold of you?

Lynn:  Exactly, yeah. They can email me, our email is, and that would be resources about volunteering as well.

Brion:  Okay. And Joe?

Joe:  I’ve got a blog called Global Quality on .blog, I can be reached through that.

Brion:  Okay. Thank you both for your time and sharing. This is a great story and continued success as you all evolve and improve and make more changes and find better ways to do things. I think there’s a lot of organizations – I’m just kind of thinking – even locally, here in Portland, that I know are going to pick up some tips from this discussion. I was also at a conference last month and talking to other organizations that are receiving in donations and they’re all having some similar struggles with that, so anything we can do to share those best practices and give people different ideas and ways to think about it, I think it can be really powerful.

Lynn:  Absolutely. Thanks for the opportunity.

Brion:  Sure. Okay, thanks.

Lynn:  All right, thanks a lot. Bye.

Joe:  Thanks, Brion. Bye.

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