Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Lean thinking in Solihull

On Monday 18th October 2010 the BBC Radio 4 Today programme had an interesting report by Andrew Hosken that detailed initiatives by Solihull Council’s to apply lean thinking to their systems for vetting foster parents.

The Chief Executive of the council said that a large part of the problem of slow and inefficient vetting of foster parents was found to be caused by custom and practice. Over the years steps had been introduced into the processes which were not strictly required, but which various people at various times in the past had thought to be helpful. As a result there was repetition and waste. Instead of getting it right first time it was more a matter of getting it right in the end.

The council has been working with consultants who come from an engineering background and who are introducing council employees to key lessons from Japanese motor industry practice.  The lean approach is applied to analyse business and professional processes: look for the value-adding parts of the process and avoid activities that consume time and resources that don’t add value. The emphasis is on avoiding duplication and waste and on ensuring that things happen at the right time, so preventing downstream delays. For example it was reported that by doing CRB checks early in the process, rather than late, unnecessary work could be avoided if they come back negative.

Back in September of last year - following a conference paper which I felt had fallen mostly on deaf ears - I wrote about the lean approach in this blog. I said that 

"....Lean is the deceptively simple idea that we need to devote our energies to those business and professional processes which "add-value" rather than to those which don't. Put at its simplest this means that resources should be directed so far as possible only to those activities which are strictly necessary to satisfy the needs we are trying to meet. In child protection terms this means activities which either prevent child maltreatment or which rescue children from it and meet their resulting needs; not administration, paper-work, recording or meetings.
"In the mid 20th century Japanese manufacturing companies realised that they were wasting time and resources on non-value-adding activities such as administration, in-process inventory and re-work. They developed an abhorrence of waste and gradually moved towards a situation in which all changes to the production system were vetted for their contribution to establishing a truly lean environment. In child protection work in Britain we appear to have moved in the opposite direction by developing ever more complex procedures and time consuming recording and IT systems. The amount of time that front-line staff are engaged in administration appears to have increased dramatically. Indeed it is hard to find any evidence that the impact of changes such as new procedures, recording and assessment systems on the ability of front-line staff to practice effectively have ever been evaluated.
"Becoming lean would involve child protection services rigorously re-assessing where value is added and where it is not. Procedures, recording systems and administration need to be re-designed to maximise the time available for direct value-adding work with families and children."
I'm glad to hear that the folks in Solihull have come to similar conclusions. They are likely to end up with a better service as a result.

There are strong moral and ethical reasons why we should embrace lean methodology in children's social work. The whole business of safeguarding children and promoting their welfare, and of acting in their best interests, involves us not only in doing the right things, and not doing the wrong things, but also ensuring that all the available resources go towards doing the right things, not other things which have no value for children and young people. Ethical child protection requires us not only to do no harm, but also to ensure that we do not squander scarce and valuable resources by doing things which make no difference.

If you are interested in reading more about Lean there is a very good account of how it can be applied in the public sector - and some of the pitfalls - which has been produced by colleagues at the Warwick Business School: