Excerpt: Lean On Me

Gerald Grimes wasn’t exactly sure what he was signing up for when he volunteered for Lean, but he needed help. He runs the Northwest One-Stop Career Center, a place where residents can go to find a job. Many of Gerald’s clients are ex-offenders looking to re-enter society and become productive citizens.

The One-Stop Center is always busy, but in the wake of the Great Recession it was overwhelmed. Lines snaked out the door daily, to the point where people desperate for services would give up waiting and come back another time. Even those who made it to the front desk and filled out the requisite paperwork had to come back at a later date for orientation before they could see a job counselor. Staff members were frazzled as their attention was pulled back and forth between the people line and the phone line. Entry of data from the paper forms that was supposed to be done at the end of each day often didn’t get done, resulting in a months-long backlog.

Gerald hoped that a Lean “Value Stream Mapping” event would be the solution to get people jobs faster. He wanted to provide same-day service, but for most clients it was taking weeks. The event was scheduled for four days in the city’s brand new Idea Lab.

The first morning of the event was devoted to training the team about Lean thinking. When Gerald heard the facilitators say that Lean is about finding and eliminating waste, he found himself getting defensive. “I pride myself on program development,” he says. “When they started talking about waste, it grated on me. It felt like they were telling us that what we were doing was all wrong.”

“Then we did the Waste Walk,” he remembers.

On the Waste Walk, Gerald was able to observe the One-Stop operation through the eyes of a Lean expert, and he had an “epiphany.” “I realized that I had to purge my own feelings,” he told me. “Lean was not attacking what we had built, it was trying to make it better.”

All of his life, Gerald has proved doubters wrong. He credits his faith and family. As a boy growing up in south Baltimore, he had to be resourceful. In the winter, he and his friends would sled down Federal Hill on metal ringer washer tops. In the summer, he would be lowered down by his ankles to retrieve kickballs that had bounced into the Inner Harbor. “I was the only one who knew how to swim, but honestly, the harbor was so scuzzy, it looked like you could walk on it,” he jokes.

When he was seven years old, Gerald and a friend built a shoe shine box so they could make money to go to the movies. It was 1963, and Gerald remembers standing in line one day to see a surf movie starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. As he was admiring the movie poster, with beachgoers frolicking among the waves, an old lady behind him said, “That’s not for you. Do you see any little colored boys on that poster?” Gerald was so crushed by these words that he ran straight home. His father found him on the back steps, sobbing and pulling at his skin.

Gerald’s father always had good advice (“I’ve got his speeches numbered,” Gerald says). On this day, he gave Gerald a simple message: “People will always make you doubt yourself, but you can do whatever you want.” Today, Gerald wonders whether that old lady was a blessing or a curse. “Ever since then, I have been doing everything a little colored boy is not supposed to do.” That included going away to Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he was one of 45 black students out of 1,500, then returning to his hometown to help people get jobs.

The last afternoon of the four-day Lean event was a “report out,” when the team would describe the new business process and implementation plan to the department director and other senior executives. As I walked from City Hall to the Innovation Lab, I was nervous. I had sold Lean hard and had a lot riding on its success. The moment I walked into the Lab, I could feel the positive vibe. There was a cake on the table, and team members were smiling and talking excitedly. They were ready to celebrate. It turned out to be one of the best days of my career.

Gerald and his team had figured out how to give their customers same-day service, eliminate the data entry backlog, and make their jobs less stressful, all with a few common sense process changes. They would split the line in two, one for new and one for returning customers. A greeter would check customers in and give them a number. Staff at the front desk would enter customer data on the spot; no more paperwork. The security officer would handle the phone. They would make an orientation DVD so customers wouldn’t have to come back for the weekly live session, which was often booked solid.

The new process worked so well that Lean thinking has permeated the Office of Employment Development (OED). OED has revamped its case management system, sped up registration for the youth summer jobs program, and more.

“A lot of what we do in government is bureaucratic nonsense,” Gerald says. “Lean makes us ask ourselves why we do things and if they are really necessary.”