The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, was getting underway when Liz McCartney, a teacher, and Zack Rosenburg, a lawyer, walked into the “hippie tent,” a meal center in Chalmette, LA, run by the unconventionally dressed members of the Rainbow Family.
The couple from Washington D.C. had driven down to help victims of Hurricane Katrina rebuild. They didn’t know how to operate most of the power tools they had borrowed from D.C. friends. And they certainly had no idea what “batch” and “flow” production were.
But by 2012 the disaster recovery nonprofit they founded, SBP, had cut rebuilding time by nearly 50% using lean management concepts they had learned from Toyota. Today SBP has rebuilt homes for more than 1,500 families with the help of 180,000 volunteers in 11 communities across the United States and Puerto Rico.
Their remarkable story and the remarkable new recovery model they developed based on lean concepts – which dramatically improves the lead time between disaster and recovery – are described in their new book, Getting Home, published by the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute.
Lean Enterprise Institute Communications Director Chet Marchwinski recently talked with Zack about disasters and recovery. Here’s an excerpt, edited for length:
Q: What's the problem with the existing traditional disaster recovery process?
Zack: Before we talk about the problem with disaster recovery, I think it's important to put it in context about why every American should care. The National Weather Service came out and said that during this flood season over 200 million homes are at risk of catastrophic flooding in relation to the Mississippi River flooding and the storms that are predicted to come.
This is a real American problem. Last year 50 percent of American counties were impacted by a federally declared natural disaster. Another example: If people think, “Well, I'm not in a mandatory flood zone,” in Houston, 70 percent of the homes that flooded after Hurricane Harvey were not in a required flood insurance zone.
I want to make sure your folks know this relates to everybody. Disaster recovery in America needs to be improved because it doesn't measure what matters. Outputs aren't measured. Results aren't measured. What happens, unfortunately, is a focus on compliance and process. You can say success is driving certain outcomes or success is following the process. For a host of reasons in disaster recovery, success is measured by have you followed the process.
Q: The process for tearing down homes, applying for money, getting relief?
Zack: All the above, unfortunately. There are a lot of government funds involved, and there must be compliance and there can't be waste. We believe that the federal systems need to put an equal emphasis on outcomes and outputs and getting money out the door as there is on ensuring that our taxpayer dollars are stewarded properly.
Q: Getting Home is a great story. It's inspiring, but it's not a feel-good book. You've got a blueprint, a nine-step process, on how government at all levels can work together, how relief agencies and charities can work better together. Can you summarize that process?
Zack: Hopefully, it's a story that gives people hope about what they can do themselves and is empowering. How ludicrous is it that a teacher and a lawyer created a disaster construction group that started doing a ton of disaster construction? It should empower people.
And it shows the true American connectivity that folks will help folks they’ve never met before. There are a lot of feel-good stories. What we really want is a book that citizens, business leaders, government employees can have as a roadmap towards how to drive impact and change and improvement wherever they work and wherever they live. We see this as a feel-good business book.
We want this book to go to business schools, to graduate programs, undergraduate programs and to make it into boardrooms of both for-profit companies and nonprofit companies. We think some of the lessons that we share about investing in people, having an identity at work, and certainly the Toyota Production System piece of understanding whether you are ahead or behind, and how to talk about problems -- these can be applied to anything, not just the disaster world.
Q: There are a lot of good business lessons in the book for managing people. For instance, you work with a lot of volunteers from AmeriCorps, so your workforce is literally turning over every so many days. You had to come up with a way to train people and bring them up to speed. Can you talk about that? I think managers and leaders out there would want to know.
Zack: Whether it's our one-day or one-week volunteers, an AmeriCorps program that stays for about six weeks, or an AmeriCorps program that stays for 10 months, we have quite a bit of turnover. We could either be held captive by that turnover, or we could leverage it. We try and see it as an asset.
At SBP our AmeriCorps members are constantly making our systems and processes better. We have this ethos at SBP called constructive discontent that's owned by everybody. Rather than focus on “this is how we do something because we've always done it this way,” our team understands that it's their job to improve systems and processes. Rather than being held captive by turnover, we embrace it.
We do some interesting things. We focus on culture. We focus on values. We focus on this notion of the brain’s seeking system -- you can Google what it is -- but it's a dopamine trigger that's activated when folks are learning, and thinking, and pursuing.
At SBP we really believe that we want to tap into innate and physical human characteristics to drive impact. The seeking system is a big piece of that too.
Q: SBP is certainly making an impact on improving disaster recovery. Why don't you tell folks how they can get involved with SBP?
Zack: Thanks. We are building in 10 communities across the country, including Puerto Rico and Texas, Florida, the Carolinas. You can come out and volunteer.
Second, we need donations. People can invest and those dollars will go directly to helping American families move home.
Third, we have resources that help folks understand and mitigate risk for businesses. These are resources that will augment and buttress business continuity plans by focusing on the potential soft spot, which is employee resilience. Employees can't come to work if they don't have a clear pathway home. So, where you can really learn more about SBP is at www.sbpusa.org.
- Buy a copy of Getting Home to be inspired while getting improvement ideas from SBP’s proven business methods for people management, continuous improvement, and developing a respectful, problem-solving culture based on values.