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Connecting Lean Thinkers With Nonprofits in Portland, Oregon

by Matthew Horvat
May 29, 2015

Connecting Lean Thinkers With Nonprofits in Portland, Oregon

by Matthew Horvat
May 29, 2015 | Comments (10)

In 2010 - a decade after going out into the work world and gaining some experience in for-profit work - I returned to my home town of Portland, Oregon wanting to make a difference using lean thinking. I didn't know anybody doing Lean, so I aimed to start a community of lean-minded people with the intention of doing the following:

  • Quarterly “gemba” visits to a member’s organization
  • Collaboration with and for non-profit Lean work
  • Information sharing at local relevant events
  • Offline mentoring and collaboration

Lean Portland was born. Frankly, it was a lot of me reaching out in the beginning, but once it got rolling, it took on a life of its own. We began in 2011 with a trip of 15 people or so touring local businesses that had made advancements in their lean thinking. These included Nike’s in house manufacturing facility, Toyota's North American distribution facility, and the new wing of a local children's hospital. They were very interesting and a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests in our home town.

In 2012, we copied the local chapter of the Organizational Development Network and started a community consulting project through LinkedIn. I found three committed individuals with a diverse set of skills, having no idea how important their diverse skills would be. One person, for example, joined because her client was a lean consultant and she wanted to know more about his business. (She was a marketing professional and eventually took the lead in publicizing our interest in the nonprofit sector).

Thanks to her work, we fairly quickly heard from nonprofit organizations that were interested in collaborating. My team and I structured a set of interview questions that we thought would help us choose the right nonprofit organization to work with - an organization with a clear organizational need we thought we could help with. In truth, all of the nonprofits who reached out to us could use our help, but we also knew we needed to work with a company that had worked with coaches before and that was large enough to dedicate at least as many people to the effort as we did.

We held interviews, analyzed the results, and chose to work with the nonprofit, Friends of the Children – an organization with a mission to provide long-term mentoring relationships with at-risk youth.

A Collaboration Forms

Friends of the Children’s headquarters are in an old elementary school in North Portland near where their community members and target demographic lives. At the beginning of the project, we met with the organization’s three directors and two managers and others as needed. Each staff member is called a friend and almost everyone plays multiple roles.

We started with bi-weekly 90 minutes sessions just to get acquainted, and the learning went both ways. We saw that the client had no shared visual representation of their value streams or other work happening in their organization. The directors realized that they had just too many priorities. This insight alone allowed them to focus on a few breakthrough strategies and take action.

Over time, as we focused on teaching value stream mapping, we all realized we needed more input from more staff to make well-informed decisions about what kinds of improvements were needed. Luckily we connected with a local facilitator, Susan Eliot, who is an expert in leading focus groups. She held four such discussions to get input from staff and then taught us how to systematically analyze the qualitative data in order to reduce the large amount of narrative data that resulted, down to its essence. Next, we used a project management tool, The Prioritization matrix, to select a few individual projects to put into action. This was exciting at this point in the engagement for everyone because this was when we started scheduling activities to close the gap.

The two projects the client team decided to work on were:

  1. Improve the effectiveness of meetings.
  2. Reduce the amount of windshield time the Friends have commuting back and forth to where children live. This problem has been getting worse because of the eastward migration of poverty and low income housing where at-risk youth live.

Looking just at problem 2:

When a Friend is driving they are adding limited value to their mentee. The solutions the team eventually identified to solve this problem weren't particularly innovative, but the directors were able to take action on this issue simply due to a renewed level of interest and much higher engagement on the issue from staff. They were able to use the A3 framework to get organized around a very clear goal.

Together, we helped the client team revisit their old ideas for dealing with this issue, put together a communication plan, a deployment schedule, and started to make improvements. Mary, the Accounting Manager, agreed to track miles reimbursed so that the team could see and know how they were making a difference. It was a lot of fun to see everyone’s confidence grow as they communicated improvements being made in real numbers. Soon we heard reports about how the executive director took her own A3 to the board, presenting it as a way of sharing their progress, goals, and new activities.

Since 2013 when this major activity drew to a close, Friends of the Children has implemented an internal sharing site through SharePoint and made plans toward opening a facility in East County (to open in fall 2015) that will help them serve youth closer to where they live. The directors of Friends of the Children still use A3s to manage projects and are teaching it to other team members. They continue to look for ways to improve their processes and service to youth. Along the way they continue to make incremental improvements and use approaches they learned in partnership with our lean practitioner-volunteers.

Reflections on What’s Next for Lean Portland

As for Lean Portland, we’re now a loose collection of about 250 people. We’re organizing a set of lean management classes for local nonprofit administrators, and there continues to be interest in pro-bono coaching. We’re using our coaching experiences to provide examples of the benefits of lean learning projects to other non-profits interested in Lean. To pull this off we’re partnering with Portland State University, The Non Profit Association of Oregon, the Portland Center for Nonprofit Resource Group, and The Young Nonprofit Professional Network.

Where can we improve? Keeping momentum going continues to be a challenge even in the face of interested and genuinely committed people. But the work continues. If you want to get started with this work I urge you find committed people who aren't overly committed, limit the scope of what you want to accomplish, and setup lots of social hours and gemba tours to keep people interested and the learning fun.

Thanks to the Lean Portland volunteers: Janice Levenhagen-Seeley (Executive Director, ChickTech); Richard Coley (Principle, CFS Consulting); and Bret Matthews (Plant Manager, Advanced Color Systems). And thanks especially to Steve Bell and Karen Whitley Bell from Lean4NGO who have been a constant inspiration. Thanks as well to all of the Friends at Friends of the Children, especially Joe, Mary, Denise, Gary, and Rachel for being such great collaborators.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  collaboration
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Robert June 01, 2015

Matthew -

I wanted to let you know that I very much enjoyed your article on Connecting Lean Thinkers With Nonprofits in Portland, Oregon.  As a matter of fact, I have already taken the liberty to pass the link on to others.

Like you, I am part of a group of Lean thinkers who all met on Lean4NGO.  We are not ready to act yet, but continue to seek ways we can improve the lives of those at the margins through the application of Lean.  Your article has given new energy to that pursuit.

Best wishes for the journey ahead.


Reply »

Matt Horvat June 08, 2015

Thanks Robert - one thing I've learned through developing LeanPDX during the last ~4 years is:

* Persistance makes the difference. There have been various times when my heart is in this and I make progress and there are times when I am distracted with other things. But don't give up!

* The community of Lean practitioners is mission driven. It is a joy to be doing something for the right reasons and sharing that with your colleagues is a blessing. 

* The payoff for me is you. Hearing that we're inspiring is why we do it. Thank you for your comment.

Best wishes to you,


Reply »

Mike Cossairt June 01, 2015

True embodiment of the Lean spirit.  Inspiring how coaching and Lean tools can help achieve success. 




Reply »

sajid khan June 02, 2015

it is very useful for oue next plateform, How improvement our Business.

Reply »

Tony Miranda June 07, 2015


Hi, I am excited to read this article.  I would really like to ask if I could chat with you about incorporating Lean (specifically VSM) into the work of non-profit organizations.

You can reach me at tonymiranda3445@gmail.com.



Reply »

Matt Horvat June 08, 2015

Hi Tony - I'd love to connect and will contact you offline. During the engagement described above with Friends of the Children we had a really intriguing conversation about what the value stream of the organization is. Friends provide a long term mentoring relationship. We decided to VSM the life of the Child. This started during intake and concluded post high-school graduation. We could then easily spot kaizen bursts and see who was allocated to work on the various groupings of efforts. 

I look forward to talking with you.

Best regards,

Reply »

molly rank June 09, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Matt, great post - thanks for sharing your success in building community within Lean practitioners.  Non-profit organizations often survive by keeping overhead low to survive on donations.  This means paid staff are often overwhelmed by the "must-do" activities, struggling to find time to innovate. 

As a volunteer with a few Portland-area non-profits, I can testify that organizations will benefit by implementing innovative solutions to keep volunteers engaged and connected.  Again, many don't have the time (or staff) to review process to find opportunities, so it's great to see pro bono assistance available to help with innovation and waste reduction. 

Reply »

Matt Horvat June 16, 2015

Interesting application Molly - I know non-profit's love their volunteers yet the level of organization and efficient useage can be ineffective. This drives down engagement from people who want to help. 

Wouldn't it be fun if the norm was a well organized approach to volunteer management & coordination. I know of some software solutions - but I wonder what kinds of manual applications of lean would help?

Reply »

Andrew Parris June 15, 2015

Dear Matt,

Thank you for sharing this inspiring story. I have also found the Lean community to be very eager to share their expertise to help nonprofits more effectively and efficiently achieve their mission.

I started with Lean as part of the Lean Aircraft Initiative at MIT in the ‘90s. I now work for World Vision. I lived three years in Kenya and got a Lean initiative going in our East Africa offices. We also benefited from Lean practitioners volunteering for us pro bono. I’ve posted some articles and presentations on this experience online at: http://www.wvi.org/africa/process-excellence.

There’s great need and opportunity domestically and globally for corporations and Lean practitioners to partner with nonprofits and NGOS to boost poverty reduction work and disaster preparation & response.

Reply »

Matt Horvat June 18, 2015

Wow Andrew - thank you for sharing this wonderful work in the forms of downloadable presentations and videos. I'm going to share it widely throughout my trainings at the catholic nonprofit that I work for. 

Reply »

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