Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lean Thinking at the Homeless Shelter

This week, 5 friends (number six was home sick) my wife and I served dinner at a homeless shelter. It was a unique opportunity to help those in need by purchasing some food items and then preparing and serving a meal. We began some weeks ago by planning the menu and then deciding who would purchase what. During the day, before departing for the shelter, many of us were busy preparing, or prepping, the dishes we would serve that evening. Since I am a "foodie" and have prepared gourmet food for friends and family for many years I understand the importance of "mise en place". That is a French term for all the preparation required to have "everything in place" so when you are ready for your final preparation and food service everything will go smoothly. Since this was a first time experience for most of us we initially struggled to find some utensils, pans, etc. that we required. Although I did recognize some evidence of 5-S for each of the four large refrigerator doors were labeled with what should be behind the door. Reflecting on the fact that different volunteers fill the roles we were filling on this single night, for three meals every day, having a kitchen that was thoroughly 5-Sed would certainly improve the flow. Because I cannot turn off the lean thinking part of my brain I recognized this and many other opportunities in this food service process.

When we arrived at the shelter we started the ovens and began to heat the hot food menu items. Then some of us found ourselves standing around watching two others, who had volunteered in the past, complete some set-up prep work. Our “watching waste,” one of the seven wastes, eventually led to a conversation about how to improve the flow when it was time to actually serve the plates of food to our customers. A mini kaizen blitz took place for we quickly recognized that the layout of the stainless tables used to hold the pans of food to be served could be improved. We rotated two of them 90 degrees so that we would have two serving lines rather than just one. Proud of ourselves we soon realized this change resulted in some customer confusion when we began to serve. Our customers were accustomed to waiting in one line for their turn. With the second serving station just past the first they were reluctant to move around others to place their order despite our waving them forward. As each person stepped up to be served they had to be told what we were serving, decide on their choices and then their plate would be set up as ordered. The volunteers quickly realized that menu boards at the head of the food line would allow our customers to make their choices before they stepped up to be served. Yet another future cycle time reduction improvement idea! In total we served about 70 people salads, entree plates and desserts in approximately 40 minutes. Not bad, but not good enough for this lean thinker. I think we can get the number down to 15 minutes and we will have three more attempts to prove it this year.

Since we, as a group, have volunteered to purchase, prepare and serve food once a quarter in 2011 we will be taking what we learned this week and improving the flow to better serve our customers in the future. Speaking of our customers they were just amazing. Their heartfelt gratitude made this one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a very long time. Some people would not view those waiting in line at a homeless shelter as customers. But I, as a lean thinker, understand the focus of any continual improvement effort has to be the customer. It has to be humbling and maybe embarrassing to stand in line for a free meal. If we could reduce the cycle-time of their wait in line it may be a small step to restoring some personal dignity. That is a different sort of goal for a lean thinker - or is it? One of the pillars of lean thinking is "respect for people" and I believe each of us lived that philosophy while serving meals to those in need. They were indeed our customers.

Lean thinkers, just like everyone else, can take their special talents and use them as volunteers to help others. This new personal experience for me was further enhanced because it was a shared experience with good friends. They may not be fully aware of it yet but I am converting them into lean thinkers. The more of them in this world the better! How are you using your lean knowledge and skill set to make the world a better place?