Re: Powering into an active future? Or Slamming on the brakes? #COVID-19 #lean-six-sigma

Dennis Pearce

Hi Dan, glad to see you here!

After spending most of a 40-year career at large global companies like IBM and Lexmark, I retired in 2017 and for the last year and a half have been working for a Chicago-based non-profit called the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which focuses on providing health and education to infants and preschool children of underprivileged families.  I think we have been very successful at transitioning to a post-pandemic work from home environment for a number of reasons.

I spent the last 6 years at Lexmark managing their internal enterprise social network, and am in the process of launching one now at the Ounce.  The difference in cultures is pretty dramatic, and not only because of the for-profit vs. non-profit perspective.  At Lexmark I was surrounded mostly by engineers, about 80% male.  At the Ounce I am surrounded by about 80% women, most of whom have Masters or PhDs in education or social science fields.  The organization has about 320 employees and most of them pre-COVID had worked in their Chicago headquarters, with probably 20 or so scattered around the rest of the country. 

I had spent the last year getting them used to working in Microsoft Teams as opposed to email, so the timing couldn't have been better when they were suddenly forced to work from home starting in March.  I have found the transformation work so far to be easier than I expected, which I think stems from several factors:

  • The timing, as I mentioned -- we had spent a year experimenting with MS Teams, so they were prepared to start using it "for real" when they suddenly all had to work remotely.

  • A 300-person organization is a pretty nice size for these kinds of experiments.  Not so small that everyone knows each other personally but not so big that it takes years to turn the ship around.

  • With so many employees having advanced degrees in education, they quickly get it when I talk about things like capturing lessons learned, building a learning organization, experimenting with new ways of working, working out loud, etc.  They are much more amenable to change and experimentation than the engineers I worked with.

  • Because of the nature of the organization's mission, there is a feeling that there are others depending on us which keeps everyone motivated.  For example, we were working on developing an online community for early childhood "system builders" (those folks in a community who pull together non-profits, government agencies, business leaders, etc.) to share tips and ideas.  When the pandemic hit, we had only just purchased the software and had planned for a roll-out several months out.  But we immediately were hit with requests from across the country asking if we had any information on managing day cares and pre-schools under these new conditions.  So we drastically condensed our timeline and launched it in a week instead of three months as planned, with a specific focus on COVID (see Early Childhood Connector).  I don't know if for-profits can generate that same feeling about their customers, but having a sense of mission or purpose goes a long way toward helping employees adjust and power through into a new way of working.
To your point about Lean, even though most of our employees come from the Education field, we have a Project Management Office with project managers who are pretty well versed in Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, etc. so that gets folded into our approach to how projects are delivered.  Much of the Ounce's activity over the years has been delivering training, which was of course done mostly in person in the past.  There were several project teams recently created to look at what we are now learning from having to deliver this training virtually and determine what aspects of this we might want to keep in the future even when in-person training becomes possible again.  We're also trying to design our internal processes in such a way that we can easily switch back and forth from in-person to remote work on the assumption that we might be fluctuating between the two modes for several years to come.

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