Lean Hurricane Relief

Occasionally, we hear about lean principles being applied not just to improve a business, but to actually improve the world.

Such was the case with a presentation at the AME conference by Ken Meinert, senior vice president of Habitat for Humanity.

            Meinert didn’t actually use the word lean, and what he described might not be considered lean, strictly speaking. However, he did explain how the non-profit organization changed its processes to make them more efficient in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

            Most of us have heard of Habitat for Humanity, which helps people become owners of affordable homes through the work of volunteers. The problem facing Habitat was that the demand for its services suddenly spiked to unprecedented levels when Katrina destroyed or severely damaged more than 500,000 homes.

            There were plenty of donations of both money and time for hurricane relief, but Habitat’s model – volunteers building homes from scratch – just wasn’t designed to meet this kind of need. So changes were implemented.

            One major change was the involvement of builders of modular homes through Internet-based supply chain software. This made it possible, once a building plan for a particular home was approved, for designs and plans to be generated and orders placed automatically. The modules are then built and shipped to the site, where volunteers assemble and finish the structure. With this approach, volunteers can complete many more homes in a given time period.

            Another streamlining occurred in the screening of potential homeowners. Habitat doesn’t build homes for just anyone; it has to be someone who can afford to buy the home and carry the mortgage, albeit at favorable terms. (Mortgage payments are reinvested into the home ownership program.) Since the victims of Katrina included many poor, even destitute residents of the region, many who came to Habitat for help faced rejection.

            To address that problem, Habitat teamed up with other organizations such as the Salvation Army and Lutheran Social Services, which were also screening hurricane victims and providing help.

            “They would find some families who fit the Habitat model,” Meinert said. “They wouldn’t reject the others, which is what we’re faced with. We took advantage of that.” Aside from eliminating rejections and the pain that goes with them, this also eliminated duplicate screenings. It made the Habitat process scalable while Habitat still kept control over selections of families for its homes.

            To put it in perspective: Habitat previously might have selected just one out of every 50 families screened. With the pre-screening by other organizations, half of families Habitat sees are selected.

            Since Katrina, Habitat’s efforts have resulted so far in 150 families already living in newly completed homes, with another 230 homes under construction. (Those figures are increasing all the time.) More than 1,000 building lots have been acquired. (Habitat volunteers also help clean out structurally sound homes, with nearly 1,600 cleaned so far.)

            By the way, if you’d like to join the 30,000 other volunteers (so far) and spend a few days, a week or more building homes in the Gulf Coast, Habitat would love to hear from you.


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