In 2016, we run a two-week training in Operational Excellence tools and techniques. The training consisted a mix of theory and group exercises to allow trainees to practice the tools and techniques taught in class.
We believed that although (classroom) case studies and role plays are good, they do not sufficiently prepare trainees for real life application. Our key questions were:
- How can trainees work on a real-life problem with concrete recommendations expected to the management?
- How can we balance the opposite forces of: creating a learning environment versus mitigating any negative effects on the processes under review?
- How can we make the participants care and be committed to the exercise? Participation would not be compulsory and it would require significant extra work both during and between the training weeks.
After a few brainstorming sessions, we partnered with Fundación A LA PAR, a foundation that “works for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities so that they can participate in our society” (http://www.alapar.org). Among other things, the Fundación A LA PAR runs a number of business units that provide income for their cause. After discussion with the management, we selected three of their business units to be part of our diagnostic and recommendations exercise. These were: Fundaland – hosting birthday parties; Print shop – wedding invitations, business cards, etc; Candy Workshop – candy cakes, brochettes, etc.
Trainees were split into 3 groups, with each group assigned to a specific business unit. Background information was available for each unit including: mission, objectives, KPIS, staffing, customer feedback, etc. An agenda was also drafted for the visit, indicating the various activities to be completed (see below). The groups could deviate from the planning based on findings and / or emerging issues. Finally, an experienced Lean Six Sigma coach was assigned to each team to observe the activities, allowing participants to try – fail – learn and re-adapt their approach (with minimum involvement from their side).
Trainees had to deal with all the ‘drama’ anticipated in real life: unavailability of key individuals to be interviewed; resistance from people to share information; challenging team dynamics; differences of opinion; ignoring business feedback, etc.
The most challenging aspects proved to be participants’ ability to grasp the specificity of the NGO context and adapt to unexpected events and findings. At the same time, the main areas for improvement were not on the technical side, but on the soft skills instead (inquiring, active listening, collaboration, dealing with conflict, etc).
EXAMPLE OF IMPROVEMENT
In the case of Fundaland, the preparatory team meeting prior to a birthday event was identified as a key area for improvement (in agreement with the business). There was large variation in how the meetings were run, impacting teams’ performance and morale.
As a result, a workshop was run with the Coordinators and the Monitors to identify best practices and standardize the way the meetings would run from that time on.
The feedback received was quite positive, with trainees appreciating leaving the classroom and putting their analytical and soft skills to the test. Moreover, supporting a local NGO brought an extra sense of mission and commitment to everyone involved, with a number of follow ups taking place to support the implementation of key recommendations.
Three years after, participants to the training still reflect fondly on their experience and lessons learnt. Most likely, something they will never forget. It was also a great experience for the trainers – pushing them out of their comfort zone. Last but not least, the people at the foundation was also very appreciative of our efforts and recommendations.
If you are interested to replicate the idea and want more information / advice on how to set it up, don’t hesitate to contact me. I will be happy to assist.