Damien Badoil & Aline Robert

In order to deal with growing humanitarian needs and the challenges of increasing their activities, Humanity & Inclusion (HI) is currently using Lean Management tools and methods to simplify its processes. By encouraging its staff and managers to adopt a culture of continuous improvement, HI’s objectives are to look after staff well-being at work and optimise the use of financial resources while increasing its presence and its impact among vulnerable people


The decision to adopt Lean Management

The issue at stake


Humanity & Inclusion (formerly Handicap International) is a non-governmental organisation that provides assistance to vulnerable people in more than sixty countries. Today, there is a huge increase in needs among the most fragile people in the field. It was therefore with the aim of increasing both the quality and quantity of the assistance that it delivers that the organisation drew up its strategy for 2016-2025.

One of the challenges that HI faces is to do more with resources that are increasingly difficult to find, while remaining faithful to its values and principles, and meeting the demands of private donors and funding agencies. The only room for manoeuvre would appear to be to simplify its way of operating. This is a major challenge in an organisation that is more than 35 years old, that has become a federal network of 8 national associations operating in more than 60 countries, and where procedures are reassuring, even though they compartmentalise and increase day-to-day work.


The solution and the activities carried out

At the beginning of 2016, as part of the implementation of its strategy, HI chose to adopt Lean Management as a way of optimising its processes and helping its managerial culture to evolve. A Lean Unit was created to promote this approach, manned by two members of staff who know the organisation well and who received training at “ECAM-expert”1 in Lyon. Their first mission – during which they were supported by pro bono consultants – consisted of formalising a methodology based on Lean Management but adapted to HI’s specific context and challenges.

The methodology involved simplification activities, in the form of projects called ‘simplification waves’. Each wave is dedicated to a specific issue that is prioritised by the Directoire (HI’s highest decision-making body). The objective is that these waves eventually cover all the organisation’s departments and optimise the most complex, cross-cutting processes. The staff and managers involved in each wave learn about the approach and are invited to reproduce it in order to establish a process of continuous improvement.

The waves last between 8 and 12 months. This allows time to become familiar with the approach and allows the improvements to be established durably. Each wave is piloted and coordinated by specific Steering Committees and Monitoring Committees. After a framing phase, these begin with an initial assessment based on interviews with representatives of all the actors involved (headquarters / field, managers / collaborators, support services / internal ‘clients’). The observations made during these interviews are shared and prioritised with all the contributors, and a precise action plan is drawn up of the issues to be dealt with. Each theme is then addressed in sub-groups in order to establish an improvement plan: formalisation of a target process, a new tool or a new operational rule. A test phase then begins during which the targeted process and the related tools are tested on a limited scale in order to check the relevance of the improvements and make any necessary adjustments. Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are identified to measure the benefits of the changes. Once the tests have been validated, the departments in charge of the optimised processes deploy them throughout the organisation. This is called the generalisation phase.

This methodology is complemented by specific and individual support for managers involved in each wave to help them establish continuous improvement as part of their managerial practices. This is the anchorage phase. This involves, for example, optimising the time spent on staff meetings, implementing visual management, communicating and tackling the root causes of problems encountered, and finally, steering the performance of their teams and the processes that they are in charge of.

In parallel to the simplification waves, problem solving sessions (known as Kaizen in Lean Management language) are organised to resolve the problems encountered by staff in their day-to-day activities while training participants in using Kaizen methodology.




Via the simplification waves, several of the organisation’s major processes were formalised and optimised, such as the arbitration of responses to donor opportunities and the drafting of project proposals, expatriate recruitment and career management, and accounting and financial closure of projects. Each optimisation involved the identification of key performance indicators. Monitored regularly, the indicators help to objectively quantify the performance of actors involved in the processes, and subsequently correct gaps appropriately (awareness-raising, training, adjusting standards, etc.).

“The Key Performance Indicators and the objectives for improvement that we give ourselves as a team, as well as visual management2 and problem-solving workshops, allow us to maintain our continuous improvement approach.” (Director of Human Resources)

Over and above the improvements made, the simplification waves have helped to de-compartmentalise the teams who, too often, work in silos (those who work in the same sector, those in emergency relief and those in development teams, those at headquarters and those in the field). The process-based approach helped to share issues, talk about problems and compare viewpoints in order to find more relevant solutions and often establish a harmonised process, whereas before it was very common to have different ways of doing things depending on the interlocutors. This harmonised process was generally based on the good practices identified during exchanges.

Regarding the managerial practices deployed by the Simplification Unit, the managers appreciate receiving individual support to implement concrete tools that allow them to establish a new dynamic and think about the efficiency of their team. It is an opportunity for them to develop their managerial skills, which, up till now, they have often acquired empirically. They also are able to discuss with other managers in feedback sessions, which enriches the learning approach and the dissemination of good practices.


The drivers of success

These results would probably not have been achieved if the implementation of Lean Management had not been promoted by the General Director. The presence of the General Director and the relevant members of top management (Directoire) at the meetings to launch the waves, in the Steering Committees, and at the closure meetings with all the staff, shows strong commitment, and motivates the teams and managers to meet the challenge of achieving the optimisations.

A paradigm shift of this kind also requires investment in terms of HR, with trained, in-house ‘Lean Champions’ who kick-start the approach within teams and provide them with long-term support. Champions need to be able to take a step back from the organisation and the Lean Management approach in order to be able to adapt Lean recipes to the organisation. What is more, Lean Management encourages a bottom-up approach to optimisation and problem-solving. ‘Operators’ (those who are directly involved in implementation) are the best suited to identify problems and suggest improvements. As they are able to contribute concretely to the assessment, the action plan and the testing of the suggested solution, they feel involved and empowered, thus optimising the chances of success.

“The simplification waves provide an opportunity to take part in very structured group discussions with a specific methodology that allow us to gradually become familiar with the issues involved.” (Technical Director)

In terms of workload, staff involvement in a simplification wave is significant. It is essential to anticipate this to ensure that those involved will be available. A provisional timetable for a simplification wave is a good way to increase its visibility and allow each person to organise themselves.

In terms of method, the test phase plays an essential role. When there is reticence about implementing an optimised process involving less control, for example, because it is perceived as a risk for the quality of the result, carrying out a test on a limited scale can help to gain the support of stakeholders. If the test is positive, this can remove reticence making generalisation easier. If the test is negative, readjustments are made and then new tests are carried out until generalisation is possible.

“Trying solutions on a limited scale makes it possible to think ‘out of the box’ by testing very innovative things that we would not have dared implement directly on a large scale.” (Director of Human Resources)

At the end of each simplification wave, particular care is taken in estimating what has been gained (number of hours/days saved, duration reduced, ‘errors’ reduced). The communication of these gains helps to reinforce the methodology. It is also a source of motivation for the teams involved in the simplification waves, who can then focus on tasks with a higher added value.

In terms of managerial practices, the principal success factor is exemplary behaviour. Each level of management, beginning with the Directors, should be a model of good practices in implementing Lean Management so that these practices can be re-appropriated at each hierarchical level, and then deployed in a durable way.


Problems encountered

The first difficulty appeared during the framing phase of a wave. As it had not been sufficiently framed, the first simplification wave was spread out over too large a perimeter, involving too many different people and services. The subjects that were chosen in the action plan were too disconnected so that the transformation process became too diffused. The working framework of the following wave was more focused, but the scale of the subjects dealt with meant that more work needed to be done than initially programmed and, as a result, the length of the project and the involvement of the different stakeholders had to be extended. This had two consequences: the motivation of the teams was difficult to maintain, and it somewhat compromised one of the principles of Lean Management, which is to move forward one small step at a time while adopting a culture of continuous improvement.

Another point is that, at the beginning of a wave, it is difficult for managers to assess the extent of the changes that will need to be implemented at the end of the wave (generalisation of improvements and changes in managerial practices), when support stops from the Lean Unit. Despite the initial framing, the aspects that are going to be affected by the improvements are not known in advance (Will we need to train people? …revise certain forms? …adapt IT tools? …work on complementary processes?…). In certain cases, there are major impacts and generalisation can be difficult to organise and manage.

“Over and above top management, the manager involved in a simplification wave should not only be familiar with the approach, but should be highly motivated due to the high level of involvement that the approach demands. They also need to accept that they will not be completely in control, as the proposals and solutions come from the teams” (Director of Human Resources)

Because certain teams are based in countries where infrastructure is not very developed, it is sometimes difficult for staff to take part in workshops remotely and this needs to be anticipated so that they are able to contribute fully. For certain topics, field visits have helped to enrich initial assessments and involve more field staff, but these are expensive and therefore remain limited.

It is important to have a relatively stable organisation, both in terms of operational and management functions. Changing the people involved in the middle of a project means that momentum is lost and slows down the unfolding of the wave. More generally, staff faced with organisational changes are too pre-occupied by the deployment of the new organisation to be able to focus on improving processes.

Finally, as many processes are neither harmonised nor formalised, the initial formalisation work can be tedious for people who are not familiar with this practice. Designing a process may appear to some like a way of making things more complex rather than making them simpler. It is therefore important to carry out this step as quickly as possible and then begin the work on finding optimisations which is more motivating for those involved.


Conclusion and prospects for the future

With almost three years of experience, the lessons we have learned will guide the approach of the Simplification Unit in the years ahead, with the aim of continuing to adapt Lean Management to the specific characteristics of NGOs. We also feel that Lean Management needs to be adopted by management as a whole. These managerial practices can only last if they are part of a common management system used by all managers, regardless of their level in the hierarchy.

Involving staff and supporting the managers in charge of our activities in the field are major issues that we will need to address in the months ahead. Part of the answer no doubt lies in the tools implemented by managers at headquarters, tools that they will be exposed to and from which they will be able to take inspiration. Other actions will also be needed to increase ownership of these tools and deploy them more systematically.

In terms of the simplification of processes, though the ‘wave’ approach is still relevant to tackle complex issues that require significant commitment, simpler processes should be addressed using a light mechanism over shorter time periods. This will be tested in 2019.

Finally, we have begun to map all the organisation’s processes and this will continue in 2019. This mapping will make it possible to clarify who is in charge of each major process and will give an overview to allow us to prioritise the processes that need to be formalised, and, if necessary, optimised.

  2. Visual management uses visual cues to make information within a workplace available at all times to those who need to know it.


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