When you hear someone remark “think outside the box” do you ever stop and think about the meaning behind this metaphor? Thinking outside the box, or “Out-of-Box” thinking is a metaphor suggesting to look at things from a new perspective (Zhu). This type of thinking uses lateral thinking to solve problems through a creative and indirect approach. Imagine you are trying to develop a solution to improve the well being of a child in foster care and to get to the solution you have to move from point A to point B.

This image represents the box we are stuck in. What path would you take? The majority would take the long arduous path, making their way through the maze from point A to point B. Yet, by the time they arrive at point B, the foster child has already left the system. Those who are capable of thinking different can remove the box and take the unconventional path to finding the solution. 

Where does improvement come from if the majority take the long arduous path? How can we solve the problem with the same people, the same approach, and with the same kind of thinking we used to create the problem in the first place? I propose we reframe the problem with new levels of thinking to help us escape the maze of insanity we currently live in. This unconventional approach is Lean Six Sigma.

Some of the most successful people to walk this planet have used Lean Six Sigma. Jack Welch used it to transform General Electric (GE) and it is the same approach innovative companies such as Toyota and Amazon use to radically improve (and continually improve) their organization. Lean Six Sigma is data driven problem solving with the goal of improving quality, cost, and speed. It is a customer focused problem solving methodology that removes waste from a process.

Here are 5 ways this lateral thinking approach known as Lean Six Sigma can improve the foster care system.

1. Value added foster care.

Lean Six Sigma uses the DMAIC problem solving approach, where you:

  • Define the problem.
  • Measure the process and understand the baseline.
  • Analyze the process and find the root-cause of the problem.
  • Improve the process and implement the best solutions.
  • Control the process and ensure the solutions are embedded.

Lean Six Sigma is customer focused. In foster care, the customer is (and should be) the foster child. There are other internal and external customers in the system, however, none are more important than the child. Next to the foster child, the second most important customer is the foster parent. Knowing this, we need to find out (from the customer) what areas to target. Once found, we can then eliminate unnecessary non-value added barriers.

2. Learning to see through process mapping.

You can literally learn to see by mapping out your process. When we map out the process from point A to point B, we uncover waste and we are able to see an accurate picture. Think of it as watching HD television, where the resolution of the image becomes clear. A process map will help us peel back the onion and uncover every detail of the process.

3. Simply ask why.

Let’s use another technique, one where you were previously an expert, yet you threw it away in adulthood. I want you to annoyingly ask “Why?” The 5 Why technique is a powerful (and fun) tool allowing us to peel away the layers of symptoms and get to the core of the problem. For example, let’s say we wanted to find out why a foster child was homeless after leaving foster care. Let’s ask his or her social worker why.

  • Why #1. Why is the child homeless? Because the child did not listen to the me (the social worker) prior to exiting foster care.
  • Why #2. Why did the child fail to listen? Because the child wouldn’t follow their transition plan.
  • Why #3. Why did the child not follow their transition plan? Because the child didn’t care to understand the plan.
  • Why #4. Why did the child not understand the plan? Because I didn’t have enough time to ensure the child understood it and only provided it to the child a month prior to their transition from foster care.
  • Why #5. Why did you wait until a month out to start the transition plan? Because I had a large case load and took on this child’s case after the previous worker quit.

4. Using the 80/20 rule.

What if we could find the 20% of the actions that are causing 80% of the problem? Well, we can by using the 80/20 rule based on the Pareto Principle. Named after Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle uses a Pareto chart, which is a visual aid for identifying “pain” areas and prioritizing issues. The majority of issues can typically be attributed to a small number of contributors. A Pareto chart will focus our efforts on “pain” areas rather than on every issue. Remember, if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.

Let’s apply this principle with a scenario. If we are seeking to find ways to improve the time it takes to adopt a foster child, we would need to know where the “pain” is coming from. In this hypothetical scenario, we decide to sample 50 foster children adopted from foster care. We may find that lost paperwork coupled with multiple approvals at different bureaucratic levels are also needed. These two could make up the 20% causing 80% of the problem. We would then prioritize our efforts to fix these two problems first.

5. Remove waste from the system.

To adequately define “waste” in a process, we must first complete one simple task. Simply ask the customer (remember who the customer is?). I can hear it now. Some of you are thinking, they don’t know what’s best or we can’t ask a child. My response is… why not? After all, the system is supposed to be in place for them.

Once the customer defines his or her value, we then prioritize our value-added activities by following these three steps.

  • First. Immediately eliminate all non-value-added activities serving no purpose. i.e. the number of people involved in the decision of a child’s well-being, where some of the individuals have no idea what is in the child’s best interest.
  • Second. We would then look to reduce the amount of non-value-added required (those things that add no value, but are required by a law or regulatory guidance). i.e. why is the number one goal of the foster care system reunification with the child’s biological family? Challenge the necessity of this goal, if approved we eliminate it.
  • Third. Seek to optimize those value-added activities (things already working).

Okay, so how do we apply these tools? I did just unload an abundant amount of information, yet I haven’t discussed a plan. If I were in charge of the foster care system for a day, I would immediately implement a Continuous Process Improvement Office (CPIO) directed by a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt (not martial arts!). This office would be tasked with identifying and executing process improvement projects throughout the foster care system; projects using tools previously discussed.

Lean Six Sigma will work in foster care. Help me remove the box and convince others to chart a new path to improve the foster care system. Together, let us guide the decision makers out of the maze of insanity and into a path that actually focuses on the best interest of the child!

Source Cited

[1] Thinkingaire by Pearl Zhu