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Using Lean Government to Improve Foster Care

February 8, 2015

A colleague of mine had a brilliant thought: how can we apply the principles of Lean Government to foster care. I did the research, and it confirmed my already deep conviction that any process can benefit from the application of Lean Thinking.

I was a foster kid once The Washington State family services took my four sisters and me away from my mother when I was 10 years old. The police picked me up at school and took me to the Seattle Youth Detention Center. I ended up staying there for months while a suitable placement was found. I spent months in foster care before they were able to reunite us with our mother. It was a hugely traumatizing event. My one safe place at that time was the school library. I felt comfortable there. I never really felt comfortable again for a long time.

A foster care system has concrete processes in place. Takt Time is the number of opportunities encountered by the system. And when I say opportunities, it is a negative, but only a descriptor for how many children we will process in the course of a period of time. Once a child is in state custody, they encounter a lot of processes, none of which are likely coordinated very well. But if we know how many children enter the system, we have a start.

The second step is to identify the process the child goes through when in foster care. I am sure there is intake. You need information and an initial placement. There are investigations and interviews to conduct. Services occur and are scheduled. If we discuss it, we can develop a visual map of the process steps each child goes through. The visual map will originally be chaotic and random appearing. But it is still a process capable of viewing.

Services and other interactions with a child can be viewed a “pull” systems. If a child has a toothache while in custody, they need to see a dentist. That’s a pull system. A psychological evaluation, medical appointment, and school conferences are all “pull” systems. If the child needs the service, it is pulled only when or if needed. The amount of time a child is in the foster care system is called cycle time. Cycle time just describes the amount of time it takes us to provide services to a child. Lead time is the total amount of time they are with us, and value adding time is the time spent benefitting the child.

There are typical types of objections made by staff engaged in any system, and my assumption is that foster care is no different. However, Lean Thinking is all about increasing the value of our services to the children we serve. If we eliminate wasteful steps, does that benefit the child? Yes, it does. The state of Iowa reported this result for an intake process: “Child Protective Intake. Increase ease and efficiency for staff and timeliness of response for customers. Reduced Child Protective Intake cycle time by 63% and delays by 91% for a total reduction of lead time by 79%.” Now that is a real benefit for the child. In a Child Welfare Adoption system, they reported that “Delays reduced by 32%; Steps reduced by 8%. Identifying and implementing efficiencies across workers was a key outcome in the new process.”

Lean Thinking provides real and tangible benefits to children, while reducing the cost of providing those benefits.

Denver Human Services examined their certification and recruitment processes for foster care and came up with a strategy to reduce the certification process by over 50% and the numbers of families certified increased by 25%. This benefits children who are impacted by not having enough certified families.

This report comes from a non-profit organization in Florida:

“As a result of the team’s effort:

  • Average licensing time dropped from 200 days to below 100 days.
  • Changes to the licensing process resulted in bringing in new foster families and expanded capacity of existing homes.
  • As of March 2014, they had 79 new foster beds, exceeding their internal goal of 75 beds.
  • With cost savings, Kids Central could serve an additional 505 families annually.
  • Through moving 50% of youth from facility-based care to foster home, they would save approximately $900,000 per year.”

This is a solid and tangible demonstration of improvements that benefit children. And considerable savings accrue in cost avoidance.

The State of Alaska needs to start having the conversations that lead to an implementation of this type of benefit for our children. Can we afford to wait? Not if we care about our kids.

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