Guide Dogs is one of the most famous and noted charities in the UK, here its director of mobility services, Steve Vaid discusses with LMJ the pitfalls and positives of incorporating lean into its organisational practices.

Guide Dogs are one of the most emotive and beloved of all charities and it’s well known that the costs of training a guide dog is huge (it costs upwards of £50,000 to keep a dog over its lifetime) so it’s no surprise that the organisation is looking for a way to deliver more for less. LMJ discusses the charity’s recent adoption of lean practices.


Steve Vaid with a guide dog.

LMJ: What exactly does your organisation do and what specific management and process practices do you employ on a regular basis?

Steve Vaid: We provide a range of mobility services for people sight loss; adults, children and their families, but are best known for producing guide dog partnerships. We have a range of performance indicators and employ a balanced scorecard approach.

This scorecard started as a top down monitoring tool for our trustee board, but it is becoming abundantly clear that its potential value as a lean management tool is huge.


LMJ: What drew your organisation to becoming lean? Did you attempt other continuous improvement processes first? Was there a specific problems?

SV: We recognised we had experienced, knowledgeable staff but hadn’t harnessed those qualities to improve what we do for our customers.

For some time we explored with continuous improvement, working with PA Consulting. We happened upon lean through seeking advice from one of our suppliers (Peugeot) on improving production processes (Yes, we talk about dog production) and struck gold having been introduced to David Male.


LMJ: What training or consultancy did you undergo to prepare? Or have you gone it alone?

SV: We have had guest speakers (Professor Zoe Radnor and David Male) at manager’s conferences and introduced some structured training in lean principles, keeping it simple and practical with things like the stickle-brick game.

David also came to see us and viewed our processes. He quickly determined we push everything and suggested that were we to adopt a lean approach we could reduce our lead time and remove much of the strain on our systems and staff. We’ve also received input from PMI in looking at our production planning.


LMJ: Was there problems when your first began and what have you found the most easy/difficult thing about your lean transformation?

SV: We’ve only just started, but perhaps our biggest problem is going to be harnessing and building upon the enthusiasm of those involved. We’ve really inspired a management group who are keen to press on with implementation. Beyond cultural issues, we lack true standardisation, believing, until now, that every Guide Dog partnership is unique which requires a bespoke approach throughout the training process.

Yes, the finished article needs to be the right dog for the right customer at the right time, but we now realise that we can offer a customised product from a standard platform much as Dell, or Subway do. The customisation can take place towards the end of the process, allowing us to standardise and improve earlier elements.


 LMJ: What specific issues do you think that charities and non-profits experience in implementing lean, that others sectors might not?

SV: We are a service provider in a social context. That can lead to resistance when it comes to applying commercial thinking and techniques with a loyal and committed staff group. Our challenge is to blend the two and use the right language for us.


Teaching guide dogs.

LMJ: What has been the most valuable element of your lean transformation?

SV: We’ve started at the top and are cascading lean thinking through management groups and business functions supporting them. Our initial workshops include a stickle-brick game, which mimics the stages in our production process and demonstrates the effectiveness of systematically applying lean principles, and problem identification/solving techniques. We’ve also encouraged individual teams to experiment with visual management and are now developing a common format which can be used, and understood, across the business. As we progress we grow more confident that we can improve and that Lean is absolutely relevant to us.


LMJ: Have government budget cuts effected your organisation at all and have you found lean beneficial for this? Do you believe this has/will lead to more charity/non-profit organisation adopting lean?

SV: We receive no government funding for our core service. Every penny we spend on the Guide Dog service is a charitable donation. That means we need to be even more mindful of how we spend our money since our funders continue to support us despite, in many cases, being impacted personally since 2008. We, like all businesses, seek to do more with less and can only do that by releasing, and redeploying, capacity.


LMJ: What are the benefits to group cohesion/communication that you felt lean brought

SV: It’s early days, but there seems to be a common understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and a determination to see it through. Mobility team, and other managers are fully engaged and our approach so far means we are all talking the same language.


LMJ: Did lean create issues that you weren’t expecting?

SV: The initial enthusiasm is greater than expected and with a geographically (UK wide) spread business, keeping up with demand for help and facilitation, until such time as we develop internal resources, will be challenging and potentially costly.