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H. James Harrington Ph.D. and Frank Voehl

H. James Harrington Ph.D. and Frank Voehl’s default image

Quality Insider

Harrington Institute’s Community Improvement Efforts Reap Big Rewards

A triple crown of quality improvement

Published: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 - 09:30

During the past six years, the Harrington Institute and its business partners have been involved in community improvement efforts that have produced significant results within the organizations involved. The thrust of the effort in the Orlando, Florida, community involved 25 projects and the certification of more than 300 Six Sigma Black Belts and Green Belts who worked on improvement projects involving a wide variety of community-based organizations—governmental, social services, and for-profits. The main focus of the projects has been on community improvement involving the at-risk population, such as children and families, seniors, and student outreach and participation organizations. All of the projects were performed on a pro bono basis with no cost to the organizations involved. The certifications were offered free of charge, and the cost of the materials was covered by local businesses and sponsors.

There were 10 different meta-themes involving the 25 projects in service organizations and government agencies that have been successfully completed since 2003:

  • Three projects involving on-time delivery problems—not having the right entities to the consumer at the right time
  • Four projects involving processes with defect rates that were too high—processes were generating too many errors, rework, and scrap, and quality was being inspected in
  • Three projects involving the pace of the process being too slow—while the processes were performing value-added work, they were not doing so quickly enough
  • Four projects involving broken measurement systems—measurement systems used to judge process performance exhibited high variation and were deemed ineffective
  • Five projects involving process lead times being too long
  • Three projects involving resource usage being too high
  • Three projects involving processes deviating from the schedule


All told, throughout the past six years, a total of $10 million of in-kind consulting has been provided for community improvement projects on a pro bono basis by Harrington Institute and University of Central Florida (UCF) faculty, local professionals, and students alike. The first major breakthrough project in 2003 was the Seminole County Children’s Alliance (SCCA), which involved more than 40 county and city agencies, and resulted in more than $2 million of free consulting services on the part of 20 team members for a one-year period.

The project was unique in that it had a process and a model outcome. In addition to streamlining major core processes, the project team developed a business model for four key drivers that were used to predict the SCCA’s ability to succeed in the new century: leadership, governance, competencies, and technology. Prior to the project, governance was performed on an ad hoc basis and coordination of services was complex and unwieldy, creating many gaps and long delays in intake and processing time.

In addition, the project introduced various community readiness trends enabled by the alliance, new business models, and the transformation of common services and business processes throughout the 40 organizations comprising the alliance. What impressed community leaders the most was that for the organizations involved, customer understanding and customer relationship were voted as the most critical elements for success. Of the four key drivers, leadership was emphasized as the first and most important element and all of the leaders were trained in the basics of community improvement and systematic problem solving. The most difficult leap for many alliances, it was realized, was the change in the leadership mind-set required to implement interactivity among all of the organizations. As the alliance organizations came to see the internet as a robust, bisynchronous channel, offering real-time communications in both directions—from the 40 or so organizations to the customers and from the customers to the organizations—the most time-honored assumptions crumbled.

The project catalyzed a change from the one-to-many relationships that the 40 organizations were already familiar with to a new world of one-to-one customer management. It became possible, using new technology for “client entry” developed by the project team, for many of the alliance organizations, to manage unique relationships with each of their customers. That project outcome changed many transactional relationships into transformational relationships, characterized by an aligning of interests among such a vast alliance that would have been thought impossible a few years ago.

In 2003, as chancellor for the Harrington Institute, I approached the local section of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), Section 1509, about sponsoring projects involving students at UCF and senior quality professionals working in the Orlando and Central Florida area. At the time, I was working as the chief operating officer of the Harrington Group software company. My interactions with other Orlando businessmen convinced me that to become more attractive as a blossoming community, we needed to deal with three problems: the agencies and organizations serving the at-risk population were in trouble and needed help, students and local professionals needed to learn the lean Six Sigma quality tools, and new sources of innovation and mentoring were needed to build capacity in the community.

If their managers left and their replacements were less passionate about the job, the quality started to suffer. There are two sides for achieving high quality. You have to have a passion for it as well as a system for it. They had the passion, but they didn’t have much in the way of a system. When they learned about the Harrington Institute Certification Assistance Program (CAP), they jumped on it to help these needy community-based organizations create a better quality system.

As a distance education institution and certifying organization, the Harrington Institute’s CAP provides high quality personal trainer certification programs, often on a pro bono basis. These programs advance community quality as a whole, and develop greater access to career opportunities for those who share the vision of creating a stronger, healthier community and world.

Lean Six Sigma integrates two quality systems, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma.

The Six Sigma process is a measure of quality that strives for near perfection. It is a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects in any process, from manufacturing to transactional and from product to service. According to the Six Sigma approach, an increase in performance and decrease in process variation reduces product defects and improves profits, employee morale, and overall quality.

The fundamental objective of the lean Six Sigma methodology is the implementation of a measurement-based strategy that focuses on process improvement and variation reduction through the application of lean Six Sigma improvement projects.

By working on lean Six Sigma projects, business people, students, and community-serving organizations incorporated the speed and effect of lean with the quality and variation control of Six Sigma. Before we started the community improvement initiative, Orlando organizations did little root cause analysis and problem resolution. For example, when we identified several service problems the response was “that’s nothing new; we knew those problems existed more than a year ago.” They didn’t have the tools to systematically root out the source of problems and permanently resolve them. Instead, they were solving similar problems again and again. Lean Six Sigma has provided the Community Improvement Center at UCF with a process for uncovering problems as well as a process and some good tools for solving them so that they go away once and for all.

Much of what the managers and supervisors involved in these projects did was to solve problems and make decisions. New managers and supervisors, it was found, often solved problems and made decisions by reacting to them. They were “under the gun,” stressed, and very short on time. Consequently, when they encountered a new problem or a decision they had to make, they reacted with a decision that seemed to work before. It’s easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle of solving the same problem again and  again, and a systematic lean Six Sigma methodology helped to break this vicious cycle.

Defining the problem is often where people struggled the most. They reacted to what they thought the problem was. Instead, we trained them to seek and understand more about why they think there’s a problem. They asked themselves and others, the following questions:

  • What can you see that causes you to think there’s a problem?
  • Where is it happening?
  • How is it happening?
  • When is it happening?
  • With whom is it happening?
  • Why is it happening?


Also, we asked the managers of participating organizations to write down a five-sentence description of the problem in terms of “the following should be happening, but isn’t… ” or “the following is happening but what should be happening….” As much as possible, we asked them to be specific in their description, including what is happening, where, how, with whom, and why.

When the lean Six Sigma measure of quality is a good fit for an organization and a community, the benefits can be huge—dramatically improved quality, the elimination of waste, reduced service times, improved cycle times, and lower costs have been realized by many of the 25 projects cited in this report. Costs have been dramatically reduced, cycle time improved and customer satisfaction goals surpassed.  

Another project with significant outcomes involved the “Meals on Wheels” program, administered by the Seniors First organization of Orlando. Meals on Wheels is a home-delivery meal program that provides a hot, nutritious lunch to frail seniors each weekday. The purpose of this program in Orlando and elsewhere is to enable the homebound elderly of this community to remain independent in their own homes, while ensuring that their daily nutritional needs are being met. The average client lives alone, at or below poverty level, is widowed, and has little or no family support. Volunteers deliver Meals on Wheels Monday through Friday and are often the only person these seniors see each day. Without Meals on Wheels, many seniors would be forced to leave their home to live in an institution.

The program was in jeopardy of being closed down by Florida’s governor because the meals were not being delivered in a fresh manner, as demanded by the stringent contract requirements. The Meals On Wheels Team, headed by Ahmad Elshennawy of UCF and 12 students and ASQ members, successfully redesigned the food distribution system to assure that the program met the tight delivery and freshness requirements every time. The program was saved, the elderly were happy; and the participants received their Black Belt and Green Belt certifications. Also, the project became a model benchmark for others in similar straits to follow as a sure way to achieve continuous community improvement.

The Harrington Institute is offering the biggest no-brainer in history to communities. The question is, why wouldn’t more community agencies and organizations want to utilize it? The only risk is admitting your organization needs help, and the benefits far outweigh that. All told, millions of dollars have been saved in cost avoidances for the taxpayers and organizations in Central Florida; more than 300 people have been certified as lean Six Sigma Belts, and lives have been bettered for the at-risk population in Florida—a true triple crown of quality improvement.


About The Author

H. James Harrington Ph.D. and Frank Voehl’s default image

H. James Harrington Ph.D. and Frank Voehl

H. James Harrington, Ph.D., is recognized as one of the world leaders in applying performance improvement methodologies to business processes and the transformation of organizations. He distinguishes himself personally managing the successful transformation of a number of organizations that he headed up. Harrington writes regular columns for Quality Digest Daily and is on the Editorial Review Board for five magazines.

Frank Voehl is the chancellor and COO of the Harrington Institute, and president and CEO of Strategies Associates. He is an expert in the application of the quality tools and methods to public and private organizations, including city, county, community government, and nonprofit operations. He's also a certified Master Black Belt Instructor in lean Six Sigma and performance management, a noted author and series editor of over 30 books and hundreds of business management and improvement articles, and technical papers.