7 Steps for a Successful Lean Implementation at your Nonprofit | npENGAGE

7 Steps for a Successful Lean Implementation at your Nonprofit

By on Jul 12, 2018


From self-driving cars to artificial intelligence, we live in a period marked by rapid innovation and change. Now couple the accelerating pace of change with increasing pressures from funders to spend fewer dollars on overhead, and the fact becomes clear: we need to find new ways of doing things!

Efficiency Drives New Ways of Thinking

I wasn’t born an efficiency expert. When I was growing up in northern Minnesota, I didn’t see examples of organizational efficiency models, and I had never heard of lean concepts. But, having spent most of my career in manufacturing environments, I became aware of these concepts even before lean became the commonly used terminology.

However, when I moved into the nonprofit world, I experienced a paradigm shift. Lean is often thought of as a cost-cutting move for manufacturers. But with grant funding, there is no prize for cutting costs; the goal is to do exactly what you promised you’d do within the given budget. So, the concept of lean as a way to drive efficiency was slow to move into this environment.

But lean thinking eventually found its way into the public and social sectors about 10 years ago, where it has been successfully implemented by organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Code for America, and the State of Washington.

What is Lean?

When we look at applying lean concepts in a service environment, our main goal isn’t to take the cost out of a product. Instead, we want to remove the waste out of a process. And the goal is not a dramatic 100% waste elimination in the future but instead a continuous improvement process of waste reduction starting today.

Lean supports clients through two core principles: increasing value and eliminating waste. The lean process is about reducing waste while increasing efficiency, productivity, and quality. The process is designed so we can do more of the things that clients value and less of the things that they don’t.

But if you don’t know who the client is, then you can’t determine which activities add value and which should be defined as waste. So, the first step in the lean journey is to identify the client.

Who Determines Value?

The client is not the next person in the process to whom you’re handing off the baton. The client is the person at the end of the process who benefits from the service you provide through your mission. This step of determining the primary client can be harder than you think, but it’s critical to the success of the entire process.

Once you’ve identified the client, you can then evaluate each step in the process to determine whether it adds value. If it doesn’t add value, then it’s waste and should be eliminated to the extent possible.

A common method used by organizations to organize the process steps is something called value stream mapping (VSM). If you’ve ever participated in a VSM exercise, you may recall organizing lots of sticky notes on a big sheet of paper or whiteboard.

The main benefit of VSM is that it gives you a full view of all the steps in a process, so you can more easily identify waste and form a plan to reduce it. With VSM, each step is reviewed based on these three criteria:

  • Is this step something the client cares about or is affected by?
  • Does this step change the product or service?
  • Is this step done right the first time?

Once you’ve identified the waste, it’s time to remove as much of it as possible. Sound simple enough? Well, as Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” So, before you jump head first into your lean implementation project, let’s look at some steps you can take to ensure that you’re prepared for success.

7 Steps for a Successful Lean Implementation

  1. Create a compelling reason. There could be many reasons that your organization may choose to implement lean processes—to help more people, expand your mission, or get additional funding. Whatever the reason, keep in mind that people get behind big missions, so make sure your “why” is a big “why.”
  2. Dedicate adequate resources. Lean initiatives often get piled on top of people’s regular workload. If people are going to be involved in the lean initiative on a full-time basis, don’t expect them to do all their regular work as well.

  1. Educate staff and clients. A common failure of lean initiatives is that senior management assumes they already know what the customer thinks. But if you don’t talk to your clients, you can’t really know what things they value.
  2. Bite off what you can chew (not more). Lean is a continuous process of small wins. It’s not one enormous feat that you accomplish at the end of the year. So, make sure to consider what actions you can take to make processes better today, this week, or this month.
  3. Assign responsibilities. Be very clear about who is responsible for what and make sure that expectations are communicated to everyone involved in the lean initiative. But remember that lean is very much a bottom-up approach, so it’s crucial that people feel empowered to make improvements that make their jobs better.
  4. Plan/Do/Check/Act (PDCA). Part of building an innovative culture is letting people experiment. So, plan what you’re going to do, do it, then check to see if you get the result you wanted. If you see success, then you act on it. You don’t want to put something into practice without knowing that it will achieve the desired result. Checking results before you act allows you to ensure that you’ve worked out all the kinks before you implement change.
  5. Communicate Results. It’s critical that results are communicated, especially with lean initiatives. Communication is so much more than just a component of internal controls or a soft skill! Communication allows you to stop operating in secret. Poor communication is often a hallmark of a fear-based culture: we’re afraid we’re going to fail or look silly. But an important part of building a lean and innovative culture is failure because it tells you what needs to change.

Yes, efficiency drives new ways of thinking and acting! A successful lean implementation can open the door to greater efficiency, more empowered employees and service delivery that clients truly value.


The “Federal Grant Insider” Lucy Morgan delivers straight talk with a sense of wisdom and humor. She is a CPA, MBA, GPA Approved Trainer, Speaker, Author of 3 books including “Decoding Grant Management- The Ultimate Success Guide to the Federal Grant Regulations in 2 CFR Part 200” and “The Diamond Mindset” an Amazon ranked best-seller.  Lucy is a leading authority on Federal grant management for non-profits, institutions of higher education and state, local and tribal governments.  She has written over 200 articles on grant management topics which are featured in LinkedIn, various E-zines and on the MyFedTrainer.com blog.

Comments (110)

  • Karen says:

    Lucy, in what ways have you communicated the lean outcomes to your donor audience?

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Hi Karen,

      Whether you are communicating lean outcomes to donors or funders, my recommendation is always the same. Describe your outcomes in terms the donors, funders, employees care about. This is the essence of lean-focus on others, not just the organizational benefits. Are more people being served? Are you delivering results faster? Do employees, clients, community view the work being done more favorably? Is the work/results more meaningful?

  • Brinkley Cox says:

    I really appreciated the step on informing staff. Too often new policies and procedures are implicated without informing teams.

    • B Melloh says:

      I couldn’t agree more Brinkley! Communication is key in this type of innovation!

    • Karina says:

      This is so true in our organization. For something to work everyone needs to be informed and on board.

    • Magdalena Sarnas says:

      Yes or being accountable for them.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Brinkley you are so right! Communication is so often overlooked and it can make the difference between people getting behind something or sabotaging it.

    • Gillian Armstrong says:

      YES! What would be even better is getting input from them before it’s implemented, because it DOES affect them too.

      • Brinkley says:

        I completely agree!!! As a data person (and nerd) I believe collaboration is key for any new policy to not only work but to be readily used & updated. I love to trade policy manuals with different departments, like gift processing, to test if the policy really is accessible for all users.
        Bonus: I often learn things about our database I didn’t before by being a tester for them.

    • Sage says:

      I completely agree!!

  • rachel says:

    I appreciate these concepts. I’m curious how one gets buy-in from top level staff for a lean strategy, especially those who believe you must spend money to make money.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Rachel that is an enormous challenge. If you don’t have the support of the highest levels, the initiative is not doomed, but you have to go in “stealth” mode until you can sell them on the benefits. Is there someone there who would champion a small project. Start a small snowball rolling and build momentum. It’s about small steps every day, not huge initiatives.

  • Michelle Booth says:

    I love that it talks about communication and how important it is.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      We are on the same page. That is SO important to success in so many areas! And it is also a component of strong internal controls as well.

  • Jennifer Lange says:

    Excellent idea to ‘borrow’ from our for-profit neighbors!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      It’s been so exciting to see more and more service environments running with these ideas. I can’t wait to see how the movement spreads!

  • Jeremiah Pierce says:

    This is great thank you for sharing.

  • Claudia says:

    I appreciate the concept but have found that its hard to get staff “buy in”. Its no foreign concept that change is hard for people to get on board with.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Claudia!
      It does require education on the concepts and ultimately buy-in from senior leadership to change the culture.

  • Becky says:

    We have a lot of room to improve in the implementation of lean processes within our team and organization as a whole. Onward and upward!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks, Becky! That is the attitude that will lead to great transformations! Keep making a difference!

  • Madelyn says:

    Creating a compelling reason — such an important step!

  • Petra Hall says:

    Communication is key, but I suspect many charities already have staff doing more than their job descriptions is de rigueur. For them, the key words are going to be “don’t expect them[staff] to do all their regular work as well.”

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      I agree, Petra! Piling on more work is not the answer. Like the old expression, it takes money to make money…it takes time to make time.

  • Tammi Burkhardt says:

    Reducing redundancy and succinct meaningful communication are essential is practicing lean.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      So true Tammi! We have to move people from thinking of reducing redundency as all about layoffs. Communication is also needed to help people visualize where the lean journey is going and how they fit into the voyage.

  • JoAnn Strommen says:

    Several points to think on / change as needed.

  • Lindsay says:

    We definitely have some work to do when it comes to lean processes. Thanks for the write-up!

    P.S. Hello from Thunder Bay, ON – North of Northern Minnesota!

  • Maggi says:

    I think we already run so lean that if we get any leaner we will disappear altogether. With only four people of staff to cover an entire state we by necessity must run lean processes to get the job done.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Hi Maggi,

      I think many of us in the nonprofit and government world feel this way. It sounds like necessity has been the mother of lean reinvention for your team! What would you recommend to others feeling the squeeze?

  • Jayme says:

    Communication is key across all levels, and I also agree with other posters who feel that their organizations are already quite lean as is.

  • Heather says:

    I like the idea of accomplishing many small steps instead of a few big ones.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks, Heather! We can all take baby steps! It’s the being patient for the giant leaps that’s really hard 🙂

  • Amy says:

    Absolutely agree with #1! I find any time I need to make a change, the easiest way to get others on board is to give them a reason. Once people have buy-in, the process is much easier.

  • Jillian Wade says:

    Great article! We are in the process of hiring quite a bit and the efficiency of each staff member is a good point to keep in our minds!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks, Jillian! Look for people who will fit a culture of innovation and continuous improvement.

  • Kerry Ayres-Smith says:

    Very interesting concept. I’d never heard of this idea of lean presented in this way. I’d heard of streamline, which I guess is similar, but it is interested reading how this author purposes to make these lean cuts.

  • Barb says:

    Good info, thanks!

  • Jenny Stephens says:

    “Part of building an innovative culture is letting people experiment. So, plan what you’re going to do, do it, then check to see if you get the result you wanted. If you see success, then you act on it. You don’t want to put something into practice without knowing that it will achieve the desired result. Checking results before you act allows you to ensure that you’ve worked out all the kinks before you implement change.”

    I love testing and see how things turn out. It’s the only way I feel comfortable and sure what is happening is correct.

  • Karen Stuhlfeier says:

    Interesting – I need to read this again.

  • Angie Stumpo says:

    Love “make sure your why is a big why” – it should always be like that in nonprofits.

  • Sunshine Watson says:

    So much to think about here! Thanks!

  • Joanne Felci says:

    LOVE this: Lean is a continuous process of small wins. It’s not one enormous feat that you accomplish at the end of the year. So, make sure to consider what actions you can take to make processes better today, this week, or this month. It is so easy to want to do it all at once…which might mean you never make any change or that you set yourself up to fail or both.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Joanne, you have captured the essence of how lean fails. Think about what CAN be done, not what can’t.

  • aps says:

    Thanks for sharing this timely and relevant information

  • Julie Ann says:

    For me, “lean” is something to always keep in the back of my mind. I love ironing out clunky and inefficient processes!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Julie Ann, Take a look at some of the work being down by the State of Washington and others. I love seeing the colored post-its as processes are analyzed and improved!

  • April says:

    Our department is in the process of learning the lean process and implementing it with the hope to get buy in from other departments as well! Love this, thank you for the article!

  • Todd Peyton says:

    Bite off what you can chew is hard to do!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      🙂 True Todd! Even harder to bite off little pieces you can chew quickly instead of huge mouthfuls!

  • Matt says:

    Thanks for sharing Lucy.
    For many non profits the ‘client’ isn’t simply “the person at the end of the process who benefits from the service you provide through your mission”. It is often also be the people and/or organisations that are funding the service. So in a situation where you have two client groups with differing (and sometimes conflicting!) needs, the process of applying lean concepts has the potential of reflecting this balancing these needs and is therefore no longer linear. It can often be also about managing expectations and relationships as well. For me this is probably the biggest challenge in applying the lean concept in the non profit sector.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Valid points Matt! Though the traditional view of lean still focuses on the person at the end of the process, I do understand how the funders certainly have a stake in this as well. Thanks for commenting!
      All the best,

  • Alicia says:

    We’ll be going through this in the coming years! It’s a big undertaking, and hopefully it will go well!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Wow, Alicia,
      I’d love to hear your perspective as you work through the process. Nothing like a voice of experience. 🙂 Please share what you learn!
      All the best,

  • Alice Black says:

    Great information! What you mention is probably the case in so many nonprofits as we do work in this manner. Then we evaluate and continue to evolve our work.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      It’s all about continuous improvement. Thanks for commenting Alice!
      All the best,

  • Susan Chomsky says:

    We have recently undergone a look at our food rescue and delivery model in an effort to be more strategic in our community. Including the agencies we serve and getting recipient statistics (how many families, where they travel from, what is available where they are) is helping us to better serve those that need us. Staying lean is a moving target. Always reviewing and adjusting for better efficiencies.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Susan, I love that you are talking with the recipients. The closer you are to the actual people we hope to serve, the better the results with lean! Best results mean getting out the ivory towers and talking with people. Thanks for commenting!
      All the best,

  • Andy Schroeder says:

    I am guilty of #4 and often try to bite off more than I can chew. I have learned over the past couple of years that taking on more than one can handle leads to poor results and sometimes poor health by the fundraiser as they began to burnout. Overall great article with useful info.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks, Andy! I appreciate your candor. I am guilty of that as well. Somehow it always takes (at least) twice as long and cost twice as much money as I think it should. Lol! I appreciate your comments.

  • Clare says:

    Great article, communication is key!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Clare! Yes, it is an often-overlooked, but a key component. (Communication is even a component of strong internal controls, so you know I am a big fan!:D)
      All the best,

  • Meagan Shaw says:

    Don’t bite off more you can chew is sound advice but often not considered.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Yes, Meagan,

      It’s hard to bite what you can chew. 🙂 I fight this bad habit too!
      Thanks for commenting!
      All the best,

  • Lauren Fardella says:

    I am passing this article alone to my VP of Development, it is really informative.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks so much for the feedback, Lauren! I appreciate the share very much.
      Blackbaud has many great resources out there. Glad you found it valuable!
      All the best,

  • Daniel Rangel says:

    Great work Lucy!

  • Carlene Johnson says:

    This was such a great reminder: The client is the person at the end of the process who benefits from the service you provide through your mission.


    • Lucy Morgan says:

      You got it, Carlene! 🙂
      Too often we think it’s the person we handoff to because that is the person we interact with. But having the bigger perspective is key for real transformation!
      Thanks for commenting!
      All the best,

  • Jessica says:

    I always need to be reminded to not take on more than I can handle. Thanks.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks for commenting Jessica,

      I think that concept has struck a chord with lots of folks.

      Perhaps because we are so passionate about our missions, we want to do more.

      It’s a hard habit to break!

      All the best,

  • Chris says:

    Great article! I love the seven steps to help us through the process.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks for the feedback Chris!
      I am glad those were helpful tips. 🙂
      All the best,

  • Tracey says:

    “Stop operating in secret.” That really hit home for me. Well done, great post!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks, Tracey!

      They say sunshine is the best disinfectant!

      I appreciate your feedback!

      All the best,

  • Lisa Rizzo says:

    I like the “Assign responsibilities”! Our team just decided that some of our meetings were not being productive, because although we came up with good ideas and discussions at the end no one was held accountable due to a lack of assignments and then another meeting was called. We cut down on a lot of meeting time, but simply summing the meeting in an email and assigning follow-up tasks!

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Lisa, you hit the nail on the head!

      (I’ve been to those types of meetings as well. :D)

      I love that you took action to make it better one-step-at-a-time.

      That’s what lean mindset is all about!

      All the best,

  • Denise Appelgren says:

    I also spent more than 15 years in manufacturing before coming to the non-profit world. My Foundation has a President who came from the manufacturing world as well, and in his desire to create a quality system that incorporated Lean concepts, hired me for my years of expereince in quality management and Lean implentation.
    Successful Lean implementation also requires that you collaborate with INTERNAL suppliers and customers for success – eliminating an hour of waste in one process that creates 2 hours additinoal work in the following process is not a Lean win. Everyone must understand the interconnectedness of all the processes across the organization to affect genuine waste elimination across the board. This is another area where communication is critical, and the reason that I put folks on our improvement project teams that aren’t directly involved in the processes being reviewed and improved. If you don’t understand the process before or after your own, it’s more difficult to create significant, meaningful, and long-lasting change.

    • Lucy Morgan says:


      I love your voice of experience!

      Please keep those great insights coming!

      I too found much better results when people from a wide variety of perspectives are represented.

      One of the most transformational experiences I had in manufacturing was when some of our folks toured a bottle cap manufacturer. (We were a technology company.) It completely changed our view and we look over 94% of the labor out of the product and helped transition the employees to a whole new process.
      All the best,

  • Julio Cesar says:

    Don’t bite off more you can chew is sound advice but often not considered.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks, Julio!

      That was the big take away for many readers. (And it’s a great reminder for me as well!)

      I appreciate your comment!

      All the best,

  • George Buss says:

    As an artist and educator, I apply these concepts to experience design. What is the outcome I am looking for and does every step move that outcome forward. If it doesn’t, why is it there? To me, the process towards a lean design is often hardest when coupled with a collaborative approach. The importance of an understood and shared vision for outcomes and the value for the client cannot be overstated.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks for your perspective, George!

      As an analytical, I hadn’t considered the artists view of lean.

      But you are so right about ensuring every step moves the outcome forward.

      I appreciate your comments!

      All the best,

  • Christine says:

    I think your steps for a successful implementation would apply to any kind of implementation, not just the move to more lean processes.
    We’re continually working to improve efficiency & eliminate waste. I know I have colleagues who are concerned that they’re working themselves out of a job. I don’t see it that way at all. We’re currently developing a blue sky plan to double our revenue within three years & I anticipate adding one FTE to our department of 3 FTE in order to handle the increased transaction volume. We’re just working ourselves into a job that looks different & addresses different (and more interesting, imo) challenges!

    • Lucy Morgan says:


      Thank you for exposing the “elephant in the room”!

      Many people think first about how lean means they will be laid off.

      The reality is if organizations don’t evolve and improve, no one will have a job in the future.

      I believe one of the keys to this difficult conversation is the integrity of the leadership and treating people fairly whether they continue to grow into new roles, or not.

      I appreciate your comments!

      All the best,

  • MK says:

    This is great info. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lucy Morgan says:


      Thanks for the feedback!

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

      All the best,

  • Stephanie Boyce says:

    This is interesting, thanks for posting this.

  • Erin Parks says:

    Nice article. Very easy to understand. Question for the nonprofit Development department perspective: our clients are our donors. They already expect us to do as much as we can with what they give us (eliminating waste), and I feel that we are making progress in this area. Where do you see a Development department increasing value?

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Hi Erin,

      Great question! It goes back to an earlier comment about the dual role of stakeholders who are funding the work for the benefit of the clients/customers.
      Though I believe funders care more about the mission they are supporting than the nuts and bolts of back-office efficiency, I think that I found a great perspective on 5 things to focus on with metrics. (This came from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of all places! :D) They measured their success in reducing waste in these five categories: Time (How fast can we deliver results) Cost (How many FTE’s are needed for the process?) Quality (Are documents complete and accurate the first time?) Outputs (How many do we produce? i.e. permits, licenses, etc.) and Complexity (Number of steps, handoffs in the process)

      P.S. I hope you’ll be at #BBCON this year, so we can talk further!
      All the best,

  • Maya says:

    Interesting read!

  • Crystal says:

    Great read and so true. Like with most things communication is so important. You have to communicate with staff to make sure they understand not only what you are doing but also why you are doing something. The communication has be continue to flow too so that people continue to be updated and do not feel like they are being left in the dark.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Great points Crystal!

      Along those lines, I also find that management who has been talking about this for a while, sometimes thinks everyone is at the same point in processing the changes that have just been communicated.

      We all need time to understand and process information. That is part of good communication too!

      Thanks for commenting!

      All the best,

  • Karintha says:

    After a few rocky implementations in recent years, these tips make so much sense. A few of these steps I’ve learned and implemented after things have gone awry :-/.

    I’m a big fan steps 3 and 7, as they both allow for the very people oriented experience of connection through a change. For most people change is hard and frustrating, and I think people lose sight of the fact that everyone involved in a transition is feeling similarly when they don’t talk to each other enough about what’s happening.

    • Lucy Morgan says:

      Thanks for those insights Karintha!

      You are so right. Change is hard and frustrating and the reality is that not everyone wants change.

      Communication is SO important throughout the whole process-especially the two-way part of communication. 🙂

      I appreciate your comments!

      All the best,

  • Rosalinda Miguel says:

    Yes, my org has started taking some of these steps to improve interdepartmental processes that involve our Board. Very helpful!

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