Leading Edge: An Atypical Approach

Productivity improvements are more common in the manufacturing sector, but they’ve helped an Edmonton not-for-profit direct more time to their clients

One plus one equals two, right? Not when the Boys and Girls Clubs (BGC) of Edmonton joined forces with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Edmonton and Area. The decision, to become a unified organization for children in and around the capital city, brought two organizations together and made them into one: Boys and Girls Clubs Big Brothers Big Sisters (BGCBBBS) of Edmonton and Area.

Photo by Buffy Goodman

When the idea formed to join BBBS with BGC, beefing up staff and processes at BBBS, managers had lean principles front-of-mind. Lean analyzes systems to find inefficiencies, an approach derived from Japanese company Toyota in the 1980s. While such productivity improvements are more common in the manufacturing sector, the organization’s leaders knew that lean principles, which strive to create more value with fewer resources, could benefit them, too.

The not-for-profit organization, which receives funding from the United Way, also has a history with lean. It started when BBBS began its lean adventure in 2009 with a grant from the Government of Alberta. The grant was awarded to hire a lean consultant, with the stipulation that the organization’s findings would be shared with other charities. And so they shared: about 50 Alberta agencies have since attended efficiency workshops run by former BBBS staff.

Productivity improvements are increasingly a focus for many companies, but they are less common in the not-for-profit sector where the cost of hiring a consultant to help identify areas of improvement can be a difficult expense to justify.

When Liz O’Neill (now the executive director of BGCBBBS) was executive director of BBBS, the purpose of her team’s lean grant was to get volunteers through the organization’s system faster. Focusing on that one area proved successful, meaning more of the organization could better serve its clients – children in the Capital Region.

O’Neill is optimistic about the opportunities within the new organization. As an amalgamated agency, BGCBBBS received a new government grant for a lean consultant. The new not-for-profit’s goal is to integrate procedures of the two original organizations and better serve the needs of children in the community.

“For many of the staff of the former BBBS agency, lean became part of the culture. They don’t even talk about it in terms of, ‘Oh yes, this is a lean process.’ We created a framework of thinking, decision-making and problem-solving,” O’Neill says. After the July merge, former BGC staff received lean training to understand their BBBS co-worker’s constant push for efficiency.


The efficiencies gained have allowed us to add more staff hours in order to serve more kids and better support the staff that do it.


“The business community tells us that when an amalgamation is being done that you can expect three to five years of change,” O’Neill says. Those working at the not-for-profit wondered if that could be shortened to 12 to 16 months by using lean as a joining-together strategy.

There is still plenty of work for the new organization to do, including combining the boards of directors, confirming expansion plans for spring break and summer programs and re-allocating saved funds appropriately.

In the meantime, though, O’Neill says the constant focus on lean throughout the amalgamation has produced tangible results. “The efficiencies gained have allowed us to add more staff hours in order to serve more kids and better support the staff that do it,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill hopes lean principles will become embedded in the organization and practices of its staff, becoming “part of how we do our job.”

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