In my last article, I introduced lean principles, from the innovative philosophy for increasing efficiency championed by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. The article touched on the ways it can be adapted for organizations in the social sector and the association industry. I want to dig deeper into the possibilities of putting lean approaches into action by sharing an example from my work in global development.

During research for my upcoming book that adapts lean principles to the social sector, entitled Lean Impact, I found myself in Johannesburg, South Africa, visiting Harambee Youth Accelerator. HYA is a social enterprise focused on the pressing issue of youth unemployment in South Africa, specializing in finding work for disadvantaged youth who have never held formal employment.

From the start, HYA embraced an experimental attitude, always keeping in mind that these experiments must have a measurable target. It began with community outreach. Staff spoke to unemployed youth and potential employers to understand their pain points. Young people did not have the networks to connect to jobs, and employers were spending time and money on training new employees only to see high attrition rates. HYA’s mission became bridging the gap between the two groups, with a value proposition to provide more work-ready candidates to employers and to see results through higher productivity and retention.

The first step of the organization’s plan involved administering assessments in math and English for youth. The pass rate was very low, so they pivoted away from this tactic and sought out providers who could assess learning potential instead of existing knowledge. Armed with this data from selected youth who showed the right personality traits and learning potential for certain jobs, HYA provided their own training to fill in any gaps.

Employers were delighted and hired many candidates from this pool. However, retention was still an issue. Even after getting jobs through this process, many new hires were leaving. Staff at HYA got out of the office to talk to youth and find out what was going wrong, and uncovered several causes. Some people had unrealistic expectations of the jobs they ended up in due to lack of information. HYA tailored their training so that people working in, for example, retail, were prepared to stand up for the duration of their shift. After being exposed to the conditions of the work, youth could proceed or opt out before taking on a job.

Another barrier for youth in new jobs was the cost of transport. In the month before receiving their first paycheck, it often proved impossible for disadvantaged youth to cover the bus fare between home and work. HYA communicated this to employers and in response they structured an advance to cover the costs of commuting.

For those who lived in isolated townships far from the city where most economic activity took place, even this measure was not sufficient. The ongoing cost of commuting long distances was too high for the modest salaries they could earn. So, HYA connected with cruise ship companies who could offer the opportunity to earn a good wage, allow employees to send money home to their family, and travel the world at the same time.

By taking a rigorous approach to focusing on the problem at hand and creatively overcoming barriers, HYA developed a deep understanding of their clients to deliver the best possible service. Today, they have administered over one million assessments and helped over forty thousand youth find jobs. Looking at this case study through the lens of lean methodology, we can see the possibilities of innovation put into action.

Ann Mei Chang served as Chief Innovation Officer and the first Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID. The Lab is the newest bureau at USAID and leverages 21st Century advances in technology and innovation to accelerate the impact and scale of global development. Previously, Ann Mei was the Chief Innovation Officer at Mercy Corps and served as the Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.  Prior to her pivot to the public sector, Ann Mei had over twenty years of experience at leading Silicon Valley companies including Google, Apple, Intuit, and some startups. Most recently, she was as a Senior Engineering Director at Google, where she led worldwide engineering for mobile applications and services, delivering 20x growth to $1B in annual revenues in just 3 years.

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