More with less

4 February 2016
Lean principles have led to a dramatic shake-up of referral service practice
Community lawyers are being squeezed by shrinking budgets and increased service demand. Funders are eager to see value for money, meaning that programs must find ways to do more with less. Justice Connect’s Referral Service has met this challenge by adopting the principles of lean efficiency to increase the number of clients it can refer to lawyers for pro bono assistance. 
The referral service fields numerous phone inquiries from members of the public seeking access to justice through pro bono assistance. But staff came to doubt this approach. Many calls did not fit Justice Connect’s guidelines. Indeed, 65 per cent of calls came from people who had to be referred elsewhere. 
Knowing a problem exists and fixing it are two different challenges. Many not-for-profits find themselves repeating the same behaviour time and again. This is because:
  • no profit motive makes success hard to define staff have entrenched practices and are resistant to change
  • the problem keeps staff so busy that the solution is obscured
  • not-for-profit programs rarely map their business process.
It was not until an efficiency consultancy introduced the referral service to lean thinking that these problems could be tackled. Lean philosophy was first adopted by Toyota as a way of winning the production battles of the 1980s. Lean’s goals are deceptively simple: minimise waste and maximise value. The philosophy’s success saw it spread quickly from industry to almost every other sector.
  • Map your business process - inputs and outputs - and within your organisation’s goals.
  • Include everyone in the task.
  • Set benchmarks: what is your measure of efficiency and design a strategy to hit it?
  • Identify and eliminate wasteful processes.
  • Measure your strategy’s success.
  • Continually trim valueless work.
Not-for-profits have been slower to introduce lean thinking. However, competition for scarce funding means that this must change. Eliminating valueless processes is not only attractive to funders, it is also a vital part of staff wellbeing and client satisfaction.
When the referral service adopted lean thinking in its pro bono referral processes, two things became clear. First, when workers mapped the business process, waste areas became clear. A small range of practice areas accounted for 40 per cent of all calls but only 1 per cent of successful referrals to pro bono lawyers.
Second, involving all workers in the lean process built trust in a process of radical change. Lean principles have led to a dramatic shake-up of referral service practice. An automated phone message now redirects inappropriate enquiries. This is no brush off: previously callers would face a painful two-day wait only to be directed elsewhere.
The referral service’s key output of referrals to pro bono lawyers has risen from 12 per cent to roughly 30 per cent. Scarce resources are being put to best use, and the program has a clear benchmark for success. Workers have extra time to spend on more appropriate calls. This has led to better outcomes for clients and greater job satisfaction for staff.
Jason Saultry is a paralegal with Justice Connect’s Referral Service. This column first appeared in the Law Institute Journal.