How someone who was functionally illiterate could ever become a storeman in a housing depot was beyond Dan.

Dan was a facilitator charged with supporting teams in a large rural housing association to improve their own work.

The association had begun their improvement journey by identifying what the CE chose to call “critical business issues” that were clearly a problem.  The management team’s approach to prioritising action was fairly basic – if a senior manager thought there was a problem, that’s where they turned their attention.

To start with they’d concentrated on office-based processes – re-lets of vacant properties, rent arrears and recruitment.

It wasn’t too long before someone suggested they turn their attention to the operational side of the business – housing wardens and repairs and maintenance.  Both were part-unionised and there’d been some apprehension about the reaction of the workforce.

As often happens, one manager was more enthusiastic than others and the maintenance manager asked for some work to be done on stock control in his four widely dispersed depots.  He didn’t have the data to prove it but he was convinced they were carrying far too much stock.

Dan did a lot of preparatory work in setting up his first “manual workers” RIE – much more than the guidelines said.

He paid special attention to the make up of the team who would spend a week confirming the problems and resolving them.  He was adamant that the team include a clerical assistant, one of the craftsmen who used the depots as a base, and one of the storemen who received and issued stock.

George was the storeman nominated to join the team.

He’d been very quiet in the planning meeting two weeks before the RIE itself but that happened sometimes.  It often took a while for people not used to the genuine empowerment of the process to realise they really were free to come up with a solution that management would implement rather than challenge.

As usual, Monday morning of the RIE week was spent explaining the process the team would use.  By the lunch break Dan couldn’t help noticing that George was not only the one member of the team who was still silent but had sat most of the morning with his arms folded avoiding his gaze.  A regular Mister Grumpy in fact.

Dan managed to get one of the depot supervisors who joined them for lunch on one side.  “What’s wrong with George?” he asked. “Has the guy got a problem with me do you think?”

“Er,” the supervisor said, obviously embarrassed, “did no one tell you?  He can’t read or write.”

To say this was a challenge was an understatement.  Not only did it mean all the care Dan had given to the make up of the team had missed a fundamental problem but it now seemed impossible that George could participate on an equal basis.

The whole week was based on the team gathering information (much of it written), analysing the numbers involved, mapping the existing processes, drafting possible improvements and writing up the way ahead.  The room they were working in would be covered in flip chart paper and Post-it notes by Tuesday.

Dan’s first stroke of luck was that the supervisor knew one of the other team members – let’s call him Harry – was one of the few people in the organisation who was aware of George’s problem.  The second stroke of luck was that the week worked by team members dividing into pairs to investigate the potential problems and solutions.

So after Dan had a quiet word with Harry, that was why George was paired with him for the whole week.

Somehow it worked.  Using the excuse of seeing a depot in operation Dan went with them on one of their visits on the Tuesday, when the team were dispersed finding out the problems at the workplace.

The depot wasn’t George’s and surprisingly he turned out to be a dab hand at seeing and commenting on problems – where stock was located, the inefficient layout of the front desk, the health and safety hazards outside (put bluntly the depot was a tip), and much besides .  His powers of visual observation more than made up for his inability to write them down.

The upshot of the week was that on the Friday morning the team presented a cracking set of solutions to improve stock control.

They also urged management to tackle some other issues outside their remit they were concerned about.  One of these was the state of the depots George had graphically commented on during the Tuesday visits.  Dan had explained the 5S process to the team – what he called a sophisticated tidy up time [see my earlier blog post] – and they urged that this be tried.

Their manager responded positively and asked the team on the basis of their observations which depot should be done first.

To Dan’s amazement, George spoke up and volunteered his own depot for the pilot.  Dan was on the point of finding an excuse to suggest somewhere else when he pulled himself up.  Of course it could be done.  5S was a team activity and based significantly on trained observation of the work environment.

To cut a long story short the pilot worked well – pictures of a proud George in immaculate surroundings appeared on the housing association’s web site – and they went on to successfully “5S” the rest of their depots and offices.

What Dan never discovered was how George had managed to sustain a job for so long without being able to input data to the PC or read  stock lists and requisition forms.