Applying Lean Six Sigma to Humanitarian Work – ISE Magazine


Interview by Michael Hughes, from the November 2018 edition of ISE Magazine

Andrew Parris is a certified lean Six Sigma master black belt and process excellence manager with Medair, a faith-based humanitarian nongovernmental organization headquartered in Switzerland.

How did you begin your lean Six Sigma journey?

I wanted to be involved in the process of producing something. The University of California, Berkeley, offered manufacturing engineering, which combined industrial engineering and operations research with mechanical engineering. After working for 3Com in Silicon Valley I headed to MIT, where I pursued a master’s in technology and policy because I saw the value of having technically minded people think through policy decisions. I stayed for my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.

How did you make the jump into humanitarian work?

I read Walking with the Poor by Bryant Meyers of World Vision. This Christian humanitarian organization sends development facilitators to underdeveloped communities to identify the causes of poverty, develop interventions and teach and coach community leaders to continue improvements long after World Vision has left.

It struck me that my work as a process improvement facilitator was in essence the same work that a development facilitator was doing in a poor community. I joined World Vision and spent nine years there, including three years with my family in Nairobi, Kenya. Projects there reduced process time spans by more than 50 percent and annual recurring costs by $1.5 million. Helping my colleagues understand lean and apply it fruitfully was a great joy.

Why did you want to work for Medair?

Which company willingly works in the most difficult, hardest to reach and most unpredictable contexts? Medair does. I live and work in Switzerland, but Medair operates in countries in crisis such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan. We face overwhelming challenges of corruption, fighting, poor infrastructure, difficult terrain, extreme weather and inadequate resources. We have such a great need to optimize systems and minimize waste. And improvements we make directly impact lives – we can feed more malnourished children, provide more life-saving medicine and build more shelters.

What did you take from industry into the humanitarian field?

Most of my 11 years with Lockheed Martin were on the Atlas Rocket Program, where I grew in my understanding of lean Six Sigma, taught green belts and facilitated process improvement projects.

More importantly, I learned the importance of building up others. As a process improvement facilitator I have the greatest impact not by telling others what to do but by teaching and coaching them to see waste and to solve problems. After all, the people who perform a process are experts in their work, not me. All the fundamental principles and most practices of lean Six Sigma apply in humanitarian work.

What would you say to young industrial and systems engineers interested in humanitarian work?

I would tell them, “Thank you for caring and wanting to help. There is great need and opportunity for you to help out, though probably not in a purely ISE role. Humanitarian NGOs and the United Nations need young people who are motivated by compassion, who have a spirit of adventure, who are adaptable and who bring ideas and experience to improve how we operate in very unstable, challenging and unpredictable contexts. While it is hard to jump into humanitarian work overseas, you can start by looking for openings in organizations in your home country.”


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