I’ve made a point here over the years to highlight the education I’ve been receiving while working with our Nicaraguan partners. It turns out that I may have far less to teach my Nicaraguan acquaintances than I might have once thought, and that they have immensely more to teach me than I ever dreamed. In a development activity wherein we have supposedly been the givers and the Nicaraguan people the receivers, the roles can easily be said to be interchangeable. Indeed, I have gained immense insights about people, the universality of our needs, the depth of human desire and the comparative shallowness of my own journey.
Nonetheless. WPF has been instrumental in helping our partners to acquire new ideas and perspectives about their own circumstances and has thus impacted many of them in very positive ways. Concurrently, the Nicaraguan colleagues with whom we have worked closely have proven themselves to be not just good teachers of the rural poor, but great mentors and life-coaches for people who too frequently have had little or no access to such resources. In short, there has been no shortage of teaching and learning taking place within our work; in fact, it is the essence of transformation.
Nicaraguan education of another sort is now slated to begin in
another week or so, as WPF consultant and colleague Rene Mendoza will travel to the U.S. for an intense week of study and experience on behalf of the rural cooperatives which he has been serving for much of his life. It’s a learning journey for Rene, who will be studying topics including open book management, continuous process improvement, organizational dynamics, successful cooperative models and more. It’s also an expedition of preparation, providing Rene with more of the tools to be shared with small cooperatives who are in desperate need of organizational savvy.
Rene will spend four days immersed in open book methodologies, absorbing the best practices of some of the best OBM companies in the U.S. He’ll then change venues and meet with a real-life practitioner of organizational continuous improvement, or Lean, to gain deeper insights into the sequence and content of teaching newcomers to the concept. At the same time, we’ll be planning for future Nicaraguan workshops to supplement the Lean materials previously introduced to our partners. Lean is a subject matter entirely unto itself, but to strategize its absorption and practice by rural farmers (many of whom have received little or no formal education) adds a dimension of difficulty requiring Lean knowledge as well as sophisticated teaching skills. Finally, Rene will travel to the east coast, there to spend time with Equal Exchange, a cooperative of widespread renown and which strives for mutually beneficial relationships in all of its dealings. After an entire week of whirlwind experiences, Rene will head back to Nicaragua with a wide range of new experiences and potential strategies, in addition to a need for some rest!
The prospect of Rene’s activities during that week is exciting for him as the main participant, exciting for his WPF colleagues due to the possibilities that such exposures might bring to our development work and exciting to our rural partners who have come to recognize the wide range of enterprise education that exists, and how that might contribute to elevating their circumstances. The scenario represents “education on steroids,” where practical training meets actual needs, and in real time.
The point of all this is simply that none of us can ever afford to stop the learning, the teaching, the mentoring, the sharing, the growing that lies within us. We are all purveyors. We are creatures who possess not only the capacity for development, but the need for it, as well. Our health, well-being and futures depend upon our openness to it.
In another week, there will be at least one sojourner here who will carry a big load, as a significant pivot for Nicaraguans in need of some friendly leverage….
There’s no question but that the modest beginning undertaken by Harold and Louise Nielsen has evolved into something broader and deeper than a funding mechanism for poor Nicaraguan peasants. Yes, the grants and loans have been exceedingly important to those rural recipients who received them. But the lessons embedded in those transactions and the fruits which have blossomed from them may hold a much greater value than the strictly financial one. The impacts can be transformational, and that has the potential to change not only lives, but ways of life.
Looking forward to the next ten years has both precedence and importance. Years ago, Harold and Louise envisioned a foundation that would somehow help to alleviate poverty and marginalization of rural Nicaraguans. WPF has likely evolved in ways far different from that initial vision, but the shape of that initial dream has been the base upon which any good results stand. Nonetheless, it can be dangerous to attempt prognostications. (I cannot even make a fair prediction about my day tomorrow, let alone a look into the future of a people and their country.) No one can ever say for certain what the future will hold, whether in terms of natural evolution or human interventions. But not to dream is a missed opportunity, a failure to imagine better circumstances for the rural poor in Nicaragua and perhaps elsewhere.
What lies ahead? Our dreams and discussions continue around the idea of a Synergy Center in Nicaragua, a site in Managua which is the intersection among WPF, Nicaraguan development and an education entity from the U.S. The Synergy Center concept presents a progressive opportunity for a U.S.-based education institution to become the owner and administrator of a facility that can utilize data and experiences for the real-life learning of its students, as well as for other international visitors seeking to understand and bridge the immense gaps between the Global North and South, for mutual global benefit. It’s a notion that is bold in light of the frequent tendency of education entities to “pull back” in times of global and economic unrest, the very times when this very sort of personal education presents perhaps the only realistic means of addressing such gaps. It’s a big initiative for a little foundation, but that is not likely to have stopped Harold and Louise.
The creation of the Synergy Center would represent a significant boost to education development within Nicaragua, as well. While the Foundation has funded scholarships for elementary to university-aged students, we will continue to seek additional bridges between opportunity and learning. The path for rural Nicaraguans to move from poverty is located squarely within education. The Foundation’s commitment to growing such opportunities was born of Louise Nielsen’s determination that young women, in particular, could become key resources to Nicaraguan society through their education; our continuation will be based on objective data that confirms the essential nature of improved education opportunities at all levels of society. The Synergy Center can serve as one education “pivot” between Global North and South, an intersection of research and education between the regions.
Concurrent with the establishment of the Synergy Center, the Foundation dreams of collaborations which could bridge the gaps that exist among the various funding agencies which still operate in Nicaragua. We are all still victims of our own thinking in terms of what Nicaraguans can accomplish and how they will accomplish it. As a result, there are many development resources which operate in total independence from one another, and sometimes even at cross-purposes. As is true for any organization, there is greater strength in numbers and collaboration, a truth which still represents a major hurdle for those of us who operate in Nicaragua. In a curious conundrum, it’s another potential value of a Synergy Center, but only if WPF and other organizations would be willing to abandon a “not invented here” mindset and choose to collaborate and learn with one another.
My own background includes experiences with some of the most important tools for transforming organizations into higher-performing enterprises. Cultivation of organizational transparency (Open Book Management) in the cooperative’s function and adoption of methodologies which cultivate continuing improvement (Lean Methodologies) are two concepts that will generate transcendent, positive change in both the businesses and the lives of their practitioners. It’s a movement whose seeds have been planted, and whose harvest needn’t wait for ten more years. And I can readily imagine rural Nicaraguan cooperatives embracing and applying the tools for themselves as a means to retain the ownership and value of the lands they tend.
Finally, the future must hold one additional achievement, this one perhaps more essential, more transformative, more vital to development of the rural poor (and therefore to the success of WPF) than any of the others. It’s the awakening of the global conscience to the circumstances of the poor and the terrible costs that we all pay for their plight. Even if we collectively have no empathy for those who struggle (a terrible supposition by itself), we are inextricably tied to their outcomes. It’s a sobering prospect to consider. Those who know and feel it have an exclusive obligation to educate, to touch, to move others who have had no personal connection to draw upon. That work, too, will continue to be mission and vision of WPF.
The next ten years will pass by like the flash of lightning in a summer storm. We know this, given the passage of the past ten years. It is a short term in which to create truly transformative movement in any environment, even shorter when working abroad. Our aim will continue to be improvement in Nicaraguan and North American lives, by helping people in both lands become more globally literate.
These are visions for WPF, not roadmaps. Our fuel for change continues to be made up of capital and accompaniment. But we will also continue to remind ourselves that better circumstances do not imply greater monetary wealth only. Indeed, as the adage goes, some people are so poor that all they have is money, and we know that we can aim higher than that….
We received a project proposal a few days ago, this one from one of our longer-standing partners. It’s a cooperative that we have admired for its vision, its holistic approach to the well-being of its members and the progressive leadership of its president. They plan and act in ways that strengthen their cooperative as well as the communities in which their members are located. In addition to being a reliable loan partner, the have served as a model, of sorts, to less developed coops who wonder what a strong cooperative really looks like. We hold a great deal of respect for what they have accomplished, against long odds, and for what they aspire to do in the future: yes, they plan strategically.
When I read the project proposal, I once again noted all of the strengths which drew us to them initially. But I also noted the frequency with which the charismatic president of the coop was mentioned: in addition to the entire introductory section of the proposal being essentially about him, he was also referenced five other times as an initiator of something good in the cooperative. Clearly, his humility notwithstanding, he is an important guy within the context of the coop.
His prominence in the proposal gives me pause, however. As essential and visionary as he has been to the success of this group, I wonder about the longer-term effectiveness of his contributions. Without question, he is one of the broadest-thinking leaders I’ve had the pleasure to come across in my travels within Nicaragua. Without doubt, he has carried the progress of the coop on his diminutive shoulders. But without succession, whenever he ceases to lead, all of his organizational ingenuity is likely to become little more than an aftermath, as opposed to a true legacy.
Despite all of the good things going on here, I’m particularly concerned for the future of this coop. Ironically, the very strength of the coop- its leader- also may be its biggest liability. The members’ reliance on their president creates a dependency that will be difficult to manage once their leader is gone. It’s one of the most noticeable challenges encountered in organizational development: balancing the high impacts of a great leader with the need to institutionalize the good things he/she has brought about. As the adage goes, not all of one’s eggs should be in but one basket.
As it’s difficult to argue with success, a leader’s recognition of the need to develop the next generation of capable and caring leadership is often subjugated in importance. The successful leader becomes so engrossed in creating new and successful ideas that there is little time for cultivating the same skills in others. Sometimes the lack of development stems from a “messiah complex,” an ego in the leader which is convinced that there is no one else capable of governing as well. Sometimes it’s purely a perception of too little time. It might be a fear of creating capabilities in others which may eclipse those of the current leader. Or it may be a lack of certainty about how to develop those characteristics in another, a view that prospective successors either “have got it” or they don’t. Whatever the reason, effective succession is the most frequent cause of once-strong entities becoming weak. It’s as true in Nicaragua as it is in the United States. All the greatness of a transformational leader becomes but an historical footnote if he/she has not prioritized succession as the most important piece of his/her legacy. It’s the difference between giving a fish versus teaching to fish.
The good news here is that this leader, among his other strengths, indicates that he sees the critical need for this development in his organization. He has asked for help in addressing how to create future, holistic visionaries from a population limited in education and leadership experience. (This is not hard for him to imagine, as he is limited in his own ability to read or write.) He has begun to avail himself of tools that can develop such succession thinking, in the form of Open Book Management techniques and Lean Process Improvement methodologies. He acknowledges both the organizational importance and potential detriment of his role as a high-impact leader of the organization. These are crucial first steps in a very difficult balance in protecting both the current and future states of the coop, which already exists in a context of significant and sudden changes, whether natural or man-made.
For Winds of Peace, making a loan to an organization which presents reasonable capacity for repayment is relatively simple. A group that is blessed with strong and visionary leadership is more difficult to find. But an organization that recognizes the essential need for excellent next-generation leadership is the difference between a cooperative of the moment and a transformational legacy for the future….
LEAN: a method for improving businesses and cooperatives
René Mendoza V., Steve Sheppard and Mark Lester*
We are not ants that come in and only take a grain of sand, carry it, pile it up and dig a hole. We come in, we take the grain of sand, we carry it, we pile it up and we have the capacity to ask, “How can I do it better?” And we build an excavator. (P. Akers, 2 Second Lean, 2012: 132)
The Lean model (The Toyota Way) helped Japan recover after the Second World War and become part of the club of countries called developed countries. Since this “automobile revolution”, the Lean model has been successfully applied to different sectors of the economy, types of businesses and organizations around the world. If “Open Books Management” (see: http://www.peacewinds.org/open-book-innovation-in-business/ ) provides a perspective for making businesses transparent and having a circular organizational structure, Lean provides a framework and tools for innovating. Here we summarize them, provide possible applciations from the agrarian sector, and we conclude on the importance of reading it from the culture itself for expanding human capacities.
Origin and concepts
Ideas from the business side seeking productivity and quality, and ideas from the social side with research and participatory action contributed to what later would become the Lean model. W. Shewhart in 1924 proposed the use of the “statistical control of processes” to statistically observe the yield of the entire production process and not just the result. K. Lewin in 1946 proposed participatory research action where the people involved would analyze their reality and transform it; in organizations, the people affected by qualified changes have the primary responsibility in deciding on the improvements that have to be made in the business. Based on these contributions, in the 1950s and 1960s E. Deming proposed the circle plan-do-verify-act: improving the quality process from the beginning, recognizing leaders with their differentiated skills, cultivating confidence in order to gain efficiency and effectiveness, erasing barriers between departments, educating in the work for self improvement, and organizing to transform the organization.
On this basis the Lean model developed four concepts, each of which readily lends itself to an agricultural setting (see: Liker, J. K., 2004, The Toyota Way. 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer). The first is that the decisions be based on a long term philosophy, at the expense of what might happen with the short term financial objectives. The perspective is about improving the lives of the clients and making their own members grow, and through that emphasis growing a healthy business that would be profitable. The second is the process of creating continuous flow in the entire production chain so that problems might come to the surface and thus be identified and addressed (e.g. overproduction, excess handling and inventory, dead time where someone is not working or clients are waiting, underuse of the talent of the staff). Lean creates a culture of stopping to solve problems instead of waiting until the end of the process, and of standardizing improvements. The third is continuous evolution of the people, of leaders creating a long term culture, one of continuous improvement, utilizing errors in order to learn and teach, and of respect for the extended network of members and providers (“extended enterprise”), challenging them and helping them to improve. The fourth concept is teaching the tools of problem solving (organizational learning), giving importance to the data as indicators of what is happening, but making decisions going to the events themselves and understanding the context in which they happen and the nature of the problem.
The Vice President of Lexus, Japan summarized this different way of working like this: “The most important thing for Toyota are the people. We get involved in teaching and training, and we build a culture of continuous improvement. We are not concerned about the next hybrid, the next engineering marvel, not even the next sales strategy. Our number one concern is forming our people and building a culture of continuous improvement.” And that importance transcends factories and fields and offices everywhere.
Shaking the agrarian tree
Lean emerged in the automobile industry and has been applied more in factories, including plants processing cheese, chocolate and vegetables. But it has been demonstrated to have the same high impact in any other work settings, because the concept is based on the fact that all work- of whatever sort- is a series of processes. How can Lean be adapted to small farming production in Central America? The first thing is building a long term culture based on an aspiration of interconnected farms, with a perspective of productive chains and diversified and sustainable systems whose center are the families themselves. Then, in this perspective, identifying and fighting waste: planning the production supply not according to the moon, but to the demand (e.g. harvesting beans every month of the year in accordance with climatic-soil variations, investment in irrigation and organization of the actors in the bean chain; likewise in products like corn, plaintains, honey, milk, passion fruit, meat or eggs); making intelligent investments (e.g. instead of each company and each cooperative having a dry mill that costs more than a half million dollars, cultivating relationships of trust with the owners of the already existing mills, and establishing relations based on standards for the control of coffee weight and quality). Then, that this process be undergoing continuous improvement in its very details, for example, instead of increasing productive yields based on applying chemical inputs, calculating yield in the entire chain and developing relationships with the coffee harvesters so that not even one bean is lost in the soil, regulating the huller so that coffee beans are not broken, having adequate drying screens without holes to prevent coffee beans from falling through while drying them on the farm, making organic fertilizer from the pulp, keeping coffee beans from being left on the patios of the dry mills, roasting-grinding and packaging coffee specifically for niche markets. Finally, doing everything just in time to achieve product quality, and in each part maintaining records to analyze them jointly with the actors and improving them. Make the chain a space for organizational learning.
From the culture itself
The Lean model is not a magical recipe, but a reference point for any organization – business, cooperative, NGO and any type of institution – and for any family. All of us want to continuously improve the activity that we are involved in, which is why identifying the waste and doing away with activities that do not create value give us more life. Nevertheless, not all of us want to grow in the way that is “in style”: growing in areas of land at the cost of dispossessing peasant and indigenous families of their land; increasing the yield of the crops at the cost of producing more greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) that speed up climate change. Instead of “bigger is better”, the notion of decreasing is growing: focusing on the people and on their repossession processes, developing a culture of learning to innovate continuously in each detail. Correspondingly, subtracting is more than adding; if each day we save two seconds in the activity in which we are involved, we are making each process simpler, in just two seconds! How much time would we save in a year?
The human goal is changing the world for the better. Money is a means and will be multiplied if we do not lose our long term perspective, in that our concern “is forming our people and building a culture of continuous improvement” to the point of asking ourselves: how can we do it better? How can we reduce or eliminate barriers and thus improve the return on our work? More than “excavators” we are committed to building a culture of a better life.
* René Mendoza (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a PhD in development studies, a collaborator of the Winds of Peace Foundation (WPF) (http://peacewinds.org/research/), associate researcher of IOB-University of Antwerp (Belguim) and of the Nitlapan-UCA Research and Development Institute (Nicaragua). Steve Sheppard, current director of WPF, was the manager of the Foldcraft corporation owned by its 350 employees. Mark Lester is the director of WPF in Nicaragua and of the Center for Global Education and Experience of Augsburg College.