Becoming a Lean Practitioner during COVID-19 – Systems Biology Ireland (SBI)

By Maryann Kelly,  Systems Biology Ireland

On February 5, 2020, a group of four from Systems Biology Ireland (SBI) began our Agile LEAN Yellow Belt project with a full day workshop on the UCD Campus. Our group included Maryann Kelly, Susan Yeates, Jessica Ralston and Shauna Byrne, all operations and administrative staff members in SBI. We decided to go for the Yellow Belt certification together under a united project of improving our current new staff induction process, and I’m so glad we did.

Once we had the training under our belts (no pun intended), we began weekly meetings in our office to map out a game plan for the coming weeks. Even in February, we still had no idea how real the implications of COVID-19 would be on our daily working lives in Ireland. But, as we started writing our BOSCARD and organising  a survey and a focus group, it soon became apparent we might need to ready ourselves for the worst.

Obviously, we were all sent home from March 12 for an indefinite “lockdown” period. We knew we would be able to continue our weekly meetings remotely, and emailing out surveys was no issue, but how do you manage a focus group over Zoom?  How can you motivate a group to speak up and really engage in discussion when we’re not even in the same county?

Firstly, we prepared as much as we could during our weekly remote meetings. We decided who would speak, who would take notes, and who would keep time. Delegating these tasks and practicing beforehand make our focus group meeting more efficient. 

Then, on the day, we tried to keep it casual and fun. We talked briefly to our group about our problem statement and then we opened up the floor to them with a round of the Five Whys and then an Anti-solution exercise. Both of these tools loosened everyone up and helped our focus group to feel comfortable saying anything that came into their heads. Once we had a healthy discourse going, the ideas really took shape.

Secondly, we did not rely solely on talking or slides to aid the process – we were also able to use a digital whiteboard from that was hugely helpful. Olga in Agile had recommended this program to us and we found it invaluable, not only during the focus group but also during some of our own Yellow Belt group meetings. In the absence of sticking real-life notes on a wall, was very helpful to all of us as we narrowed in on our solutions.

Once we put in the preliminary research and really dug to the root of the problem, we spent several weeks redesigning our staff induction process from the bottom up. This included completely re-writing our extensive Induction Guide and adding very detailed checklists for supervisors and new staff to complete. In spite of our remote locations, we worked very closely on the content and look of these documents, updating versions on Google drive and critiquing them during our weekly Zoom conference calls. Once we completed the guide and checklists, we were ready to see how well they worked in real time.

But the other roadblock that COVID-19 presented in our project was simply that we were not in the office to test it out. We did not have many new staff starting in our centre and we could not be there in person to go through the new protocols we had set up. Our project deadline was at the end of May, so we had to get creative. We consulted with Agile, who let us extend our deadline a bit, and we followed up our first survey with a second. While our first survey had exclusively asked established staff members how their induction experience had been, the second survey, accompanied by our new induction guide, asked established staff members to rate how they felt their experience would have been, or how an incoming staff person’s experience might be in future, based on our changes. It was not a perfect solution, but it did give us insights to finish our project with confidence.

As a final step, we presented our project, our findings, and our new induction process plan to the centre in one of SBI’s weekly seminars, which had also moved online in the interim. We have been gratified by the overall response from the SBI staff, which has been very positive regarding our project and our newly implemented changes to the induction process.

We believe that, in spite of the lockdown and all these months of working from home, we have been able to build a new process in SBI that will work efficiently and effectively for years to come, both in person and remotely.