IRB goes Lean to cope with demands of new refugee law

Excerpt from the Ottawa Citizen Article on Monday September 17th.

The federal government’s overhaul of Canada’s refugee determination system is driving the Immigration and Refugee Board to embrace business efficiency practices pioneered six decades ago by Japanese automaker Toyota.

Ahead of the expected December implementation of the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, the IRB is turning to “Lean” processes that it hopes will enable it to deal with refugee applications and appeals much more expeditiously.

The new law imposes tight statutory time frames for the board to hear and decide applications and appeals. Whereas it now takes an average of 19 months for the IRB’s refugee protection division to complete an initial hearing, the revised system requires that to be done within 30 to 60 days.

For those whose claims are denied, a new refugee appeal division must hear cases within 60 to 90 days, and reach decisions in as little as 30 days. Further complicating the IRB’s task is a backlog of more than 38,000 refugee claims it has yet to deal with.

“Compliance with these time frames requires the IRB to transform the way it operates so that it can hear and decide refugee claims and appeals much faster that is currently the case,” the board says in an email, adding that a Lean transformation is “particularly appropriate for an organization undergoing fundamental change.”

In a nutshell, Lean practices identify and eliminate all activities in a process that don’t add value for the intended customer. The result can be dramatic improvements in efficiency.

The IRB started down the Lean road in late 2010 following passage of an earlier government initiative, the Balance Refugee Reform Act. Earlier this month, spurred on by the latest reforms, it advertised for a consultant to “facilitate Lean business process improvements.”

The goal, the IRB said, is to “yield a sustainable refugee determination process that will meet the legislated timelines while ensuring that cases are dealt with efficiently, fairly and in accordance with the law.”

While Lean practices are still relatively rare in Canada’s public sector, they are becoming more common as government departments and agencies grapple with shrinking resources coupled with steady or growing demand for services.

Canada Post adopted Lean nearly two decades ago and the Royal Canadian Mint has been doing the same for nearly a decade. The Export Development Corporation and Passport Canada are also on a Lean diet.

But the Canadian leader in Lean is the government of Saskatchewan. After the Lean approach saved millions of dollars and cut wait times for treatment in the province’s health-care system, Premier Brad Wall expanded the initiative to all government ministries in 2010. Earlier this year, he even appointed a cabinet minister, Nancy Heppner, with specific responsibility for the Lean initiative.

Despite their roots in manufacturing, Lean ideas are readily transferable to any public sector process that involves multiple steps, says Mike Miles, director of the MBA program at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.

“Any approach that forces people to sit down and ask themselves the question, ‘Where are we wasting time, money and energy,’ that’s a good process,” he says.

At the Mint, Lean practices cut the time to develop a new product in half, doubled the throughput of coins in some areas and simplified many steps and processes. Lean also helped the Mint transform a $3-million loss in 2003 into a record $68-million profit in 2009.