By Dave Overfelt

Lean Six Sigma was created for and popularized by the manufacturing industry and has spread to other major industries over time. 

There are plenty of resources out there for understanding Lean Six Sigma, here we help you apply it at your nonprofit. Lean Six Sigma for nonprofits can help improve your performance and outcomes.

Minimize Waste with Lean

Whatever you are doing, whether creating products or delivering services, you can reduce waste! Lean draws your attention to the 8 Deadly Wastes with the acronym “DOWNTIME”. Don’t worry too much about whether or not these feel like they fit what you do, the point of the acronym is to point you in the direction of areas where waste tends to arise.

 Download our DOWNTIME Quick Reference 


The things you are making or the services you are delivering don’t work like they should. Think broadly about “defective” services. Things don’t have to be totally broken before you try to improve! Are your volunteers, staff, and clients satisfied with the services you are delivering? Are you achieving the expected short, medium, and long term outcomes?


You made more things or delivered more services than you really need to deliver. This may sound funny from a service delivery perspective but it still fits! If you need to meet a goal for a grant, for instance, it is good to exceed your goal but exceeding that goal by a huge margin may not accomplish anything useful for you. The time you poured into delivering those few extra services could have gone into developing a bigger grant application, scouting for a major donor, or setting up a bigger fundraising event! Are you delivering the services you need to achieve your required goals and your mission?


This is time spent trying to get a shipment ready or a service delivered. Waiting can come from many angles. You could be waiting for a new programmatic staff member to be hired and trained, waiting for clients or volunteers to provide information you need to start delivering services, waiting for a funding organization to respond to your application, or waiting for partners to decide if they will work with you. Some of this is going to be out of your control, of course, but you should pay attention and track all of this information in order to make better decisions in the future! If a funding organization or volunteer is too slow and impedes your ability to achieve your mission, you should consider looking elsewhere for funding and support.

Not Utilizing Talent

Not utilizing talent is one of the most destructive things your organization can do! It is essential that you have the right people in the right place. You don’t have to wait for the right talent to just show up and start helping. Rather, you should be creating the talent you want. Creating and implementing professional development plans for all your staff not only increases staff knowledge and ability, it increases employee engagement and contributes to a culture of innovation. Are your staff engaged with the organization?


This is about moving products or staff around more than necessary. If you are located in one city but your services are primarily delivered 30 miles away in another city, it might be worth considering relocation!


Inventory excess is focused on whether or not you have too much stuff. For someone delivering services, the easiest place to start looking for excess inventory is around the office. Are there too many computers or printers? Do you have more office supplies than you will use in the next decade? Are you paying for a storage unit to hold on to things that never get used?


Here the goal is to draw attention to the movement of people. Again, it is likely going to be easiest to start with a close look around the office. Do you have staff that frequently print materials and then have to walk halfway across the office to pick it up? Are you driving back and forth all over town for meetings when you could organize visits in a more efficient pattern?

Excess Processing

Focusing on the steps it takes to get to a finished product or service. If you recruit volunteers that are required to complete paperwork, check for duplicated items in the forms. Once the forms come to your office, do they go directly to the person that processes them or do the forms wander from person to person?

It may be that you can’t eliminate some of these wastes but it never hurts to think about where you are wasting time and energy! Compounded over time, little wasted steps amount to a lot of wasted effort and resources.