‘Just-in-time’ car manufacturing system helps Solihull find foster carers

Solihull Council has turned to principles used by Japanese car manufacturers to improve its recruitment of foster carers. Julie Griffiths reports

Mark Rogers: Japanese car production model contained lessons for foster care recruitment (pic Simon Hadley/UNP)

Solihull Council has turned to principles used by Japanese car manufacturers to improve its recruitment of foster carers. Julie Griffiths reports

What’s the difference between the Japanese car industry and children’s social services? Not much as it turns out. By applying the principles used by Japanese car manufacturers, Solihull Council has discovered it can replicate their efficiencies and success.

Though adopting technologies developed by companies including Toyota to the recruitment of foster carers, the council has achieved impressive outcomes. It has halved the length of time it takes to recruit a foster carer from 12 months to six. And it has nearly doubled the number of foster carers it recruits each year from an average of seven to an average of 13.5. In reducing its reliance on the independent sector for taking placements, it saved £1.6m.

Before the changes began at the end of 2006, the cost of placements was becoming unsustainable.

Council chief executive Mark Rogers helped develop the process when director of children’s services at the council before moving up to his current role: “We have a large number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children and they double our care population. Since 2005, we’ve seen a big increase in demand that has had to be met through independent placements,” he says.

But that came at high price. The cost of placements provided by the local authority was £15,500 over a year compared with an annual cost of nearly £40,000 in the independent sector.

The solution came in the form of “lean systems thinking”, an approach invented by the Japanese car industry in the 1950s which has since been honed in the following decades. The principles are to design and manage a system by maximising value and minimising waste.

At Solihull, they began the process by calling in Lean Transformation Consulting It began with the children’s services team mapping out the current processes for recruiting foster carers on a wall. This enabled them to see what they did at a glance, allowing any anomalies to be identified, which could be stripped away.

“They could see where there was duplication or practices that had crept in that were not statutory and not in any guidance,” says Rogers, who was director of children’s services at the time.

For example, they realised that applicants for foster caring had their information checked by two or three people. So this was changed to one person.

And they saw that having Criminal Record Bureau checks at the end of the process meant some candidates went through 12 months of assessments before the CRB findings revealed they were unsuitable for foster caring. So, now, the CRB check is done at the start.

Rogers says it was important that the team identified the changes to ensure ownership: “It’s not someone coming in from outside and doing it to them.”

There were no redundancies, but it was an emotional journey for many staff, all the same (see box). It took 4-6 weeks to redesign the system and, to ensure focus, staff were removed from 75% of their day-to-day activities. A rota ensured services continued during the redesign period.

Since the changes, other parts of the council have adopted the same approach. In 2009-10, it saved £9m. It has set up another 30-40 reviews across the organisation and expects to save £2.4m in 2011-12.

And in the foster team, the savings have continued. In the first six months of this year, they had already recruited 10 foster carers. Rogers says he is delighted: “Toyota has been doing this for 45 years or more and we are only starting out on the journey so it’s early days for us. But it’s been transformational.”

Staff’s emotional response

Mark Rogers describes staff’s changing emotions during the redesign

“At the start, you see quite a lot of scepticism and people thinking: ‘This is for motor manufacturing; it’s got nothing to do with children’s services’.

“Then they have a burst of excitement as they map things out and see the possibilities.

“After that, they think: ‘Look at all the things we have been doing. We must have been really rubbish. I didn’t realise we were this bad’. They feel really fed-up.

“In the final stage, when they turn it into what they want for the future, they get excited again about the new model and how they can put it into place.”

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