Turning an (Almost) Impossible Goal into Concrete and Solvable Problems

King County has set an ambitious goal: end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. It’s a really big, audacious goal. This year, there will be an estimated 1,100 homeless veterans who will need assistance to exit homelessness in King County. Many of these veterans have low income or no income and King County’s roaring housing market limits access to available rentals.


But goals are only meaningful—useful—if they drive improvement. That’s kinda the point: we set goals to signal where we want to arrive, and also to help us identify how we’re going to get there, what’s in our way, what needs to change, and what doesn’t really matter.

“If we keep doing business as usual, we’ll keep housing as usual,” says Dawn Barrett, who leads the effort to end veteran homelessness for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services. Housing as usual looks like this:

burn down chart

That’s impressive. More than 700 homeless veterans moved into permanent housing in nine months. Not quite on pace to make the goal, but very close. And even closer if King County could only create available and affordable housing for existing “shoppers,” homeless veterans actively seeking housing with a resource in hand to support paying for it (such as a Section 8 voucher or other subsidy).

Of course, that’s a lot more complicated than it could and should be. In a recent employee profile, here’s what Barrett said was the biggest challenge in her work:

It is difficult to navigate the more than 180 government, non-profit and private sector programs dedicated to serving veterans and their families living in King County. The variety of policies and processes governed by complex rules, regulations, eligibility, mission, accessibility, geography and choice are overwhelming and at times seem counterintuitive to the mission of serving Veterans and their Families in the fewest steps. The lack of a technological solution to assist with the matching of a Veteran or Family member’s needs to specific and available resources is extremely challenging.

Nonetheless, Barrett and her team (Project Managers Laird Redway, Donal Markey, and Gretchen Bruce) think the big, audacious goal can be achieved. Doing so, Barrett explains, will require changing how the county and the many other governments and community stakeholders work together and work with veterans.

In other words, achieving the great big audacious goal means breaking it down to a bunch of smaller, identifiable and (eventually) solvable problems. Here’s what that looks like:

Identifying problems and countermeasures

What might have seemed impossible and messy and hidden is now manageable and clear and visible, even if concrete solutions don’t yet exist for all problems.

That’s a good thing! We can’t take action to address problems if we can’t admit we have problems in the first place.

The team is trying to solve those “red” problems, of course. They just don’t yet have actionable plans for solving them. (One Lean mantra is “we don’t know how to do that yet.”) Identifying opportunities for improvement (“the problem”) is one of the first steps in problem solving.

Barrett herself says that ending veteran homelessness is the sort of thing that “they don’t teach in school.” It is an unfathomable problem that the team has whittled down to a number of discrete and solvable problems in order to create a systematic rapid response to prevent homelessness whenever possible, and to quickly identify veterans who have become homeless and rapidly assist them back into permanent housing.

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