Rebuilding Homes and Disaster Recovery Processes

When the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina receded around New Orleans, they revealed unimaginable destruction and a traditional disaster recovery process that was Byzantine, costly, and far too long for victims who just wanted to get home as soon as possible.

Getting Home, published by the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, is the inspiring story of a defense lawyer and a school teacher who left their careers to rebuild homes for desperate survivors but wound up reconstructing the entire process for rebuilding after disasters. Authors Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg describe how SBP, the disaster relief nonprofit they founded, partnered with Toyota to apply the lean principles of the Toyota Production System to rebuild homes and lives following hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods throughout the U.S. and its territories.

The book also details innovative new ways based on lean thinking for how private industry, relief agencies, volunteers, and all levels of government can work together to dramatically shrink the lead time between when disasters hit and when victims get home in a prompt, efficient, and predictable way.

Lean Enterprise Institute Communications Director Chet Marchwinski recently talked with Zack about disaster recovery. Here’s an excerpt, edited for length:

Q: What’s the problem with the existing traditional disaster recovery process?
Zack: Before we talk about the problem with disaster recovery, I think it’s important to put it in context about why every American should care. The National Weather Service said that during this flood season over 200 million homes are at risk of catastrophic flooding in relation to the Mississippi River flooding and the storms that are predicted to come.

Last year 50 percent of American counties were impacted by a federally declared natural disaster. In Houston, 70 percent of the homes that flooded after Hurricane Harvey were not in a required flood insurance zone.

Disaster recovery in America needs to be improved because it doesn’t measure what matters. Outputs aren’t measured. What happens, unfortunately, is a focus on compliance and process. For a host of reasons in disaster recovery, success is measured by have you followed the process.

Q: The process for tearing down homes, applying for money, getting relief?
Zack: All the above. There are a lot of government funds involved, and there must be compliance and there can’t be waste. We believe that the federal systems need to put an equal emphasis on outcomes and outputs as there is on ensuring that our taxpayer dollars are stewarded properly.

Q: Getting Home is a great story. It’s inspiring, but it’s not a feel-good book. You’ve got a nine-step process on how government, relief agencies, and charities can work better together.

Zack: Hopefully, it’s a story that gives people hope about what they can do themselves. It shows the true American connectivity that folks will help folks they’ve never met before.

It’s a book that citizens, business leaders, government employees can have as a roadmap towards how to drive impact and change and improvement wherever they work and wherever they live. We see this as a feel-good business book.

We want this book to go to business schools, to graduate programs, undergraduate programs and to make it into boardrooms of both for-profit companies and nonprofit companies. We think some of the lessons that we share about investing in people, having an identity at work, and certainly the Toyota Production System piece of understanding whether you are ahead or behind, and how to talk about problems — these can be applied to anything, not just the disaster world.

Q: You work with a lot of volunteers from AmeriCorps, so your workforce is literally turning over every so many days. You had to come up with a way to train people and bring them up to speed.

Zack: Whether it’s our one-day or one-week volunteers, an AmeriCorps program that stays for six weeks, or an AmeriCorps program that stays for 10 months, we have quite a bit of turnover. We could either be held captive by that turnover, or we could leverage it. We try and see it as an asset.

Q: SBP is certainly making an impact on improving disaster recovery. Why don’t you tell folks how they can get involved with SBP?

Zack: Thanks. We are building in 10 communities across the country, including Puerto Rico and Texas, Florida, the Carolinas. You can come out and volunteer.

Second, we need donations. People can invest and those dollars will go directly to helping American families move home.

Third, we have resources that help folks understand and mitigate risk for businesses. You can learn more at

To Do:
Get inspired while getting improvement ideas from SBP’s proven methods for people management, continuous improvement, and developing a respectful, problem-solving culture based on values. Get a copy of Getting Home:

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