28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
News coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrinas devastation of New Orleans in Septem-
ber 2005 beamed unforgettable images of horror
around the globe.
Desperate residents were trapped on the roofs of
their homes by rising flood waters. Thousands more
were jammed into the stiing hot Louisiana Superdome with
limited access to water, food or sanitation. Bodies were seen
floating through the streets of an American city. Those images
soon sparked worldwide relief efforts and donations of materials
and money from people eager to ease the city’s suffering.
Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg saw the same scenes
and also were inspired to help. But their efforts changed their
lives, and in doing so, improved the lives of hundreds affected
by Katrina and many storms that followed.
McCartney, a middle school teacher, and Rosenburg, a pub-
lic defense attorney, were living in Washington when Katrina
struck the U.S. Gulf Coast. Six months later, they headed to
New Orleans to volunteer and found a city still in shambles,
with destroyed houses overcome by mold and residents des-
perate for government assistance that was slow to arrive. More
than 1,500 people had died while survivors still were trying to
recover from floods that had left 80% of the city underwater.
After volunteering where they could, McCartney and
Rosenburg took the next giant step: Moving to New Orleans
to coordinate efforts to rebuild houses and help residents ap-
ply for federal aid. That became the St. Bernard Project, now
SBP, a nonprofit that over time expanded to provide relief for
victims of other natural disasters in the U.S. and Caribbean.
As soon as it’s safe, and it’s the right fit for us, we’re going to
get in there and get in on the ground,” Rosenburg said of his
groups mission in a recent interview with ISE.
To work more effectively, they learned how to streamline
their operations from Toyota Production System professionals
who brought to SBP the concepts of industrial and systems en-
gineering, lean and continuous improvement. Those processes
showed SBP leaders how to rebuild homes faster and more ef-
ficiently and make full use of the resources available through
grants, insurance and fundraising. They turned a workforce of
volunteers into a trained team of achievers able to pass on their
newfound knowledge to those who followed. And they remain
willing to share their best practices with other agencies to bring
relief to disaster victims more effectively.
McCartney and Rosenburg chronicled their journey in
a book, Getting Home, released in 2019, which takes read-
ers through their early days in New Orleans, their work with
Toyota engineers and SBPs growth into the large-scale relief
agency it has become.
Learning their way in the ‘hippie tent
That journey began when McCartney and Rosenburg first ar-
rived in New Orleans to find a ragtag relief effort of volunteers
with little coordination or leadership. In the city’s St. Bernard
Parish, 25,000 homes, or 95%, were severely damaged.
They settled in with an eclectic group of free spirits called
the Rainbow Family – as recounted in the book, “A teacher
and a lawyer walk into a hippie tent” – serving meals to dis-
placed residents. They listened to stories of anguish and felt
victims’ frustration as the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly.
In the book and in an episode of Problem Solved: The IISE
Podcast, McCartney talked about one resident, an octogenarian
military veteran they called “Mr. Andre,” who was living day
to day and sleeping in his car while awaiting federal aid.
This gentleman was so proud, had various pins on his cap
from civic and veterans’ organizations he was part of,” Mc-
Cartney recalled. “We would sit at meals and he would talk
about why he cared so much about moving back to the com-
munity that had been devastated. It wasnt until about the end
Rebuilding homes and lives with
an automaker’s advice
Toyota methods helped New Orleans relief agency streamline its operations
By Keith Albertson
Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg were living in Washington,
D.C., when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005.
A year later, they had moved to New Orleans to set up the
nonprofit St. Bernard Project, now known as SBP, an effort that
continues to grow in size and scope.
Photo courtesy of SBP
December 2019 | ISE Magazine 29
Read the book
Liz McCartney’s and Zack Rosenburg’s book,
Getting Home: How One Question Started Our
Journey of Continuous Improvement, tells of
the origins of the St. Bernard Project and how
adopting methods from the Toyota Production
System helped improve their operations. It is
on sale through retail outlets and at the Lean
Enterprise Institute, lean.org, for $30.
Hear the podcast
Listen to Liz McCartney’s interview with Brion Hurley
of IISE’s Sustainable Development Division at
Donate or volunteer
SBP: To learn more about the organization, along with instructions on
how to volunteer or donate, visit sbpusa.org. The agency is continuing
to accept relief donations for Hurricane Dorian victims.
AmeriCorps: Founded in 1993 as a voluntary civil society program
supported by the U.S. federal government, foundations, corporations
and other donors engaging adults in public service work. For more,
visit www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps.
IISE: Attendees of the IISE Annual Conference & Expo 2020 in
New Orleans can sign up for the Sustainable Development Division’s
annual volunteer project, set for from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 29. Visit
https://link.iise.org/sustainable_annual2020 to sign up before May 15.
Learn more, find ways to help
Marsh Harbor
in the Bahamas
suffered some
of the worst
from Category 5
Hurricane Dorian
when it struck in
September 2019.
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Rebuilding homes and lives with an automaker’s advice
of the second week that he sat down, just started bawling and
said, ‘Liz, I dont understand why no one will help me.’ I didnt
know what he was talking about.
She discovered he had been trying to secure a trailer from
the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a temporary
residence but was unable to, though thousands of trailers sat
unused on a lot several miles away.
“He said, ‘I served my country and I feel people have just
walked away from us,’” McCartney said. “The hopelessness
this man was feeling. ... He was so proud to have been able to
buy a home, raise his family there and be successful, and was
at this stage in his life when he should have been enjoying his
golden years but instead, he felt like no one was paying any at-
tention to him.
“I wish I could tell you the story of Mr. Andre was unique
but the reality is that we see people reaching their breaking
point every day in disaster-impacted communities.
It was then Rosenburg saw their mission clearly, as stated in
the book: “We have to come back and do something. We cant
just leave.
The couple moved to New Orleans in 2006 and began to
meet with residents and governmental agencies to discover
why reconstruction was occurring so slowly. They learned
that the gutting and construction of damaged homes was con-
ducted in a sweeping effort rather than a systematic approach,
delaying the turnaround time for rebuilding. “This was our
rst introduction to the human toll and systematic inefficiency
that occur when fidelity to process outweighs measuring what
matters,” they wrote.
They started with a business plan to rebuild 20 houses with
$50,000 funded by the United Way of Southeast Louisiana and
got to work. They recruited staff and workers and contracted
professional electricians, plumbers, roofers and others. Boosted
by volunteers from AmeriCorps, a federally supported volun-
teer program in a partnership that continues today, they were
able to return 88 families to their homes by October 2007.
By 2011, SBP had rebuilt 100 homes per year and more than
400 in all, with a staff of 41 and managed by a board of di-
rectors. But coordinating construction needs, volunteer and
skilled labor and fundraising efforts became a mounting chal-
lenge, to the point that a building consultant said after touring
SBPs facility, “Youre a mess.
SBP crews at the time were working on 15 to 30 houses at a
time and taking an average of 116 days to complete a renova-
tion. McCartney and Rosenburg knew they could do better.
“We had lots of optimism and enthusiasm,” they wrote. “What
we did not have was a clear, workable path to improve our
“I wish we had had more business and process training be-
fore we started SBP; it would have helped us those first few
years,” McCartney said on the podcast. “A lot of it was trial by
re, a lot of learning as we go, trying to bring people into the
organization who can help us understand how to be effective
and efficient as possible.
Rosenburg agreed.
“We had plateaued, and we were not getting better,” he said.
“We had been doing it for a number of years, but improvements
were marginal rather than steep. I guess we subconsciously un-
derstood – Liz more than I did – that we just had too many jobs
going out at once and we had too much rework. ... We needed
to balance the amount of jobs we had with an ideal flow as
opposed to a max amount of jobs, period. In reality, we had a
really clunky flow.
Enter The Toyota Way: Facing problems
In the book, McCartney tells how she met Patricia Pineda, the
head of Toyota USA Foundation, at dinner one night after a
public presentation. Pineda heard of SBPs frustrations and put
McCartney in touch with the Toyota Production System Sup-
port Center, a not-for-profit organization begun by the Japa-
nese automaker to share its lean expertise with businesses and
Liz McCartney joins volunteers working on the interior of a
home rebuilding project.
Liz McCartney briefs volunteers before a home rebuilding
project in New Orleans. Five years after Hurricane Katrina
struck in 2005, the agency had helped more than 400 residents
return to their homes by 2011.
Photos courtesy of SBP
December 2019 | ISE Magazine 31
TSSCs general manager, Mark Reich, met with the board
at SBP headquarters to observe the group’s operations. He
found that its planners lacked firm schedules to determine the
status of a given home project.
“It was difficult to see where they were in the progress of
building a given home,” Reich told ISE. “It was totally invis-
ible. You couldnt see if they were what we could call ahead or
behind or the progress of trying to build homes they had on
their schedule.
After reviewing the group’s successes and seeking to iden-
tify its weak points, he asked point blank: “Do you talk about
The team did not have an easy answer.
There’s Zack nodding his head, saying ‘Yeah, yeah’ and
the rest of us were standing behind him saying ‘No, no, we
dont talk about problems,’” McCartney said.
“He said, ‘Do you talk about problems?’ and I assumed we
did,” Rosenburg said. “And the answer was we didnt because
we were so proud of our results, and compared to others, it was
good. So that was an important mindset change.
Then he asked Liz, ‘Are you ahead or behind?’ and she
said, ‘Of what?’ We werent measuring every task or goal, ev-
ery step, every day, so we couldnt possibly know. That was
extremely helpful to us.
From that point, McCartney and Rosenburg knew they
needed a critical analysis of their operations to yield better re-
“From the very beginning of that relationship, we got that
strong sense that this was going to be an uncomfortable pro-
cess, but that in order to change and get better and really meet
the needs of our communities and be a good social service
provider, we had to be willing to get uncomfortable,” Mc-
Cartney said. “I had never experienced this level of discom-
fort, but I recognized this was going to be part of the journey.
I’m so glad we were coached to embrace the discomfort.
Toyota engineer Brian Bichey became SBPs chief TSSC
adviser and helped set up a whiteboard to track the progress
of each rebuilding project. Morning meetings were held to
update work done on each home and what tasks remained.
Bichey suggested managers prioritize work by having skilled
tradespeople like electricians and plumbers finish their por-
tions first, then allow less-skilled volunteers to finish simpler
tasks and trim work.
Another Toyota engineer, Sylvester DuPree, showed SBP
construction workers how to standardize work into repeatable
segments and component elements. He helped SBP organize
its warehouse operations, adding safety as a sixth “S” to leans
5S theory of sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.
Tools and equipment were organized and labeled clearly for
use and supply request forms created. As a result, the lead time
on a home rebuilding project eventually was cut from 116 days
to 61.
“We got all kinds of reaction and response from our team,
everything from ‘I’m totally open because Im frustrated with
my workflow’ to some people who said, ‘What’s a car com-
pany going to teach us about building houses?’” McCartney
Yet Reich credits McCartney and Rosenburg for being
open to change and guiding their staff to accept critique.
“My impression from the very first meeting was that both
Zack and Liz were very open to feedback and learning, and
thats always a good start,” Reich said. “Because they were
at the top and were very aligned, it all moved pretty quick-
ly. Thats the kind of people they are. It’s pretty clear those
two leaders are invested in their corporate culture and way of
“Part of the benefit of being husband and wife and busi-
ness partners is that we can have that yin and yang, so it was
probably easier and painless,” Rosenburg said. “We listened to
each other.”
Reich, who is now a senior coach with the Lean Enterprise
Institute, also believes SBP benefited from being a young or-
ganization that wasnt locked into a corporate mindset.
“Many organizations see TPS and lean and think about
what they have to do, not the way they should have to oper-
ate,” Reich said. “Because of the nature of that organiza-
tion, the fact they were a nonprofit startup, it helps they were
fully engaged and that became their culture. They invested
in real problem-solving. They didnt just delegate but they
got involved in the details of how it was to be used in orga-
Sometimes you have to have those pain points to really ap-
preciate the guidance and support,” McCartney said. “We had
so many of those pain points by the time we met with Toyota
about five years into the organizations history. We were really
ready for change, ready to learn from people who knew a lot
more than us about how to improve our efficiency and serve
our clients better.
SBP planners work to coordinate relief efforts in the Bahamas
following Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
Photo courtesy of SBP
32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Rebuilding homes and lives with an automaker’s advice
Expanding the mission
SBPs relief efforts werent limited to New Orleans. Its man-
agers and crews deployed to help tornado victims in Joplin,
Missouri, in May 2011 and after Superstorm Sandy struck the
northeastern U.S. seaboard in 2012. SBP received funding
and hands-on support from the Greater Houston Community
Foundation and J.J. Watt, star player with the NFLs Houston
Texans, to help flood victims along Texas’ Gulf Coast follow-
ing Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
As the scope of SBPs mission grew, so did its logistic chal-
lenges. To streamline the process, it developed an integrated
model prioritizing each step in a rebuilding effort, most to be
completed before the first nail was driven.
Construction proceeded along a set timeline: foundation
work, then framing, roofs, windows, rough-in, inspections,
wall finishing, floors, finish work and final inspection. Stan-
dardizing processes made for a more orderly workflow and
allowed SBP to deploy both skilled and volunteer labor ef-
ciently in each phase of rebuilding.
When weather, seasonal limitations or other disruptions
halted work, a prebuilt section of wall, called panelized con-
struction, could be assembled in advance at the warehouse,
then later transferred to the site and installed quickly.
Another streamlining method was the creation of ready-
made toolkits with all the items needed for a specic task
and the number of workers taking part, from major com-
ponents down to masks and gloves. The kits are packaged
in advance and dropped off at a job site with everything
needed for installation, drywall, painting, flooring or inte-
rior trim work.
“If youre hanging sheetrock, for example, you include the
right number of drills and gloves, screws and other tools people
need to do sheetrock,” McCartney said. “It prevents having to
go back and forth to the warehouse or the store to get this little
widget or that little widget.
Some of these things are really pretty simple, but it was
so helpful to have all these ideas introduced into our process
that really helped to eliminate a lot of waste, eliminate a lot of
rework or having to go back out and get different supplies for a
different piece of the construction process.
Managing and training volunteers
A major challenge SBP faced was how to guide a growing but
inconsistent workforce. At times, the agency would have more
volunteers than needed for the number of home projects un-
derway; other times, enough hands werent available.
In addition to a permanent staff of about 90, many SBP
workers are AmeriCorps volunteers. Because most are students,
their ranks swell over the summer when classes are out and
drop off later in the year, creating a workforce turnover rate of
140% every 10 months.
To embrace our model, we had to see AmeriCorps mem-
bers as an asset and to turn the fact they are there for a few
months at a time into an asset and not a liability, and weve done
that,” Rosenburg said.
SBP managers decided to shape work schedules to ensure
that the right mix of jobs was available for less-skilled hands
with enough work to ensure no one was left idling at a job site.
That included coordinating work to sync with the permitting
process required by government inspectors.
McCartney attended a TSSC conference where she learned
the Toyota practice of heijunka, an effort to standardize the flow
of production.
Because we use a lot of volunteer labor, we try to make sure
we are establishing a capacity for volunteers, sort of a minimum
and maximum number of volunteers we want on any given
day,” she said. “If we have too few, it can slow down work at
houses. If we have too many, it can become an unsafe work-
site and people can be standing around wasting their time. ...
Through work with Toyota, we set up a system to make sure
we were in that min/max every day, to make sure we have the
right number at every house for the phase of construction that’s
going on.
Another key step was training staff to pass along best prac-
tices to a new group of volunteer recruits. Unlike most jobs
where employees are taught as they come on board, SBP has
SBP staff unload supplies as relief efforts begin in the Bahamas after Category 5 Hurricane Dorian devastated the islands in
September 2019.
Photos courtesy of SBP
December 2019 | ISE Magazine 33
to repeat the process with each batch of short-term workers.
Staff was trained to become TPS coaches, manuals were cre-
ated to standardize and explain processes and regular meetings
were held to bring each fresh crew up to speed. That common
set of goals and procedures then is passed down the line to all
By stressing continuous improvement at all levels, SBP lead-
ers seek to create a dynamic workforce where problems are
discussed openly and tackled head-on.
That’s what it takes to change behavior, not just with
nonprofits but in human beings in general,” McCartney said.
“Youve got to be patient. Youve got to build trust.
“People have to make it themselves. You cant make any-
one get there,” Rosenburg said. “That’s why we talk about our
values a lot. You have to create a safe space for people to talk
about problems so they dont feel they have to be perfect, and
it wouldnt have to be punitive. Youve got to create an envi-
ronment where people can talk about what’s not working and
people can intellectually understand, ‘Hey, to get better, we got
to talk about whats not working.
“You have to reinforce and reinforce and reinforce and re-
Improving while growing
The couple lists in the book what they call five interventions
aimed at finding root causes to challenges on a path toward
continuous improvement:
Rebuild houses in an innovative way
Share: Train others in their methods
Prepare: Individualized resilience and recovery training
Advise: Work with government agencies to lay a better
foundation for recovery
Advocate: Measure what matters
As they wrote in the book: “To become an organization of
problem solvers, talking about problems couldnt be merely
something that we did. It had to be part of who we are; it had
to be our identity.
“In order to change an organization and change the way you
do business, even the most basic, simple processes, youve got
to change the culture,” McCartney said. “We realized early
on that we had to become an organization that was willing to
talk about problems. Today, one of our core values is construc-
tive discontent, which means that we want our team to never
be satisfied, to always be talking about what the problems are
were facing and do it in a way that is constructive so we can get
to solutions quickly.
“We have the core belief of, if youre happy with results, the
only one ethical thing to do is to do the same thing,” Rosen-
burg said. “But if youre dissatisfied, you have to be willing to
do things differently.
By applying Toyota methods, including the “5 Whys” tool
of root cause analysis, they were able to seek countermeasures
to fix what wasnt working. They also ensured everything
pointed toward a client-focused outcome: Getting people back
into their homes as quickly as possible.
“We operated under the assumption that our customer
wanted us to build their house faster, but what our customer re-
ally wanted was to never have to come to us in the first place,
Rosenburg said. “We’re successful if we can prevent people
from needing our rebuilding work.
With a friends advice, Rosenburg began to see improve-
ment as a lifelong process, not a destination.
“If he hadnt forced me to embrace this understanding that
you never get there, it’s never over, I dont think it would have
worked,” he said. “He taught me it’s never over, you simply
never get there.
To adapt to changing needs, SBP has opened sites at the scene
of each new disaster. It currently operates in New York, New
Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Florida,
Houston and Brazoria County, Texas, and the Bahamas.
Meanwhile SBP continue to share its methods with fellow
nonprofits, government and businesses that can benefit from
what it has learned, a concept known in Japanese as yokoten,
the sharing of ideas within a company. Unlike a competitive
business eager to keep its methods secret, SBP willingly passes
on its best practices to the agencies it works alongside, all with
the same goal: Bringing comfort to those ravaged by disasters.
“I tell them we take it up to ‘yoko 11or crank it up to ‘yoko
20,’” Rosenburg joked.
That concept is stated in SBPs core values: “We believe all
problems are solvable; we do work the way we would want it
done for our grandparents and loved ones; we share what we
learn, both inside and outside the organization.
They do this by helping train other nonprofit leaders, includ-
ing those from Habitat groups and faith-based agencies. They
document their ideas in manuals that include details on every-
thing from construction planning to applying for government
grants and permits.
This can be replicated,” McCartney said. “There are so
many people out there who have these amazing skillsets and
can help a lot of organizations, who can then turn around and
help people who need their services.
McCartney and Rosenburg would prefer a world where
SBPs work is not needed. But as long as the storms keep com-
ing, their work continues.
“We get to celebrate a lot of success. I get to see people, de-
velop and grow and challenge themselves and we serve a lot of
communities that really need help,” McCartney said.
“In some ways I feel really grateful to do this work, and in
other ways I wish I never had to do this work. I wish disasters
werent happening, but the reality is they are and they’re hap-
pening more frequently.