Merry Value Delivery: What I Learned About Flow as a Blue Santa Volunteer
So how does Santa deliver millions of toys to everyone around the world?
As a parent, my children have asked this question a couple of times and I’ve always resorted to the vague answer of “Christmas magic”.
As someone who hangs out with a lot of Agile coaches, I can’t help but look at international, magical toy drop-off as a value delivery challenge.
I couldn’t exactly go to the North Pole and observe with a “Gemba Walk”, as coaches like to say, so I did the next best thing: I volunteered for Operation Blue Santa.
For the last 50 years, Austin Police Operation Blue Santa has delivered donated toys and H-E-B gift cards to 20,000 children and their families in the Austin area every holiday season. To complete this initiative, Blue Santa sources donations, gets them to the warehouse, wraps the toys, fills the family gift boxes, and hand-delivers them to their homes. With Austin being the 26th most populated city in the United States, this is a massive undertaking for Austin Police and local volunteers.
It was my first time volunteering for Blue Santa and I was excited to play elf for a few hours. Here’s what I learned about the operation:
Prep is key
When I got to my volunteer shift, our job was to “shop” for families and get package boxes. In order to do that as efficiently as possible, other volunteers and employees have already done a lot of leg work. This included:
- Prepping and ordering boxes in a specific sequence
- Wrapping toys and placing them in bins organized by age group
- Making sure each family box has the correct number of H-E-B gift cards
On the outside of each box, was a taped sheet of paper with information about the family like the total number of people in the household, ages of the children, and their address for delivery.
All about the Flow
With all of the individual components ready, it’s time to go shopping. Each volunteer got one platform dolly with their box placed on it so the family checklist was facing out. Then they wheeled the cart through a pathway lined with toy bins (this was the store).
Because we didn’t want teenagers getting baby rattles, the toys were organized by age with each bin containing an age group. Shoppers pulled a toy from the bin based on what’s on their checklist. Some shoppers only had one child, so there was only one toy in the box. One of the volunteers during my shift had 6 children to shop for. Larger households meant more boxes on the platform dolly. For households with multiple boxes, each box was numbered so it was clear that it was part of a set, e.g. “1 of 3.”
QA is critical
The organization’s mission is to deliver hope and cheer to families in need. They wanted to make sure nobody felt left out so it was really important that there was the correct number of gift cards and one toy per child in each box. We had one QA person who checked the list (sometimes “checking it twice” 😉) to make this happen before the boxes were taped (that was my job!) and placed in the truck or pallet.
Optimize for a completed box, not 1 wrapped toy
Operation Blue Santa is known for their toy delivery for children, but the nonprofit does more than that. They also provide H-E-B gift cards for families, which includes adult care providers. In this sense, the system was optimized to achieve flow and throughput which is measured by a checked, packaged box, not how many toys are in the box.
System optimization means you can’t skip ahead of the assembly line
During my shift, I only got to see how each box was filled, but that is only a small part of the system. I mentioned all the prep work to get each box ready, then there’s sourcing donations, and finally delivery day.
I mentioned that there was only one QA person checking each box. As you can imagine, this caused a bottleneck, especially if there were multiple boxes that had to be checked. Early in the shift, a couple of volunteers tried to cut ahead of the line by skipping QA.
They were quickly pulled back for two reasons:
- We had to ensure that there was the correct number of items and that the toys matched the age group
- The QA’ed boxes, which are taped and ready to go, are organized into waiting pallets or trucks in a very specific order
During Delivery Day, volunteers cover every part of Austin’s City Limits, approximately 78 zip codes. To do this as efficiently as possible, boxes must be organized so that drivers aren’t driving from 78704 (South Austin) to 78757 (North Austin) and then back to 78744 (Southeast Austin) during their shift. By keeping that designated order, the nonprofit saves drivers a lot of time and fuel.
Delivery Day 2024 is Saturday, December 16, 2023 starting at 8:00 AM. If you have time, they could use drivers. You don’t need to sign up, just go to one of the 4 sites (and bring your driver’s license). Volunteering was one of the highlights of this year’s holiday season for me and I look forward to making this an annual tradition. Happy Holidays!