NIATx Tools: What I Learned From My First Walk-through Exercise

Julia Parnell Alexander, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Great Lakes PTTC
State Project Manager, Indiana, for the Great Lakes ATTC, MHTTC, and PTTC

My first NIATx walk-through exercise happened when I was a staff member at a recovery community organization (RCO) in Minnesota. Through this experience, I quickly learned the difference between theory and practice.

I thought I knew our organization well, quite well. A core principle of an RCO is that it is welcoming and serves everyone in the community. We had worked hard to make our space welcoming, and we had organized many events and gatherings over the years that drew large crowds that filled the space with joy and laughter. My confidence in our space, our work, and our welcoming nature was so strong that I thought the walk-through experience would confirm my views. Our welcoming environment, I thought, was solid, with little or no room for improvement.

Cut to the actual walk-through. I did everything I could to leave my routine behind. What would fresh eyes tell me? How could I start from scratch?

I entered our address into Google Maps. I had never Googled the address before because I usually drove to work—because I knew right where to go, right? Google produced two locations. Which one was correct? The address information was confusing, so I decided to call the office to find out what to do. With help from the staff person on the phone, I chose the correct option and made a note to self to get this corrected with Google Maps.

I pulled into the parking lot and was happy to see ample parking. And then it hit me: I’d heard people say that the RCO entrance door was not clearly marked, but it finally resonated for me when I was trying to decide where to park. There were three entrance doors, and I wasn’t sure which one to use. Plus, there was no signage indicating where to go and nothing to differentiate the RCO from the church that hosts the RCO. Was I in the right place?

I first chose the front door, figuring it would lead me to someone who would direct me where I needed to go. This door was locked. Pulling on a locked door felt like rejection. I bypassed the middle door—it looked like something only a staff member would use. Next, I went to a set of double glass doors at the opposite end that looked more inviting and “official.” Nope, these doors were locked as well. Rejected again. I doubled back to that middle door, and it was open. Success! But that feeling was fleeting as I walked into a grand and empty open space. It was bright and spacious, but it was empty. I still didn’t know where to go. Walking toward the sound of lively chatter, I found friendly people who greeted me with a jovial and authentic welcome—finally! It had just taken a lot of work to get there. And it turns out that people don’t really like to provide a critique of their experience when it’s uncomfortable. And we certainly never heard from people we never met because they simply gave up trying to get to us.

My experience was just one type of a walk-through, but it gave insight into a core element of what we were assessing as an RCO. My walk-through led to a few changes: we added signage outside the best entrance to use, and we posted volunteers in an office inside near the entrance so they could immediately welcome visitors. These changes helped make our space much closer to the welcoming nature I had initially thought we had.

If you do your best to do your walk-through with fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted. You’ll be surprised by how much you learn, and you’ll have ample data to use in your change project. It’s key that you conduct the walk-through with an open mind and an eye towards improvement without assigning blame as you go. A walk-through exercise isn’t about monitoring staff or about improving performance—it’s about improving a process.

Visit the newly updated NIATx website to learn more about the walk-through process. You’ll find complete instructions and forms under the “Tools” tab.

We’d love to hear insights from your walk-through experiences. What did you learn? What changes did you make or change projects did you do as a result of your walk-through? Share your experience in the comments section below.

About our guest blogger
Julia Parnell Alexander, Ph.D., is a woman in long-term recovery. Before her work with the Great Lakes ATTC, MHTTC, and PTTC, she was a founding staff member of and then served as Executive Director of Operations for Minnesota Recovery Connection, Minnesota’s first and longest-running Recovery Community Organization.

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