Moving Forward in Fort Dodge

Fort Dodge City Manager David Fierke was the exception. Discussions with most leaders begin with them relaying intuitive beliefs that their organization simply isn’t meeting its potential or that complacency is slowly stripping it of its competitive edge. Additional discussion and investigation are generally required before the root issues are identified. But David’s diagnosis and goals were clear within moments of our initial phone call.

“Our expenses are rising faster than our revenues,” he explained. “The current budget situation is not sustainable. We have 40 employees that are eligible for retirement within the next five years and I want to put the City into a position where we can painlessly take advantage of that attrition without sacrificing service delivery to our citizens. Can you help?”

Over the course of the next couple of months, a two-pronged approach was developed with the help of David and key Staff members:

  • Utilize process improvement (Lean) techniques to identify and remove waste from broken processes
  • Guide a change from a “do as you are told” environment to a continuous improvement culture where every employee feels enabled – even responsible – to become a waste warrior

Due to the magnitude of the task at hand, it was agreed that an ongoing relationship was required to guide the improvements. A plan for on-site support of four days per month for the first year was developed, with declining involvement in subsequent years as skills were transferred to Staff and employees. The Fort Dodge City Council approved the proposal by a unanimous vote.

Using John P. Kotter’s model for leading organizational change as our template, we began working together through the various critical stages:

  • Stage 1 – Establish a compelling case for change

    Once a course was set, David quickly demonstrated the same focus and energy which led him to be named an Academic All-American as an offensive lineman for Western Illinois University. Within a month he was explaining to all employees his concerns with the status quo and why embarking on the continuous improvement journey was in the best interests of both Fort Dodge citizens and employees.

  • Stage 2 – Create a core team and ensure alignment

    Changing how 175 employees think and act while at work is monumental. Therefore we recruited members of David’s staff that were also early adapters to act as a guiding coalition. This group helps lay the plans for the transition and also acts as a sounding board, keeping a close eye on the pulse of the organization.

  • Stage 3 – Develop the vision and strategy

    Using the core team a simple, yet powerful vision statement was developed to articulate the desired future state. This vision allows both employees and citizens see why pursuing the change effort is in their best interests. The vision statement is meant to serve as a useful guide for employees as they make thousands of decisions each workday. A strong member of David’s Staff, HR Director Jim Vollmer, was chosen to be the internal Lean liaison.

  • Stage 4 – Communicate the vision constantly

    Staff members were trained to recognize that they are constantly sending messages to employees; some are intended while many are unintended. The importance of ensuring actions are consistent with words was stressed. David began sending weekly emails to all employees recognizing waste reduction efforts by employees. Continuous improvement became a standing agenda item for Staff and departmental meetings.

  • Stage 5 – Enable people to do the right thing

    Before people could actually do the right thing, they had to understand how to do the right thing. Nowhere was this more important than with the management team which had to relearn how to manage in the desired, more collaborative environment. Staff training addressed topics such as Leadership and Management, Leadership Communication Mechanisms, Lean Fundamentals, Measuring Progress, Holding People Accountable, Effective Decision Making, Prioritization and Time Management, and Standard Work.

  • Stage 6 – Generate and recognize short-term wins

    Initial projects were strategically selected for their impact, visibility and chances of success. Once again David stepped forward as a leader by insisting that the initial kaizen event be conducted within his area of responsibility. When a dramatic improvement in the process used for responding to citizens’ property maintenance complaints (e.g., unkept lawns, unshoveled walks, junk vehicles and other nuisances) was realized, the results were shared with employees and citizens alike.

    A month later a group of Public Works employees defined the daily maintenance checks each dump truck driver would make in order to ensure the vehicles were operational when needed and to prolong vehicle life. As part of the exercise they corrected several deficiencies, removed rust and repainted where needed to produce a truck that not only ran better, but looked better as well. When, unsolicited by management, a group of employees expanded the process a couple of weeks later to a pair of ancient garbage trucks, we knew we were on the right path.

  • Stage 7 – Produce more gains

    Subsequent kaizen events have addressed critical and diverse processes such as concrete patching, grant writing, marketing a Parks & Recreation facility for increase usage, utilities billing, and implementing 5S within a maintenance garage. Each event has resulted in a dramatically improved process and, more importantly, additional employees converted to the change effort.

  • Stage 8 – Ground everything in the new culture

    David is now evaluating Staff members to ensure that they are managing appropriately for the new environment. Perhaps more impressively, changes to Staff members’ compensation were recently implemented, tying annual raises to demonstrated budget savings. A semi-formal process for tracking those savings has been established. After only six months, the identified savings are $60K which will impact the current fiscal year’s budget. Another $120K, equating to the wages paid for various time-savings projects have been realized. The latter savings provides capacity to realize David’s original goal of taking advantage of future retirements.

    Perhaps most exciting, City of Fort Dodge employees are responding. A review of the project savings list shows that a majority of the savings have been generated outside of formal kaizen events, by ordinary employees challenging how they do their work.

The change hasn’t been easy and no one is claiming victory. David reports that he spends a full 20-25% of his time leading the effort. But no one will deny that a positive change is underway with Fort Dodge, one that should ultimately result in proud employees delivering services to pleasantly surprised citizens within budget constraints.





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