Government Getting It

Published August 2009

Over 130 people, consisting primarily of government employees, from across the U.S. gathered in Des Moines for three days in June to share best practices and listen to experts discuss removing waste from processes. By observing the energy and commitment of speakers and participants at the Lean Government Exchange – hosted by the State of Iowa – one could quickly conclude that “lean government” is not an oxymoron.

One of the primary speakers at the conference was Ken Miller, author of We Don’t Make Widgets. Miller has dedicated a significant portion of his career to battling the perception which keeps government managers and their teams from reaching their full potential, namely that “we’re different so the same process improvement techniques that work within industry don’t apply to us.” The book is required reading for any government manager.

Fortunately, the State of Iowa and various municipal governments are starting to get the message. The State has partnered with some of Iowa’s top companies and has completed roughly 100 focused rapid improvement projects since 2003 with several projects boasting significant improvements:

  • Reducing the time required to obtain an air quality permit for a new facility from 62 days to just six days
  • Reducing the time for a clean water construction permit from 28 months to 4.5 months
  • Reducing the time for a corrective action decision on a leaking underground storage tank from over three years to just 90 days

It’s important to realize that in each of these situations the environmental criteria was not relaxed. Rather, wasteful activities that didn’t contribute to the end result were identified and eliminated by the employees working within those processes. The results are leaner processes that make our state much friendlier to prospective businesses wishing to build a new facility here. (Additional information on Iowa’s Lean efforts is available on the website)

Municipal governments are also getting in the act. During an April all-employee meeting, Fort Dodge City Manager David Fierke shared his vision of attacking waste within city services in an effort to take advantage of upcoming retirements to painlessly reduce headcount and expenses. He explained that this was clearly the superior alternative compared with raising taxes or laying off employees and cutting services.

Fort Dodge employees have responded with several employee-initiated improvements. For example, various reports completed by police officers and signed by victims and witnesses must be notarized, but only law enforcement supervisors were registered notaries. This meant that every time a patrol officer completed a report requiring a citizen’s notarized signature, they had to call and wait for a supervisor to make a special trip. By notarizing all officers, the City estimates it will convert over 2700 hours of waiting and special trips annually (more than the equivalent of one officer) into important police work. A nice byproduct is $9000 a year in gas savings!

The City of Dubuque recently aggressively attacked how it produces, copies, transmits, stores and retrieves documents. Governments produce lots of documents. Dubuque ultimately replaced over 200 standalone printers, copiers, fax machines and scanners with 62 multi-function machines that are much cheaper to operate. More importantly, City employees began challenging the need for paper copies, opting instead for electronic documents. The latter are not only less expensive; they can be retrieved quicker and more reliably. Best of all, they’re a greener option. All told, Dubuque estimates it’s saving about $120,000 per year from the project.

Closer to home in Ames, concerns were raised regarding the appearance of park turf areas. The Parks & Recreation Department determined that parks were getting mowed once every eleven business days. A team studied mowing processes and identified several improvements including increasing the size of some mower decks, changing mowing methods and reducing travel time by eliminating team mowing. The result is that parks are now mowed once every five business days without adding staff.

Few are ready to claim that government is ready to go head to head with the top lean companies. But they are entering the game. With revenue funding shortfalls stemming from the extended recession, that will become more important than ever.

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