Finding the Right Formula for Lean Six Sigma Success in Government
Case Study Preview: Government organizations at all levels face extraordinary pressure to improve the quality of services delivered to citizens and reduce taxpayer burdern at the same time. Limited budgets, downsized staff, and often skeptical and resistant-to-change employees present a daunting challenge for government executives looking to implement business improvement methods such as Lean Six Sigma. The story of Erie County New York's experiment with Lean Six Sigma and the unconventional approach used to engage frontline employees provides valuable lessons on the pathways and pitfalls to successful deployment.
Erie County in the State of New York was widely recognized in 2009 as the largest county government in the nation to implement Lean Six Sigma. Under the leadership of newly elected Erie County Executive Chris Collins, Lean Six Sigma was introduced in 2008 and proved effective in producing rapid cost savings promised by Collins in his election campaign.
The County's formula for Lean Six Sigma was modelled on the industry practice of:
- Recruiting a small cadre of high-performing managers and employees to take on the roles of Lean Six Sigma Black and Green Belts;
- Training Belts rigorously with the help of external resources;
- And, carefully selecting improvement projects with financial savings potential.
When Bill Carey (an industry executive recruited to take over administration of the County's Lean Six Sigma initiative) arrived in 2010, he recognized immediately that the ability to sustain momentum and produce ongoing results would be impossible through a conventional Lean Six Sigma deployment strategy. Lean Six Sigma, in its conventional form as an expert-driven strategy, is not well-suited to government environments with limited training funds, scarcity of staff available to take on Black Belt positions, and a workforce not inclined to offer discretionary effort for process improvement in the face of declining benefits and job security.
As Carey stated, "We needed a faster way to engage more of our workforce (over 4,000 employees) in process improvements that did not warrant a deep-dive Lean Six Sigma approach, but was harmonized with Lean Six Sigma principles."
We needed a faster way to engage more of our workforce (over 4,000 employees) in process improvements that did not warrant a deep-dive Lean Six Sigma approach, but was harmonized with Lean Six Sigma principles.
Frontline Employee-Powered Lean Six Sigma
After an extensive search and competitive bidding process, Erie County selected Leap Technologies and its Rapid Action methodology as the solution for engaging more employees in Lean Six Sigma process improvement.
Where conventional Lean Six Sigma deployments enroll employees in "Yellow or White" Belt Programs (that teach the fundamentals of Lean Six Sigma to inspire enthusiasm and effective participation on Belt-led projects), Rapid Action takes a different path to enrolling employees in process improvement.
Employee willingness to give discretionary effort in order to make improvements (validated through more than 5,000 Rapid Action applications) is directly correlated to the simplicity of the improvement method (minimal hassle) and the speed to results (maximum value for time invested). Rapid Action teams attack improvement opportunities where problems and causes are relatively clear, but the solutions for better results are not. These opportunities typically represent 70-80% of an organization's potential improvement projects, but do not require Black Belt-level analysis.
According to Carey, "The question wasn't choosing one method over the other. We added Rapid Action to our Lean Six Sigma toolbox to expand our reach and get more employees engaged, which ultimately is what builds excitement and creates a culture of continuous improvement."
The question wasn't choosing one method over the other. We added Rapid Action to our Lean Six Sigma toolbox to expand our reach and get more employees engaged, which ultimately is what builds excitement and creates a culture of continuous improvement.
Making Frontline Employees Lean Six Sigma Champions
Erie County worked with Leap Technologies to plan the introduction of Rapid Action teams in the fall of 2010. To pave the way for a fast and successful launch, County Department Managers and Employee Union Representatives were briefed on the process and tools and given the opportunity to propose opportunities for Rapid Action projects.
The first Rapid Action Teams were launched following a three-day workshop where designated team leaders were trained to use the Rapid Action Toolkit, an "all-in-a-box'' set of meeting guides and materials for leading a 60-day improvement project. Unlike conventional Lean Six Sigma projects, with Rapid Action there is no requirement to enroll employee team members in training prior to participation; team members learn the Rapid Action method as they participate on the Rapid Action team.
Over the next 60 days, five pilot Rapid Action teams went to work and implemented actions tied to Erie County's mission to provide "better value from government." Sample results included:
- Probation Fees Team: Charged with improving collection of court-ordered administrative fees associated with citizens on probation, the team implemented eight solutions that improved fee collections by more than $250,000 on a base of $1.5 million in uncollected fees.
- Equal Opportunity Employment (EEO) Complaint Process Team: Significantly reduced the backlog of unresolved EEO cases and dramatically reduced the cycle time for processing new cases, ultimately improving understanding of the EEO process and the image of the EEO Department.
- Protective Services Team: Streamlined the delivery of client financial management services designed to help Erie County residents unable to meet basic needs, including faster disbursement of assistance checks.
In addition to the measureable results accomplished in rapid timeframes, County Executive Collins considered comments such as those listed below as further validation of the decision to add Rapid Action to the Lean Six Sigma toolbox.
"One of the biggest benefits we got from our team was better communication across departments."
"It was amazing how much we were able to get done in a short time with every member of the team taking responsibility for one action plan."
"I was afraid this would be a waste of time, but in fact, it was one of the most satisfying experiences I've had in my career."
The successful introduction of Rapid Action teams created a strong foundation of support for expanding deployment of Rapid Action across the County's 30 Services and Support Departments and for fully transferring support of the method to the Lean Six Sigma staff.
The next wave of Rapid Action teams focused on issues such as reducing paperwork between Public Benefits Departments, streamlining the Food Stamp Program application process, and reducing the backlog in applications for Utilities Assistance. The teams achieved equally impressive results in short timeframes.
Reflecting on the decision to deploy Rapid Action Teams, Collins noted, "I made a commitment from the start that Lean Six Sigma would give every employee the chance to contribute ideas. After seeing the results from Rapid Action, I was confident we could realize that goal and deliver the results we'd promised to taxpayers faster."
I made a commitment from the start that Lean Six Sigma would give every employee the chance to contribute ideas. After seeing the results of the Rapid Action, I was confident we could realize that goal and deliver the results we'd promised to taxpayers faster.
Rapid Action for Streamlined Government
5pilot projects completed within 60 days
Lessons Learned for Better, Faster Lean Six Sigma in Governments
Along with achieving process improvements and cost reductions, the deployment of Rapid Action Teams at Erie County also yielded valuable lessons and insights useful for any government organization looking to launch and improve their Lean Six Sigma initiative, including:
- Understand the capacity of the organization to support improvement projects. It's not the number of Belts or Rapid Action team leaders trained that determines the number improvement projects completed and the level of results. The critical constraint is availability and willingness of rank and file employees and leaders to "get in the game" and do the work required to implement solutions.
- Secure committed senior leader sponsorship before project launch. While every Lean Six Sigma project is vulnerable to failure without committed senior leader sponsorship, government organizations are often more vulnerable to the phenomenon of projects looking for sponsorship after the fact.
- Avoid the temptation to make Lean Six Sigma a political platform. Although Lean Six Sigma and methods like Rapid Action can score points on the campaign trail, when their success becomes overly-associated with elected officials versus government employees, sustaining momentum is put at risk.
Unfortunately for Erie County, the end of County Executive Collins' term and arrival of a new administration resulted in the disbanding of the Erie County Lean Six Sigma program. However, gains from the program live on, from the many process improvements implemented to improved employee morale.
Learn more about the Rapid Action Toolkit
Are you interested in accelerating results and increasing engagement from your organization’s change management and continuous improvement initiatives? Take a look “inside the box” of the most reliable process available for rapid, team-based improvement.