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Ken Miller wrote a book called We Don’t Make Widgets where he floats a commonly believed myth: government doesn’t have customers, they have hostages. Miller’s book is geared towards applying process improvement in government. Read the full book review here.

Are government customers really hostages? Well for some unfortunate souls, yes. There are multitudes of government agencies and processes that are ripe for improvement. Many of us know this up close and personal based on countless stories of customer dissatisfaction. But not if you are a resident of the City of San Antonio.

This city is gathering and listening to the voice of their residents – aka the customer. They are working to improve the level of customer service for all city residents by implementing Lean Six Sigma process improvement.

I had a conversation with Jessica Shirley-Saenz, Assistant to Director in Transportation and Capital Improvements Department for the City of San Antonio and she told me about one of their early discoveries and resulting improvement efforts. It’s a story that will resonate with everyone who owns a car, has ridden in a car or even rides a bike!

The Wake-Up Call

The wake-up call was the result of a Community Survey of resident satisfaction. Despite the city’s efforts to fill potholes in a timely manner, the satisfaction rate in 2014 registered 38%. With under 50% satisfaction, the City was discouraged to read these results.

Case Study: The City of San Antonio Improves Pothole Repair Problem by 480% - GoLeanSixSigma.com

Jessica remarked, “What was concerning is that we thought we were doing pretty well in the potholes category. If a citizen reported a pothole, the City had 48 hours to complete the request. The good news was that we were meeting this service level standard 98% of the time. Receiving such a low rating was a big disappointment to many folks.”

Now what? How do you improve something that has a 98% success rate? It would have been easy to ignore the survey results. The City could have de-prioritized the pothole issue and focus on something else – but they didn’t. Instead, they did some soul searching.

Jessica reported, “We started asking ourselves more questions like:

  • Are we using the right equipment?
  • Is it more effective to repair potholes a different way?
  • Are we doing it as effectively as possible?
  • Are we proactive enough in repairing potholes?

The goal was to understand the true problem instead of making snap judgements and relying on internal measures of satisfaction.”

The City spent another 3-6 months collecting more actionable pothole data. Delivering better services to residents is one of the City’s primary objectives. Anthony Chukwudolue (TCI Assistant Director of Street Operations) was one of the Champions of implementing Lean Six Sigma process improvement techniques as a method for the City to better serve their residents.

The goal was to understand the true problem instead of making snap judgements and relying on internal measures of satisfaction.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

According to Jessica, “We tried to get some training, but much of the training curriculum was complicated and very statistically-driven. We had rock stars from our team, and they struggled with the first training provider’s approach. It was difficult to translate the academic theory into practical application as it related to our municipal government processes. After about a year of struggling, we found GoLeanSixSigma.com’s training and their approach made it a lot easier to understand and more importantly showed our folks how lean six sigma does apply to us.”

After about a year of struggling, we found GoLeanSixSigma.com’s training and their approach made it a lot easier to understand and more importantly showed our folks how Lean Six Sigma does apply to us.

Jessica Shirley-Saenz
Assistant to Director in Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, City of San Antonio

She said, “I was exposed to various certification programs, which were great if you are a statistician, and you’re into the pureness of statistics. Not so good for getting started and looking for immediate results like us. We needed application and practicality. GoLeanSixSigma.com was a better fit for our people and I really think for anyone in government.”

Practical Training and Leadership Support Makes the Difference

Jessica also shared, “The approach GoLeanSixSigma.com uses makes it so much easier to conceptually understand and quickly get started. The training content is amazing! There is a lot out there, I’m a mathematician so I love stats and I am really passionate about this stuff, but it was hard to break it down to others until we found GoLeanSixSigma.com. Their explanations and examples make the concepts much easier to learn and apply.”

The approach GoLeanSixSigma.com uses makes it so much easier to conceptually understand and quickly get started. The training content is amazing!

Many City employees have taken GoLeanSixSigma.com’s online Yellow Belt and Green Belt courses and a few employees have completed the Black Belt course.

“The training and leadership commitment have been critical to our success. Our TCI Director, Mike Frisbie, is very supportive of innovative ideas and trying new things. He is okay with taking some risk. I’m lucky.” Jessica says. “Mike is a true Champion. He is not just about numbers or dollars. He is about how we can do better. Mike celebrates the results and he inspires us to do our best.”

Mike is a true Champion. He is not just about numbers or dollars. He is about how we can do better. Mike celebrates the results and he inspires us to do our best.

Discovery and Breakthrough Results!

What the City of San Antonio discovered about pothole satisfaction was this: “We were not being proactive enough in fixing potholes. We were waiting until residents reported potholes. Even though we responded in timely a manner, what residents really wanted was the City to fix the potholes without having to call. So, we started leveraging our own city employees to spot potholes proactively and fix them.” Jessica says.

The City of San Antonio’s journey has resulted in lots of small wins that materialized into big gains. As for potholes, the City went from a mediocre 13,000 potholes repaired in 2014 to 75,000 potholes repaired in 2017 – a 480% increase!

As for potholes, the City went from a mediocre 13,000 potholes repaired in 2014 to 75,000 potholes repaired in 2017 – a 480% increase!

City of San Antonio Pothole Repair Results - GoLeanSixSigma.com

Jessica reported, “We’ve got 16 crews dedicated to potholes and now we want to allocate some of the crews to bigger base and pavement repairs. We want to do more! We’re still novices at continuous process improvement efforts, but I’m most proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish holistically as a department. We continue to learn, innovate and motivate success.

The City of San Antonio is confident their next Community Survey will show improved pothole satisfaction results. The next survey is scheduled for 2018.

One of the City’s goals is to train 200 mid-level Managers as Green Belts. The City of San Antonio is well on their way to having more delighted customers (and less hostages). Hooray!

Learn more about how the City of San Antonio is applying process improvement here.

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Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.