skip to Main Content

We’ll find out what paving city roads and fixing Apache helicopter gun turrets have in common. We’ll discuss one of the books that bridged the gap between the Toyota Production System and the removal of office waste. We’ll answer one of our subscriber’s questions about the difference between Lean and Six Sigma, and this week’s special features an interview with one of the key people involved with Denver City’s success with process improvement and innovation. Grab your togo coffee mug and meet us just-in-time!

Also Listen On:

YouTube-logo-full_color iTunes Stitcher -


Tools Referenced

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Just-In-Time Cafe,’s official podcast, where we help you build your problem solving muscles. We share best practices from over 20 years of success helping organizations from the Fortune 500, to small and medium size business, to government achieve their goals using Lean Six Sigma.


Elisabeth:  Hey, Tracy. Good morning!

Tracy:  Hey! Hey, Elisabeth. How are you?

Elisabeth:  I am good. I’m good to see you back at the café. I am psyched to hang out with you today.

Tracy:  Me too and I so need a cup of coffee today. It’s one of those days already.

Elisabeth:  Already? I’m with you. I think a large for me if you wouldn’t mind and it’s getting a little chilly, so maybe this one is hot as opposed to iced.

Tracy:  Sounds great. I think I’ll get the same thing as you.

Elisabeth:  So we’re not going to the rooftop today, but we’re going to go to—let’s go to our little private room.

Tracy:  OK, sounds great. See you in a minute.

Elisabeth:  See you in a minute.

What’s on the Menu (Podcast Agenda)

Tracy:  So, Elisabeth, what do we have on the menu today?

Elisabeth:  I’m glad you asked, Tracy. First, for our appetizer, we’re going to discover a tool to conduct great Process Walks that is probably within 2 inches of you right now. Next, we’ll find out what paving city streets and fixing gun turrets have in common. For our tools of the trade, we’ll talk about a book that bridged the gap between the Toyota Production System and removing office waste. And then for our Q&A, we’re going to discuss what is the difference between Lean and Six Sigma, and then what is the same. And then for today’s special, we’re going to find out about your interview with Brian Elms of Denver City.

Tracy:  That sounds awesome. I can’t wait.

Appetizer: Cell Phone Video / Video Chats

Elisabeth:  To start it off, we are going to look at this app and did I mention that I was not an app, it’s actually your cellphone?

Tracy:  No, you didn’t. That was the big surprise.

Elisabeth:  Okay. So, the reality is you and I both dealt with this. We know Process Walks are one of the absolutely fundamental pieces to understanding a process that you want people to walk it, to truly understand it. And the best Process Walk is done in person on site and you move from point to point in a process and you conduct interviews, and that’s the gold-standard. But, a lot of people come back to us and say, “But, we’re not co-located. We’re not in the same place” or “Nobody is,” or “We’re nearby, but there’s no travel budget.” So, we really can’t conduct a Process Walk. And the reality is, you could use your phone, right?

Tracy:  Absolutely. I think that’s the beauty of living in today’s world, is they make it really easy to create a virtual environment. So we get that—it’s pretty challenging. People say, “Well, we can’t really walk the process because we’re in two different buildings or three or across the world and we can’t do that.” And the beauty of your cellphone video or video chat is that you can actually conduct a Process Walk and it can be really fun. So, leverage that technology and, you know, people can do “Join Me,” you know, something like that for checking somebody’s screen to see what they’re actually doing on their computer because sometimes when you walk people through the process, they say, “Well, let me show you what I do on the computer.” So you can view people’s computers very easily. So, I would say never see this as a barrier anymore. Physical separation is becoming closer and closer in terms of not being separated with virtual tools like our very simple 2-inches-away cellphone video as Elisabeth has said.

Elisabeth:  We have the technology and it’s not complicated. Correct. Great point, Tracy. Okay. So next up, let’s see. Tracy is going to tell us about how it’s going to be easier to drive in Washington State.

Bulletin Board

Tracy:  Yes. So, this was a very interesting article that I read about with Washington State and they’re really trying to create some funding for street servicing and the original process wasn’t very good because there was some money allocated, but unfortunately, that money wasn’t enough to actually fix the streets. So—so that could be a problem when you only get a certain amount of money and that’s really not conducive or, you know, it’s not enough funding to pay for those. So what they did was they basically created a new process for funding the right street with the right treatment at the right time. They call it the Three Right’s and it’s basically the same money that is being distributed but used differently.

So, they got creative and they found ways to improve the streets using the budgets that they were given but streamlining the process so that they could afford to do it. So that was really exciting and I think, you know, maintenance of streets can be very expensive and it feels great to know that the government agency is really looking to maximize taxpayer dollars. So, I thought that was a great article, a good read on how Washington and the maintenance group—the transportation and maintenance groups are doing more with their money, doing more good, I guess we could say—

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  –with taxpayer dollars. So, just wanted to share that. I really enjoyed reading about it.

Elisabeth:  Uh-hmm.

Tracy:  So, for you, Elisabeth, what does paving the street of Washington have to do with gun turrets?

Elisabeth:  It’s a tantalizing question, but it’s based on the same exact idea. If you think about our military, they’re also having to look at their budgets and doing more with less. So, same question in what they dealt with and this was in Corpus Christi. It’s an army depot. And they won big Lean Six Sigma honors. They’re part of the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, which is very cool.

Tracy:  Nice.

Elisabeth:  Yeah, I liked it. And, this is great news for safety and effectiveness of our armed forces. It’s also great news for taxpayers just like you described with the city streets. And I’m usually excited when I hear about Lean Six Sigma applied to government since there are 325 million stakeholders. US citizens all benefit from the work these guys did and like any other Lean Six Sigma efforts, it was the people doing the work who made the improvements. It wasn’t management dictating what to do. And, Tracy, I cannot pretend to know a whole lot about gun turret flange repair process, right? On an Apache helicopter. But, I know the Apache helicopter is integral and the army uses it all the time and they rely on it and I understood the basic challenge. They said that when they had to repair the turrets, they had to remove several major components to repair the key piece.

Like any other Lean Six Sigma efforts, it was the people doing the work who made the improvements. It wasn’t management dictating what to do.

So, the team worked out a way to bypass all of these wastes of removal, right? Just getting all these things out of the way. So they found a way to bypass that. So they removed the waste to the time and effort to make repairs which made—the aircraft was now army—it’s back in action faster, right? And they rely on it. It reduced their lead time to repair it by 78%, which is huge. They reduced the labor cost to repair it by 89%, which is huge. They reduced the defects from 57% to 10% and I’m sure they’re going to even do better next time and they saved over 7 million dollars over three years, which is again amazing, big, what an incredible accomplishment.

So, there’s so many complaints around government spending. You and I hear it all the time. So we have to applaud and support any Lean Six Sigma efforts across all levels of government, which both of us are doing here today. So, three cheers for the team at the Corpus Christi.

Tracy:  Hip hip hooray!

Elisabeth:  Yes, hip hip hooray for the Corpus Christi Army Depot. Well done. Well done.

Tracy:  Well done. Excellent job. It’s always wonderful to hear such great strides in government in process improvement. And, you know, I think as we’ve said before, I think, you know, complaining about our government has become a national pastime and so it’s always nice to hear stories about positive outcomes with process improvement and trying to make things better and making a difference.

Tools of the Trade: Value Stream Management for the Lean Office by Don Tapping & Tom Shuker

Elisabeth:  So, Tracy, tell us about the book that took us from the shop floor of Toyota to the office cubicle.

Tracy:  That sounds fine. I can do that. So, this is a book, it’s called Value Stream Management for the Lean Office by Don Tapping and Tom Shuker. And what I really like about this book is this was actually—this is one of the first books I was introduced to related to applying lean in an office environment. So, I found this book and this was—I think the original was done in 2002. But I found this book and I just ate it up because a lot of where I work is in non-manufacturing environment and I really wanted to find more help and more education around specific things that applied in a non-manufacturing environment that was lean-related. And I know today that seems—well, everybody knows that it can apply. Well, not everybody, but a lot of people can see that there is a great deal of application with some of these lean tools in a non-manufacturing environment. But back 14 years ago, it wasn’t very well-known.

And so, I really liked this book because it was very simple, an easy read. I really liked how it was organized about the importance pieces because it talks a little bit about culture and commitment to lean. And then, it talks about mapping the current state, identifying lean metrics and then mapping the feature state which is typically what happens in a kaizen event from a lean perspective. At a high level, it’s the same but it really does focus on some of the tools that really can apply to non-manufacturing, like identifying customer demand, creating continuous flow, creating workload balancing and leveling so that employees feel like the work is spread out evenly just like in a production environment, but in a non-manufacturing environment. So, I really enjoyed the book. What did you like about it, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth:  I loved how many examples they gave. I loved they had a detailed case study moving throughout the book. I liked that it was good for beginners, but it’s also good for people that had been to a few lean classes or were familiar with the terms and the processes. I also liked that they gave you a CD-ROM full of worksheets. So, it was no need to go hunting for how to do things. They really gave you everything you need.

The other thing I enjoyed about this was that’s the first time I heard about catchball and that technique of working between management’s and the shop floor or, in this case, the people working in the office to really get clarity around why are we doing this, what’s the goal, what’s the mission of this particular project. And I think that that kind of cross-pollination and clarity makes a huge difference. And I know you’ve had some really good successes with catchball that you recently just wrote about, didn’t you?

Tracy:  I did. And I really enjoyed that—I really believed in the catchball idea and the concept, and it really is a different way to engage people. So I really have come to use that particular tool as a way to get more employees to engage in activities that are lead-related. And it seems to work really well, and the leaders tend to think that as well.

Elisabeth:  Yeah. No, it’s a simple thing even just the name of it, catchball. It’s clearly about receiving and pitching and everybody gets that and that’s how simple it is. But it just doesn’t always take place, so I think I appreciate it.

Tracy:  Yes. And I think the—the interesting thing about catchball just to maybe say as my last comment about catchball is it feels—you know, you weren’t giving up control to a degree but you’re doing it because you’re involving others. So, rather than, you know, creating something and perfecting it before sharing it. The idea is that you share it before it’s perfected knowing that you’re going to change it and make—you know, take feedback of employees on what they think and then make adjustments. And I think leaders have to be comfortable with that. And also, employees have to feel comfortable with knowing that they’re going to get something that’s not completely and fully baked and it’s not perfect. And, know that that’s a part of the process because I think sometimes people think, “Oh, well, what you’re giving to me is not even ready.” Well, of course, that’s why we want you to look at it.

The idea is that you share it before it’s perfected knowing that you’re going to change it and take feedback of employees on what they think and then make adjustments. And I think leaders have to be comfortable with that.

Elisabeth:  Yeah. Yeah. You have to have comfort with ambiguity if you’re going to collaborate on something that’s not fully baked as you say. I think that’s a great point. That’s a great point.

Special Request

Elisabeth:  Tracy, we’ve got a question today from one of our subscribers and this is a fundamental one, but I find it’s a good one. People come back to it again and again. What is the difference between Lean and Six Sigma?

Tracy:  OK. So that is—yes, it’s a real basic question and I think that—you know, there’s a lot of information out there. And so, why don’t we just talk a little bit about it. I always say that Lean and Six Sigma both fall under what I would call the process improvement umbrella, also known as continuous improvement. So, there’s this overarching effort to improve processes and Lean and Six Sigma both fall under that umbrella. They are both techniques or methodologies that organizations implement to try to improve processes or continuously improve. So, they’re both under that umbrella. And I really believe that both of these toolkits are important in improving processes, but there is a bit of a difference.

So, Lean focuses mostly on identifying waste and eliminating it. So, that’s one of the primary things about Lean is to know what the wastes are. Try to see them, which is I think sometimes the biggest challenge is people don’t necessarily see the waste. So, training people to see the waste is an effort. And then, once people see the waste, then what are you going to do to minimize it, eliminate it or streamline it. And so, that is a huge focus of Lean as well as how do you maximize flow of a process. So think about—you know, I always think about sitting in a—you know, like I think about subway, Subway Sandwiches, which is a chain here and—you know, think about flow of the person waiting in line for their sandwich and how would you maximize or optimize that. So, flow is really about not having the thing or the person wait for the product. And at subway, they do a pretty good job, but they could probably do a better job in some areas as well.

So, that’s Lean. Is there anything you want to add about Lean, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth:  No. That’s a really nice description. I like it.

Tracy:  Okay. And then for Six Sigma, Six Sigma is really more around reducing variability and being more consistent in your process. So, both of them helped discover the root causes of why things aren’t working the way that they should or why they’re not working better. But Six Sigma really focuses on reducing variability. It’s more statistical in nature. It’s a bit more rigorous when it comes to applying some of the statistical applications. But ultimately it’s really identifying how do we be more consistent in our process and it’s funny because I could use fast food as the same example. We talked about McDonalds. They, you know—we don’t necessarily go to McDonalds because they have the best food in the world or the best hamburger in the world. We typically go there because—why? Because they have very consistent products and very consistent delivery of cycle time. We go there when we don’t have time, right?

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  So, it’s not—you know, they have one billion serve because we’re in a rush. We go there because we know what we’re going to get. We know how long it’s going to take and we go there when we don’t have time. It’s sort of the default, “Oh, let’s just go to McDonalds,” because we really don’t have time to go anywhere else. So, I think it’s really interesting when we think about why we go a certain place when we’re in a rush and because McDonalds has very low variability in their products and in their services and that is a great example of having very consistent processes. And so that’s really what Six Sigma does. So I hope that helps in terms of understanding the difference between Lean and Six Sigma.

Elisabeth:  And I will just add that those are the differences, but the reality is they have a lot more in common and both of them are focused—

Tracy:  Exactly.

Elisabeth:  Both focused on just serving the customer, listening to the voice of the customer and understanding and meeting those customer requirements. And I think about the variability on the Six Sigma side of trying to reduce that and I think about standard work on the Lean side trying to make standard all work processes, which reduces variability. So, they’re very much in alignment, just two really companionable toolkits that we love using together, don’t we, Tracy?

Both [Lean and Six Sigma] focus on just serving the customer, listening to the voice of the customer and understanding and meeting those customer requirements.

Tracy:  We absolutely do, and thanks for saying that, Elisabeth, because there’s—a lot of rumors out there, you know, with people fighting over which is better, Lean or Six Sigma, and I really believe and I think you do as well, Elisabeth, that they’re both valuable and that they both can be taught as a process improvement toolkits because they work really well together. And it doesn’t matter if a tool comes from Lean or Six Sigma. What really matters is this has solved the problem.

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  So use the tool that solves the problem.

Elisabeth:  Yeah. Let me use all the tools. Give me all the tools and let me choose.

Tracy:  Exactly.

Elisabeth:  So, Tracy, for today’s special, tell us about your interview. What’s coming up on today’s special?

Tracy:  So, we are going to be interviewing Brian Elms today. And Brian Elms is responsible for the Peak Performance Program at the Denver—at the City and County of Denver. And so, they’ve really created an environment and a group to really help all agencies in Denver to improve their performance using process improvement. And this—he wrote a book and it’s a wonderful book. I got a chance to read it. I really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it. Some really funny stories in there about—you know, one of the chapters is called “Forget the Fro-Yo” and that is because ultimately in agency, they had such long wait times that they decided to install a frozen yogurt machine in the wait room. And so he wrote, “Forget fro-yo, let’s fix the process.”

So, I think—you know, I really loved his approach and the story of, you know, the—I don’t know what you want to call it. You’re probably better at this than me. But I just liked his style of writing the book. And I think you’ll enjoy it. So, I think you’ll enjoy this interview. It’s a very engaging and dynamic person. So, I think it’ll be a great interview.

Elisabeth:  I’m looking forward to reading that book and I’m looking forward to your interview. Thank you, Tracy.

Today’s Special: Interview with Brian Elms from Denver’s Peak Academy

Tracy:  Hi, everyone! Welcome to the Just-In-Time Café. I’m having a cup of coffee with Brian Elms today, the director of the Peak Academy at the City and County of Denver. Brian, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.

Brian:  Tracy, thank you so much for inviting me to the Just-In-Time Café. I feel like we’re sitting around a great cup of coffee in a wonderful coffee shop in Denver. But that’s really now the case. We’re doing this over the interweb which is even awesomer. And, yeah, I’ve been in the City and County of Denver for about 9 years and we’ve been running the Peak Academy for over 4 and Peak Academy is pretty awesome innovative place that we created a few years ago. But, overall, who am I? So I’m the director of the program. I’ve been with the city for 4 years working on the academy. Prior to that, I worked at the airport for 4 years and had the incredible experience of doing some process improvement with Denver Health, which is our local hospital system here. They had a big lean program at Denver Health and still do to this day and credit, their lean program is saving money during the course of the recession. And when Mayor Hancock took over about 4 years ago—or 5 years ago, he wanted to set a similar program and we launched the Peak Academy here.

And my background is really in government nonprofits and I worked from Washington DC and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I worked in the Department of Aging in Pennsylvania. I worked at AARP in Washington DC, the airport here in Denver and then found myself doing innovation and process improvement for the City and County of Denver, which has quite possibly been the coolest thing in my life.

Tracy:  Right. Well, I think that—

Brian:  I have a—

Tracy:  I think—

Brian: —a wonderful time doing it.

Tracy:  Well, what’s really exciting and I’m really excited to talk with you today because I think there’s a misnomer out there that government is sort of beyond help and I think what you’ve done for the City and County of Denver especially with the Peak Academy is sort of showing that there is really good work happening in government and that’s really exciting and I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about it. So I have some statistics on the Peak Academy that I want to share with our audience. So you have 700 employees—at the time of the book that you wrote, which we’ll talk about in just a moment, you had about 700 employees complete the 5-day training, 4300 employees complete a 4-hour training, but that is really just a part of the success because then that group of employees went to submit 2000 innovations and also saved 15 million dollars within 4 years. That’s pretty substantial. So tell me a little bit about how you were able to do that at the Peak Academy.

Brian:  Number one I think we all stand on the shoulders of some really great people who created these techniques. And the other thing that I think people should know is everyone is really hungry for problem-solving techniques and they’re really hungry to find ways to solve these issues that have been driving them nuts for years. And I think all we do as a team is become like the best governmental cheerleaders we possibly can be, which—you know, we sort of stand on the side of the room and cheer people on doing really amazing work.

People who choose to be in government, choose to work in government, want to help people. That’s like their number one goal. And what we try to do is get rid of all the things where they’re not helping someone. We help them figure out ways to reduce the variation and reduce the waste in any process. And what we’re trying to do is get them to do what they love most. Getting a police officer to serve and protect is what he or she wants to do every single day and if I can reduce 20 minutes out of their laborious report-writing process and our team can help them figure that out, then we’re opening up an active patrol for 6700 officers on a single day. And that has dramatic impact because that’s what they want to do. That’s what they chose to be police officers for and our job is help them be the best employee they possibly can be.

People who choose to be in government, choose to work in government, want to help people. That’s like their number one goal.

Tracy:  Yes. I mean it’s—it’s hard to argue with what you’re trying to accomplish, but in reading some of the things that you wrote about, it doesn’t sound like it was an easy path to success.

Brian:  I think any time that you are selling a product that no one has experienced before, you’re going to have a hard time selling. It’s hard for me to go into an executive and say, “Oh, follow me. I’ll show you how to do this and we’ll be incredible and we’ll get all of your team members working towards the same goal, and they’ll be so excited to do it.” I think inherently, especially people who work in government, if not anyone in the country is inherently skeptical of any sort of red bouncy ball management decision or management program and—you know, what we wanted to do was demonstrate our results and—When we first started doing our program, you know, we were being attacked by everyone—high-level employees, line-level employees, mid-level supervisors. But they would find ways that it worked and every time it worked, we would run around the building screaming how it worked and then we would show people over and over how it worked, and we would make videos on how it worked.

The whole goal was just to get people talking about how, “Hey, Brian might be crazy. His class might be not what you’re used to, but every technique that he’s teaching us is working, and we’re seeing results. We’re seeing more people serve in less time with less headaches and better quality.” And when you’re able to do that, you can have a lasting success. But, yeah, I think at meantime, you start something new. People are going to question what you’re doing.

Tracy:  Yes, absolutely. Well, you know, we did not mention and I’ll mention it now, is that you were also the author of a book called Peak Performance and it’s about how Denver’s Peak Academy saving millions of dollars, boosting morale, changing the world even and how someone—like someone else in government could do the same thing. So, tell me how long has this book been able to be purchased and read?

Brian:  Well, number one, I really appreciate you pumping up the book. The book has been out since June. We’ve been working on it for about a year and a half. It’s I think a great way to talk about what it’s like to run an innovation program/process improvement program in a governmental environment and what you have to go through in order to do it. But I also think anyone can pick it up. In fact, there’s a restaurant group in Denver that is picking up right now and asking us to help them with some of their processes where they’re greeting their customers coming in and how they’re dealing with stagnation of sort of workforce. They’ve been really successful as a restaurant group. They have 4 really, really popular restaurants and they’ve been really successful for about 15 years and they’re worried that they’re stagnating. And so they’ve asked a couple of us to come in and teach them different techniques on how to solve some problems and get some new innovative ideas going. The real purpose of the book is for anyone to be able to pick it up and use some of the techniques to get out of a logjam or get out of a problem they have.

Tracy:  Well, I read the book as well and I—obviously as a part of preparation for talking with you, but I have to say I really enjoyed the book. I loved your creative chapter titles from “Forget the Fro-Yo” to the “F Word,” in this case, the F word being failure and, you know, some other interesting titles like “Screw Buy In, Now Let’s Break All The Rules.” And I think what I love about the book is your humble approach about always learning and how—you know, it’s about people. The whole program is really about people and—you know, it’s not cookie-cutter and I loved the stories in it from Penny Mae at the Department of Denver Human Services and what she went through and Audrey, this employee that seemed very disengaged when in reality she had one of the best ideas ever. So I just loved the book. I really enjoyed it and I think you guys did a—you did a wonderful job of authoring the story of City and County Denver efforts.

You know, the question I had was—so, what kinds of challenges—I mean you definitely exposed the opportunities and even in your foreword you mentioned, you know, “I’m going to get in trouble.” Did you actually get into any trouble writing the book?

Brian:  I would say I get in trouble weekly and I wouldn’t say it’s all because of the book. I think part of my maybe my personality or part of what we do is to create disruption in government. And we’re creating such disruption sometimes that I can get called on a weekly basis in front of someone to apologize what I did, and I think part of it is having the courage to, you know, give them a hug and walk away and not really worry about it. I think we have caused significant disruption in the organization and I think every day that we go about what we’re trying to do, we need to keep causing it.

The last thing that a government ever wants to do is get stuck. And when you’re getting overwhelmed by applications for businesses or applications for food stamps or whatever it is, you start to think you can’t get out of the whole. And, when you feel like that innovation or process improvement or whatever you want to call it, it becomes so hard that you can’t even see out of your day-to-day business. And if I’m not getting in trouble, I would actually argue, I might not be doing my job.

Now, my boss might think otherwise, and they probably don’t want me to get in trouble but, yeah, I mean most employees when they write a book like we wrote and it has some significant vulnerabilities in there, you typically have to divorce yourself from the city in order to do such a book and to tell people the truth. Our whole theory was every book has been written about here’s a tool, this is how you use the tool. And our take was stop doing tool time. Let’s talk specifically about how this person went about trying to change their area. Let’s talk about the impact that they created from it, and we wanted to take, warts and all, what took place. And, that’s not easy.

A lot of people in a governmental setting or even in a large bureaucratic setting, you know, you have legal teams. You have policy teams. You have upper management. You have mid-level management and—you know, we’re exposing parts of the city and some of our vulnerabilities. There are people who don’t like that.

Tracy:  Yes. Well, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about what you mean by disruption because—so disruption, what do you mean by that exactly? Because I think in reading your book, you brought people with you and so the disruption wasn’t about, you know, casting people into the fire, if you will. So, what do you mean specifically? Like how do people—help us understand what you mean by that, a disruption in what way?

Brian:  So every time you go to change what has been going on for years and you implement some type of intervention or some type of innovation, it’s going to disrupt everyone else’s flow. And when you do that, it can have positive and negative effects and you have to be able to adjust whatever intervention or innovation you did or run with it. And, when I mean disruption, when we were working in the business license area, at times we had to shut down parts of the group to do trainings and to do innovations and that creates a disruptive force. Some managers don’t want to do it because we’re saying “Let’s get behind even further” because we’re going to shut down for a little while and not be able to process these business licenses.

And when your average is an hour and a half wait, and now we got to shut down for a little bit, potentially do a 3-hour wait. You’re going to anger a lot of people and you’re going to have a backlog that increases. That’s a massive disruption for an organization and for a customer. That’s really disruptive for the customer. And when we do those things, we have to be cognizant of not only are we creating disruption per team, but we’re also creating disruption for the person we’re trying to serve the most.

Tracy:  And how did people feel about that? People that were in the process that were going to be working with you to improve those things? Did they feel—was there a lot of resistance initially?

Brian:  You know, I think if you gave them all a stone, they would have thrown it right at me. I think—there’s always—you know, I don’t want to say there’s always a resistance because the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath talks about how people change on a daily basis and you have to really get in line with that people are logical and emotional but most decisions are made emotionally. And, I just love the concept that we all change on a daily basis. We—you know, one day you don’t have kids and then 9 months later, you have a kid. One day you didn’t own a home and then you did a bunch of stuff and now you own a home. And one day you worked in Denver and 6 months later, you’re working in Washington DC.

Those are all choices and people make those choices and they do it typically, you know, feet forward. They’re pumped. They jump into the world of having kids, and we have to figure out how we get people to jump in feet forward in the world of making change in the organization so much so that it helps the customer tremendously. And that’s—you know, that’s the hard part. I think the easy part is to say no, you know. We’re taught to say no first. That’s like our inclination. It’s our default switch.

Tracy:  Yup.

Brian:  And, a lot of us are trying and we’re really struggling, teaching people how to say “yes if” and “yes and.” In fact, I think there’s a whole book about how to say yes as opposed to no.

Tracy:  Yes. Getting to Yes, I think it’s called.

Brian:  Yeah. And, you know, Nancy Reagan did a really good job in the ‘80s teaching us all how to say no, and that was my really funny joke for the—

Tracy:  To say no, yeah.

Brian:  –Gen-X’s of the world, to say no. But it’s true and I think we jump to no really fast and we’re really reluctant to say yes. But I even struggle with it. I’m sure, Tracy, you struggle with it at times. When someone comes up with a hare-brained idea and it involves a little more work on your side, you probably say, “Oh no, I’m not doing that.” And I say it all the time.

Tracy:  Yeah. Actually, my problem is I say yes too much and I need to work on no more.

Brian:  Yeah, yeah. That’s awesome.

Tracy:  Or a “yes and.” I really like what you said, the genius of the “and.” And, you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time working in King County which is the Seattle area in Washington and it’s those interesting questions.

Brian:  —shirt if you clean the room for 7 months in a row.

Tracy:  Huh? Say that again, I’m sorry.

Brian:  I said you can have that beautiful sweatshirt if you clean your room every day for 7 months.

Tracy:  Uh-huh.

Brian:  That’s a great “yes if.”

Tracy:  Yes. Exactly. So, there were some really great stories in the book and I probably—you know, if I had to ask you to pick 1 or 2 of your favorites, I don’t know if you have 1 or 2 favorites that you really enjoyed writing about, do you?

Brian:  Yeah, I absolutely have favorites but don’t tell the person who I favor because that’s like your kids knowing who you favor and I think that’s inappropriate—

Tracy:  True.

Brian:  –to be a good parent.

Tracy:  Okay.

Brian:  However—

Tracy:  I’ll tell you what my favorites were. How’s that?

Brian:  Oh, yeah. That’s perfect. That’s perfect. Then I don’t feel awkward.

Tracy:  Right. Well, again, I mentioned your whole title, “Forget the Fro-Yo,” and I loved hearing about that and I was excited to read about it and it was the Excise and License Department having to wait 3 to 8 hours and part of that solution was they decided to install a fro-yo machine in the waiting room so that as people waited, they could get frozen yogurt. And I think that it’s so funny and I think just hearing it and reading about it is interesting and thanks for sharing that. I think it’s pretty incredible that you finally said, “Well, how about if we improve the process?”

Brian:  I mean who complains when you get free yogurt? I mean let’s be honest. No one is mad about getting free yogurt especially if you bring your kids in.

Tracy:  Oh, right.

Brian:  But the problem is after 3 hours, how much yogurt can you consume where you’re not pissed anymore?

Tracy:  Yes.

Brian:  So we worked with that team a lot. They did such a spectacular job and the manager in that area, Stacie Loucks—She’s actually highlighted in our book and then she’s highlighted in another book that’s coming out this summer by a couple of professors from Valparaiso University. And, they were just blown away that this, you know, seemingly pretty simple situation had turned into such a cluster and yet this manager and this team were just able to crush it and to really focus on reducing the wait times of their customer to measure it. They’ve done such a great job, Tracy, that this team has not requested additional funding in 2 years.

Tracy:  Wow.

Brian:  And an organization like the business licensing area who handles the business licenses for marijuana, they have not requested additional resources, and to me, that’s really mind-blowing.

Tracy:  Yes.

Brian:  And, we had an increase not because of marijuana. I want to make sure that this is clear. But we had an increase because of how much Denver is growing. They usually do about 26,000 transactions a year. They’re doing about 32,000 transactions a year now and that is because of the, you know, large expansions that are going on in Denver. And they’ve been able to handle it without increasing staff, without increasing technology. They’ve been really, really, really strong. There’s actually a great video on our website—if you go to, there’s a wonderful video about this team there on business licenses. And I think the world of them. They are one of my favorites, so I have to be a little careful because I actually use them in almost every speech I give. So, I’m glad that you liked them as much as I do.

Tracy:  Yes.

Brian:  I would say that the thing that blew me away the most and the innovation that I talk about the most is probably the simplest innovation that we have in the book and that’s Chris Tubbs and Chris Tubbs’ team used to receive a 500-page report from a vendor every single day and his team would print out that report only to use the last 6 pages. And, they came up with a process improvement to inform the vendor to only send us the 6 pages and that single innovation saves the city around $5000 in paper cost a year.

And, I was explaining this to a group of people that I hang out with. Apparently, I shouldn’t hang out with them anymore. And they literally said, “Only in government would you think that’s the coolest innovation and only in government would you reward them for doing it.” And I always respond with, “There 2 ways to respond to every innovation. You can respond by saying you should’ve done that 20 years ago or you can respond with ‘Chris, that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. Here’s a $5 gift card to Starbucks and tell your team how proud we are.’”

And if you do the latter, as opposed to the former, you’ll get a lot more results on small innovations than those big innovations that you’re trying to put in place. Those huge process improvements that everyone is dying to put in place, they’re a lot easier when you handle the small ones first.

Tracy:  Yes.

Brian:  And, Chris’ team is just—they never continue to—or they always continue to surprise me and just absolutely blown away by his group.

Tracy:  Well, you know, I really appreciate you coming and talking with us about the Peak Academy, about your book, and I can’t believe we’re out of time already. It went so fast. We could talk for an hour and have still a lot to talk about. So, I just wanted to say thanks for joining us today, Brian. Is there anything else you want to mention about the book or about the Peak Academy before we end up having a finish or coffee?

Brian:  No. The coffee was delicious. I’m more of an Americano guy, so I was a little mad when they only had drip, but we made it through. The last thing I would say is if you’re interested in what we did in Denver and you want to read about it, if you go to, you can pick up a book there or you can pick up one on Amazon by searching my last name or my first and last name, is Brian Elms, and if you find us, tell us what you think about the book on Amazon and do a quick book review. That would be awesome and—

Tracy:  Great.

Brian:  Thank you so much for your time. This was really cool. I hope I get to hang out with a lot of people who listen to it.

Tracy:  Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much. We really appreciate you taking that time to have that coffee with us. And, thanks for spreading the word on the good-working government. I think with things happening and the elections, you know, that are going on, I think it’s always nice to hear some really good stuff happening in government. And I think you’ll start to change the way people think about government hopefully.

So that was Brian Elms, director of the Peak Academy at the City and County of Denver. Thanks for joining us, Brian. And I also want to thank our audience for joining us as well. We’ll see you next time at the café.


Tracy:  So that wraps us up for our episode of Just-In-Time Café. Thank you so much for joining us. Don’t forget to download the podcast on iTunes and also check our website for any upcoming webinars.

Elisabeth:  Thank you, everybody. Go drink some coffee. Meet us again in a month.

Tracy:  See you next time.

Thanks for Listening!

Listen to more podcasts.

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. 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.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 30 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Marriott International, Inc. build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.
Close search