King County Wastewater Treatment Division Improves Project Initiation & Release By 45% With GLSS









King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division paves the way for process improvement with a two-pronged approach: Changing Culture and Kaizen Improvements. Here’s how Sandy and Bill are helping to reduce lead time in their Capital Streamlining efforts.

Bill Wilbert has worked for the King County Wastewater Treatment Division for 17 years. He’s an Environmental Programs Supervisor for the division and manages the permitting and regulatory compliance workforce. Sandy Kilroy was the Assistant Director for the King County Wastewater Treatment Division. She’s been with Wastewater for a little over 5 years but within the County working on water issues for the last 25 years.


The volume of capital projects was about to balloon in the largest county in Washington State. Bill and Sandy, leaders within the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, were determined to do their part to navigate those projects to maintain the region’s precious water quality. That meant tackling the daunting timelines—up to 10 years—of capital projects.

Having recently embraced Lean Six Sigma the team quickly separated the challenge into separate improvement efforts. Since one of the first steps in a capital project is launching it, this became the focus of one of their first projects. The Project Initiation and Release process took anywhere from 3 to 6 months and involved a number of separate groups. They decided to pull representative members together in a room and conduct a Rapid Improvement Event—otherwise known as “Kaizen Event.”


Bill and Sandy set up the event and pulled everyone into the room—all the unit managers, subject matter experts and resource supervisors as well as the Capital Systems Team. Early on during the first day of the event they experienced an uncomfortable moment when they “busted” a long-held assumption.

Whereas they initially assumed that everyone had a common understanding of how each project was initiated, they discovered this was not the case at all. The reality was that everybody had a completely different idea, which helped explain why the process took 3 to 6 months.

The work of the event quickly pivoted to getting the people in the room on the same page—they had to agree on how the process should function. This led to identifying items that were critical to project managers such as whether or not they’d have the resources they needed when the project launched.

This workshop and process of discovery was a true turning point for Bill and Sandy. It turned out to be a painful session. They all arrived thinking they had a standard way of doing work—but no one could identify a standard. Everyone presented a different approach. The reality caused a fair amount of anxiety in the room. They realized they weren’t performing to a standard.

It was a painful event, but they learned a lot during the process which helped Bill and Sandy adjust how they conducted the remainder of the workshop. Regardless of the difficulties, the work was truly engaging. No one walked away from the process or gave up. They saw the tangible benefit of conducting the improvement event.


As a result of the 3-Day Rapid Improvement Event, the group was able to implement solutions immediately and then track the results for 6 months to ensure the fixes “stuck.” They followed up the event with a number of quick PDCA cycles to refine the improvements post-launch. As part of the improved process they made several targeted changes to the process:

  • Defined the Project Initiation Process
  • Assigned a clear owner of the Project Charter
  • Clarified the project objectives
  • Clarified the boundaries and staff resources
  • Clarified expectations and timing for Gate 1
The Results

Having created new standards for the Project Initiation and Release process, they were able to track the impact on 28 subsequent project launches. They showed definitively that they could deliver this phase of a capital project in one month or less—actually 28 days—a 45% reduction of Lead Time.

What’s Next?

Bill and Sandy found the process improvement experience to be contagious. Staff came out of the Rapid Improvement Events having experienced—maybe for the first time in their careers—the power to modify the process. They had control over how they did their work. They were able to eliminate the pain and frustration they had come to accept as the rule. Lean Six Sigma was a total game-changer.

They plan to continue their efforts to streamline the capital projects for the Waste-Water Treatment Division with a steady supply of 2-Day and 3-Day Rapid Improvement Events. The staff are engaged, the processes have become less painful, the results are solid and the Division is in a better position to maintain the infrastructure necessary for stellar water quality.

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