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King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division paves the way for process improvement with a two-pronged approach: Changing Culture and Kaizen Improvements. Watch this 30 minute success story to learn 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 Challenge

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.”

The Discovery

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.

The Improvements

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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Success Story Transcript

Tracy: Hi, everyone! Welcome to the’s project presentation webinar. Thanks for spending some time with us today. We have over 350,000 people visiting our site monthly and we craft webinars just for you, our global learner community.

So, we are really glad you are joining us today for our presentation. The presentation today is from Wastewater Treatment Division of King County up here in Washington, the state, the great, beautiful state of Washington.

And our title for today is Streamlining Capital Delivery and Their Lean Journey with Sandy Kilroy and Bill Wilbert.

I am a Managing Partner at but I’ve had the pleasure of working with both Bill and Sandy with some of the efforts with Integris Performance Advisors here at Wastewater. And I can’t wait to hear this presentation.

So before we do that, let’s hear a little bit about our presenters. So Bill, tell us a little bit about yourself, please.

About Our Presenters

Bill: All right, Tracy. Well, I’ve been with King County Wastewater Treatment Division for 17 years. I’m an Environmental Programs Supervisor for the division and I manage the permitting and regulatory compliance people.

Tracy: Very nice. And what did you do for fun, Bill?

Bill: What I do for fun? I like to work for fun actually. I got to do the best job so I’m working with people. I like working with people. I like exploring our national park system on my Harley because that’s a great way to experience it.

Tracy: That is awesome. Can we get a picture for all of our listeners with you on a Harley?

Bill: Yeah, I think I could find that for you.

Tracy: Thanks for sharing, Bill. And Sandy, tell us a little bit about you.

Sandy: Hi. I’m the Assistant Director for the Division. I’ve been with Wastewater for a little over 5 years but within the County working on various water issues for the last 25 years.

Tracy: Nice. And what did you do for fun, Sandy?

Sandy: I like to backpack and ski, any type of skiing, cross-country, downhill, water skiing.

Tracy: Nice. Do you snowboard too?

Sandy: I do not snowboard.

Tracy: Right.

Sandy: I don’t snowboard. All right, Tracy.

Tracy: I know. Not that we haven’t gone together. All right. So, I am very excited to hear about how things are going with the lean journey at Wastewater. So tell us a little bit about Wastewater and some of the reasons why you guys started on your lean journey. Would that be OK?

Sandy: Sure. So, we’ve been doing continuous improvement here in Wastewater for a number of years. And we had a decade of productivity initiative and we have a really robust bright idea program, which is an employee-generated idea program.

Compelling Driver – Capital Project Needs Are Changing

So the concept of continuous improvement and utilizing lean isn’t necessarily new for us. But what really drove our application of lean was this graph right here. And this is a graph that shows the past and the future delivery of our Capital Project needs.

And really, the intent of this graph is to show that it is changing. That in the future, the next 15 years, we’re going to see a tremendous growth in the number of Capital projects that we need to deliver to maintain the quality infrastructure that we have and ensure that our water quality in this region is protected.

And so, we knew that we needed a multifaceted approach in order to address this change. And the question was, how can we deliver projects in less time in order to free up capacity for us to deliver a lot more projects than we historically have?

Desired Outcome

So we set a goal for ourselves that typically takes 8 to 10 years. I know that sounds a long time.

Tracy: What?

Sandy: But we are talking about big capital infrastructure projects to manage wastewater treatment system.

Tracy: You mean like building wastewater treatment facilities?

Sandy: Either small facilities, pump stations, new conveyance lines, or major infrastructure upgrades at the actual established treatment plants.

Tracy: Got it.

Sandy: So our target or outcome was at least one year faster. We really aspired to more than that. But that was our goal. And to uncover 30% staff time availability as well as the support, just a culture of continuous improvement in our capital delivery program.

Tracy: OK.

Evolving Our Approach – Utilizing Lean Philosophies for Capital Delivery Streamlining

Sandy: Our approach has really evolved in terms of how we utilize lean philosophies. First, we formed a staff team. We knew we had to go right to the staff. They have the knowledge and experience of what we needed to do. We identified all the major phases and steps of the Capital delivery process, so a large value stream map.

We surveyed 150 employees on what was important, identified 6 areas and then rolled it up to staff and created an implementation plan. And we thought we will go then. We were good to go.

Tracy: Woohoo!

Sandy: And then we thought – it became apparent that this isn’t going to work unless we had the whole organization behind this event. So our capital delivery is about half of our organization in terms of staff as well as budget. So we really needed the whole organization behind it. And that created us or made us kind of pause and say, “Where are we trying to go? It’s not just this capital streamlining but where are we trying to go as an agency?” We had just celebrated or about to celebrate our 50th anniversary.

Tracy: Which is incredible.

Sandy: Which is incredible, 50 years of clean water.

Tracy: So it’s really timely too.

Utility of the Future

Sandy: It actually was really timely because not just with the 50th anniversary but there is a real paradigm shift in the wastewater industry to move towards what we call Utility of the Future. So we were really trying to say, “How are we going to be different going forward than how we’ve been historically?”

And so, we did work with Integris in doing of a robust management team retreat where we reflected on our past work, looked to the future, identified our future challenges and opportunities and then created a new vision, mission, values and goals, brought that up to employees through a number of catch ball sessions and really added clarity to how we are moving forward.

And the importance of this is that it really gave us some direction and structure in which to implement the capital streamlining work. And we knew we have the support of the whole Division.

Tracy: What did you think about the whole process? The retreat and then the catch ball sessions? I mean have you done something like that before?

Sandy: We haven’t done something as robust before. Certainly over the years of the agency, there have been changes into the mission and vision. But the intensity of which we did this one, I don’t think had been done in the past. And we did a deeper dive so to say in looking at how we want to evolve in the future and how we were really going to progress our vision of being innovative and resilient into the water enterprise.

I also think we engaged employees more than historically. The catch ball sessions were really important part of that where we brought them the thinking that we’re doing and included their comments in the final product.

Tracy: Good.

Creating a Culture of Lean

Sandy: So this then leads us to creating a culture of lean and how we worked both I’d say simultaneously on creating this culture of lean across our organization while at the same time doing very specific work around capital streamlining.

So this then leads us to creating a culture of lean and how we worked both I’d say simultaneously on creating this culture of lean across our organization while at the same time doing very specific work around capital streamlining.

And now, I’m going to pass it to Bill.

Bill: Thank you. I mean I think one of the things we recognized is that we conducted a lot of training. We exposed everybody to all the concepts for value stream mapping and the A3s and visual management boards. But to really get it going, it had to be clear that there was direct support from the top but all the solutions were going to come from the bottom.

But the bottom needed coaches, mentors, somebody to help them struggle through these processes. And so, we identified a core group, essentially frontline supervisors within the Division and they have additional skills and monthly training so that there would be a culture and a support group to really help implement this in the entire Division.

Tracy: Right. You definitely need a support system when you’re going to make some big changes because we’re learning new behaviors, we’re learning new tools and techniques to use, and people are really used to working together in the process but not necessarily working together on the process, right? So that’s what we’re really teaching people to do. Good.

Bill: Exactly. And so, it’s not natural. These are new behaviors for us. A lot of work is invisible. It’s engineering. We have biologist. We have a lot of professionals. And so getting the work to be visible so that we could map it, track it, and create metrics and data that required support from the activities that seem fairly innocent but could have gone as the process walks, the gemba walks, hoping people or the individuals come on board. So there’s a lot going on. And that’s why we need that support in the Division.

Process Improvement Events

And so as Sandy indicated, we had identified 6 components. We actually had 7 of them and what these bullets represent is the processes and sub-processes that constitute that major value stream that we have here in the King Street Center which is the delivery of major capital projects.

And so, what I’m going to walk you through next is exactly what we were able to accomplish in these 7 different Kaizen events.

Tracy: Nice.

What Is a Process Improvement Event?

Bill: So explaining to the staff exactly what a process improvement event is, we started with whether or not we wanted to adapt a lot of the terminology. We chose to get sucked and not just embrace all the technical jargon.

Tracy: Sure.

Bill: But to really identify like you say, it’s not about the people, it’s about the processes and this is done by the waste and the process. And of course, we went through the exercises that we measured with which is the current state and then identified this image at the bottom of the screen. It’s actually a sub-process to an acquisition process as the condemnation steps that we have to take if we have to acquire a piece of property through litigation.

And the top – well, to the current state and what we did is after mapping the current state, we identified areas where there’s waste and non-value added and then also, necessary non-value added components.

And then identified the project to actually pilot and test where we can do some improvements. And I’ll talk about that here in a minute in the next few slides.

Tracy: So, were people excited to do this? Were they a little wary? What do you think?

Bill: I think it was – they approached it with caution and then they left it with quite a bit of optimism and excitement. That’s how I summarized it.

Tracy: Nice.

60% Engineering Review

Bill: And so, for the very first event that we had, which is a major part of capital and engineering effort is the 60% review. And that process which took a considerable amount of time, four months, was reduced to one and a half months, which in and itself is an improvement.

But really, the benefit was we were able to identify the voice of the customer. We were able to incorporate operation’s comments on structure that they were going to ultimately own and operate and we developed better roles and responsibilities, defined tasks and standardized how we were going to get that information into the process. So some of the benefits are tangible, some you just don’t measure but you see in just the mere actions.

Tracy: Nice.

Project Initiation and Release

Bill: One of the first steps in the capital project is launching it. So a project initiation is released, which is a very interesting process for us. When we all got into the room, what you see is a picture of all the unit managers and subject matter expert resource supervisors as well what we call CST team which is our Capital …

Sandy: Capital Systems Team.

Bill: Yeah.

Tracy: That’s a lot of people.

Bill: That’s a lot of people.

Tracy: It’s a big process.

Bill: It’s a big process. And what’s interesting is you think that a big process like that, everybody would have a common understanding of how we every project. And what we discovered is that that wasn’t the case.

Sandy: Yes.

Bill: Everybody had different understanding, which explained why it then took as long as it did. It originally took 3 to 6 months. And by getting everybody on the same page of how the process should be and defining the process which identifies a lot of the items that are critical to project managers to do the projects such as whether or not they’re going to have resources when the project do launch or evaluated.

And then this process, we have been able to demonstrate through 28 different projects now where we’ve highlighted that we can deliver this phase of the project in one month or less. It’s actually 28 days.

Tracy: That’s astounding.

Sandy: Yeah, it has been a great progress. And I would add that this was a real turning point in the process because this was actually a very painful workshop and improvement process. To what Bill said, we thought we had a standard way of doing work. And no one could identify a standard where everyone presented a different approach to doing this. And I think there was a bit of anxiety I would say among the people in the room that we weren’t performing a standard as we thought we were.

And so, I think it was a painful process. We learned a lot through this workshop in order to also help inform how we did the remainder of that workshop. But it was painful but also engaging. No one walked away from the whole process after that. They realized that there’s a real benefit.

Tracy: Yes. I think what you said earlier, Bill, is very interesting. All of these processes are invisible. It’s not like you’ve got a widget on the floor and you can say, “Look at all this crap. What’s going on?”

And so, if you’re working in an invisible process with many, many people like this, it’s easy for it to not be standard after a while if it’s not looked at or people aren’t clear about what the standard is. So I think that’s awesome.

And how long did it take to actually make that improvement? How long was the project?

Bill: The Kaizen event occurred I think over a 3-day period. But the actual testing and piloting has occurred over the last year. Most of it had taken 6 months.

Tracy: Right.

Bill: We were able to track projects pretty quickly.

Tracy: Yeah. So you were able to make the improvement within a short period of time and then it was just really a matter of making sure that it worked and collecting the data to show that it actually is only one month now.

So you were able to make the improvement within a short period of time and then it was just really a matter of making sure that it worked and collecting the data to show that it actually is only one month now.

Sandy: Yeah. I meant this was one where we could really make the improvement in the meeting and then it was just defining and got implemented.

Bill: It was implemented and then they did quick PDCA.. So there were a couple of refinements that they did because they were so focused on it. I mean it does occur in short order.

Tracy: Great. So we are super excited and they’re probably ready to do another one. Maybe not.

Bill: Whoa! As Sandy said, it really did open our eyes to the fact that we may not all agreed what the standard is, if in fact there was one. And so, we started to embrace this on all the remaining projects with a little bit more enthusiasm but also understand that we might not all be on the same page.

Tracy: Yeah. Good.

Design Consultant Procurement

Bill: And so, the next big process that we undertook was an interesting one because these are easier to do if you control the environment that it’s in. But the procurement phase, we interact largely with an outside agency.

And so, we partnered with a different agency in Wastewater that’s responsible for the contracting and advertising and procurement elements as a customer in that process to really evaluate how we got our consultants on board in order to do the capital projects. And it’s very complicated. Look at the slide. You will see that the bottom right-hand sort of has a color scheme that represents the different major components of a procurement process.

And so, we had to break this one down and sort of tackle it, sort of compartmentalized. But by doing so, what we have is we’re actually now tracking. We have metrics. We have data. And we’ve gone through the first three components which is planning, solicitation and evaluation. And you can see in the 2016 year, we’re making significant improvements in every single one of those phases.

And the grey area, we still have of areas to improve with. The benefits? Not just standardization and better documentation but we’ve eliminated a lot of pain in these processes. Just for example, the evaluation phase used to take several weeks with a lot of people doing a lot of work during weekends to evaluate how contracts were going to be rated in order to compare them. That process now is done just a couple of days instead of weeks.

Tracy: What? Wow! That’s awesome.

Sandy: And I would just add to this that this – and Bill talked about it. But this was really important for our employees because this is a body of work that is largely influenced by another county agency, our Finance Division. And it was one way for us to show that we’re not in it alone, that we’re willing to work with other divisions to do process improvement to benefit our employees. And it has paid off because not only did we get improvements in this work but we have formed stronger relationships with our Finance Division and the employees are seeing that.

Tracy: Yeah, that’s great. Yes.

Property Acquisition

Bill: So, the next process that we undertook was the property acquisition, which is the group that I manage. And historically, property acquisition has been looked at as sort of an art. I mean each property is unique. Each property owner is unique. But what we learned through lean was that the processes are actually the same for every one of these.

And so when we started to look at it as processes and we started with what was a 24-month window to acquire a property, we were able to identify several areas where we had unnecessary wait time and some unclear directions in terms of how long you should wait for your engaged property owners, how many times should you conduct attempts to interview property owners as well as when you should order data reports that things like this.

So we decided to create a lot of milestones and some clear instructions about a standard template for some of the letters. So we were able to condense that theoretically to 12 months. But then we applied this model to four different projects and actually sustained 12 and 11-month durations. So we were able to demonstrate that we can reduce that process in half.

Tracy: Only in half? That’s awesome.

Bill: The real benefit though wasn’t the savings in time. It was the clarity that was given to not only the agents that perform the work but to our customer which is the project manager. Because before, there was a large window for when they can expect delivery of property as necessary for the projects, now the customer has a high degree of predictability and the staff has clarity on what they’re supposed to do and when they do it. So the feedback from both the customers as well as the staff is that they like this process.

Tracy: So, I know that you’ve got a few more to show and I’m very interested and I’m sure our listeners are too, but did you follow the same process of improvement for all of these? Did you follow with Kaizen basically and a certain agenda if you will to walk through all of these?

Because I think what’s interesting and amazing is that you’ve gotten really great results in some of the projects we’ve seen already and I’m sure people are curious to know, I mean was it the same process of the Kaizen event or the rapid improvement event?

Alternative Development and Selection

Bill: Absolutely. So I mean I can explain that with the next process that we went through. So, each Kaizen event is set up with a charter which is sort of a general understanding of what you’re trying to target which is either time-saving or efficiency. And then we go through and we walk the process individually with people who actually do the work. So we kind of conduct an investigation of what it is that we are looking at and where there are opportunities to do Kaizen burst where there’s like apparent low-hanging fruit that we can target.

And we create a charter and we bring in the team of the people who actually do the work as well as customers and maybe subject matter experts, stakeholders that might be associated with this event. We apply that structure to every single process and then we would hold the event. They’re in days from two days to five days depending on the complexity of them.

And then in those processes, people would map out and identify where they saw the waste.

And then in those processes, people would map out and identify where they saw the waste. And then they do this ownership. They were able to mark by the processes that they face, and that’s where I think beauty came from the process because instead of supervisors or managers coming up with solution, the people who are actually doing the work, identified the barriers to their work, were able to eliminate them themselves and so they were empowered and then if there’s some barrier, also results in induced strain and stress and anxiety for them in their daily work, and so therefore the excitement. And so, they get to modify their processes.

And in alternative development selection, that was a 26-month painful process that has now been reduced to 11 because the staff were able to identify where there was a lot of unnecessary work that was being put on to the consultants that they would have to work through.

Tracy: Yeah. That’s awesome. And so, why do you think this never happened before? Why do you think they didn’t actually improve the processes before in your opinion? Is it because they weren’t allowed to? Is it because they were so busy that it wasn’t really a focused initiative of some kind? What do you think is the reason on why you’ve had such significant improvements now? Any ideas around that?

Bill: Well, Sandy?

Sandy: Well, I think it’s probably not a straight answer. I think the driver that I introduced at the beginning was a key part of starting to really look at our capital delivery. We’ve made significant improvements over decades on capital delivery.

Five years ago, we instituted project management standards and standardization around that. It’s a big program. It’s a complex field. It evolves over time. And as we’ve grown, it got complicated.

Tracy: Sure.

Sandy: And so, I think the timing was just right that we had the perfect storm of issues happening for us to really look at saying, “OK, so why are things taking so long? And can we do something about it that’s helpful?”

Tracy: That’s awesome. OK. Good. Thank you.

Bill: We do. We do have that. I think we’re now standing closer to the improvement. And we also learned from our mistakes. And so when something goes wrong, we usually add a process to prevent that from occurring again.

But I don’t believe in our old culture. We were good at eliminating processes.

Tracy: Right.

Bill: And so when you map it, you can start to identify some of these measures that were in place before for good reason. That may not be applicable today. And so, updating our processes and really evaluating them more frequently to see if they’re still current or needed I think is what we learned.

Sandy: Yeah, that’s a great point.

Tracy: That is a great point. I’ve seen that a lot in another government processes too where we just say, “Do we need to really still do all of these steps? Let’s just stop doing it.”

OK. Go ahead. I’m sorry I keep interrupting.

Environmental Permitting

Bill: So environmental permitting, so this is another process that I think we saw it as more of an art. And just like the real estate acquisition, we looked at whether or not there are ways of evaluating and processing permits so that they are existing and consistent. And so, where no standard work existed before, we now have standard work. It gives us the foundation for developing the data to target for improvement to see if we can condense the processing time for getting approvals from the regulatory agencies that we need.

Tracy: OK. Very nice.

30% Design Document Development

Bill: And similarly, in 30% designed documents and developments, so there is some design review process, we actually discovered that the phases, the engineering phases of going through that process were very well established and in general, very efficient. And so, though we weren’t able to necessarily find significant savings in those individual steps, we then discover that the steps could occur earlier than they have been in the past. And there’s sort of a downtime.

And so, they were able to find an opportunity to reduce development process by four months. And we identified some other areas that they can work on in the future where they could be improvements for like how they get record drawings for instance, which will help them not have to do rework.

Tracy: Right.

Incorporation of Lean in the Day to Day Work at WTD

Bill: So in incorporating lean, what you’ll find today if you work around before that you wouldn’t have found necessarily before we started this journey is that we actually have visual management boards. And they were kind of messy because we want them to be messy.

Tracy: Yes.

Bill: We wanted to actually reflect what’s happening today. And so, it’s not a kosher picture. It’s not stagnant. In fact …

Tracy: It’s not laminated.

Bill: … they really are interactive.

Tracy: Lamination means people aren’t changing it.

Sandy: Changing it.

Tracy: Right.

Bill: And you’re finding that the supervisors and the staff are actually using them in ways to communicate. They are huddling around these. They are monitoring them. They are tracking them. And they’re starting to connect the dots where the different visual management systems related to one another.

And so, a staff person’s visual management system is actually supporting the units tier one board for instance, which supports the director’s territory board. And so, we’re starting to see the alignment through there.

And we’re maybe not fully adapting all the A3 tools because there are different that we’re – but we are experimenting with them, the 4-box with the 7-box. And we’re seeing actually take out the copies of fishbone diagram and starting to use them to get the deeper understanding of the problem before launching into solutions.

Tracy: Yes.

Bill: And so, I think we’re making significant progress on our journey.

Tracy: so not only process improvements that are lead time related or generated by process but also working on lean culture, which I think is awesome.

Bill: Exactly. And so, this next slide, this kind of gives you an illustration of how on the individual basis, how people are having fun with their visual systems via the staff person and an environmental group who was tracking all the regulatory permits on a little baseball diamond for one of our major capital projects.

And then on the left, you have someone tracking local and state permits horizontally on their cute board. So it’s very visible. You can see the project manager can come up and look at their particular project and see where the deliverable is relative to its phase in the process.

Tracy: Yes.

Bill: And then the individual Kanban boards that people are using for advertising their work. So, it really is being adapted at all levels.

Tracy: Yes. And this is a great example of making the process visible, right?

Bill: It is. And our management does – they’re going through in there and actually interviewing the staff and asking them how are these processes working? And so, there is the excitement. They really do see the management care, that they are embracing the idea and making improvements to their own individual work.

It’s Contagious!

And so, what we’re finding is that it’s just absolutely contagious because when the staff come out of these Kaizen events and they experienced but maybe for some, a first time in their career, that they had the power to modify the process that they were subjected to on how they do their work. They found that they were able to eliminate a lot of pain and a lot of things that were frustrating to them that they just thought that that was the rule. That’s how you do it.

And to see that they could actually change it was fun and exciting. And that kind of excitement doesn’t stay in one spot. It doesn’t stay contained. It’s contagious. Other units would see how jazz the staff were and they would take on themselves to like, “Well, I want to apply this in my process because I got some frustrating things I want to deal with.”

And so, we had people who do work like with administrative processes such as procurement waivers which would take 79 days. Eliminate all the unnecessary steps throughout the processes so that they could do that in 44 days.

Tracy: Yeah.

Bill: And we had Finance Department figure out how to address customers more efficiently and quicker and to track things where they got backlog. And our industrial waste program, identify ways of eliminating unnecessary permit application information to make it easier for not just the permitting, the customer but for the staff who have to wade through all of the information that the applicants were providing. So, just a lot of very exciting spontaneous improvement occurring throughout this.

Tracy: And so, employees feeling empowered. They don’t feel like a victim anymore. They actually feel like they can have some ability to look at the processes that they’re running and maybe having impact on how do we make it better or questioning. That’s what I love the most is I hear people go, “Do we really need to be doing this staff. Does really make sense still?” I love hearing that because curiosity there and now, they feel like they’re in a place where they actually make a change. So that’s really exciting.

Bill: It’s like a save for them. At this point, they can ask the 5 whys. Why am I doing that? Why? Because …

Sandy: It’s a common language.

Q & A

Tracy: Good. Well, I just had a couple of questions. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s very exciting. I think a lot of people are going to see that you guys have some really impressive results. And the fact that you’ve been able to do that in short period of time, I don’t know. I mean I think one of you should run for president. Well, that’s a different question, maybe later that we can address.

But I do have a couple of questions for you. And this is really related to maybe some of the questions that other people might have in hearing some of the things.

So first of all, I’d love to hear a little bit about through this whole process, thinking about maybe some lessons learned, what were some lessons that you think would be important for other people to hear about if they were going to try to embark on this journey? Do you have any challenges that you felt like you faced or lessons learned throughout this process and maybe they can learn from maybe something that you made some mistake? Did you have anything that comes to mind around that?

Sandy: Well, I think the biggest challenge at first was convincing employees that this is important and worthwhile. I think having – I’m going to go back to our driver, I think it’s important for employees to understand why we’re asking to do that.

Well, I think the biggest challenge at first was convincing employees that this is important and worthwhile.

And typically, saving money is not – I hate to say it, but it’s not really that much of a driver in itself because we always want to be efficient. So just more saving money in this so they know they it’s going to a particular process or project isn’t necessarily helpful. So I think having a management outline a really compelling driver is helpful.

Tracy: Yes.

Sandy: We face just – how we fit this in with everything else. So we know in the long term that this process saves time and that we’re starting to see that. But at the beginning, it takes a lot of time. And if you’ve got day after day with 10 or 20 people in a room doing the process improvement, there is that feeling that they’re being taken away from their critical work.

So again, we didn’t – we persisted and we got those concerns early on and we did not change course in the sense of say, “OK. You know how to do it.”

It’s like, “No, this is a priority. We need to do it. We know you have other work.” This is your work and it’s just as important and yes, you need to be there. And I think that is a suggestion that’s just to stay the course with these.

The other thing I guess we learned and adapted is that we started with – I think our very first process event was a full 5-day Kaizen event and I think we learned that we didn’t need to do 5 days. That that really was tough for the organization to have that many people engaged. So we started experimenting with 3 days, 2 days.

Tracy: Yeah.

Sandy: Because some events even be a half a day and that has really worked and that flexibility has allowed the employees to really say, “Oh, OK. We can make this work for us.”

Tracy: Good. How about you, Bill?

Bill: I think it was critical that we had tremendous support. We had champions and sponsors and management that we’re highly visible in the process and then walking or doing the gemba walks and looking at the visual management boards, asking questions from the staff. And I that was important to them because the staff invested in it and then they saw how management was committed to this and that commitment is what provided to be other than the flavor of the month. It had a natural cultural change.

And so, people understand that we’re just – we’re building that lean muscle and it’s going to take time. We don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. But we were just keeping our eye on the ball of continuous improvement and to make incremental steps towards our ultimate vision of being that Utility of the Future.

Tracy: Very nice. So I have one last question for you. And that is, do you have any suggestions for another government organization who might want to embark on a lean journey or process improvement? Do you have any suggestions for them about just some points of advice that you would either give them? And maybe I would say government because you’re in government but it could really be any organization. So do you have any suggestions for someone embarking on a lean journey?

Bill: My suggestion would be recognize the fact that people were probably doing good work before but they might have prevented by the very systems you set up the processes that prevented them. And so, they were working hard before and you’re going to ask them to slow down and embrace a slightly different and more structured process and that it’s going to take time and effort. But it will be rewarding as they do it. And so, it’s really to coach them and help them through that change.

Tracy: Very nice.

Sandy: And I would say find the employees and managers who are supportive of this, the champions and use them. That it’s important to identify those early on. There are always people in organization who want to be more efficient, who think like this and might feel constraint that they can’t act within the culture. So, that would be an early step as to find who those people are and enable them to shine and do it. And that helps grow that culture that Bill was talking about in terms of being contagious because it’s really important to start with those.

Tracy: Definitely. You don’t really want to start with someone who is resisting and it’s like a fight now. Starting with the early adopters and the people want to run with process improvement is a great strategy. Thank you.

So, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your story, Bill and Sandy. I love it and I think a lot of people are going to love to hear about the success that you guys have had at Wastewater. And I’m sure they’re going to want to hear more when you do more next year.

So these are project presentation webinar series. And I want to thank our listeners as well for joining us today and we hope you’ve enjoyed your time on our webinar today. And we’re here at thank you for signing in and listening in.

And again, thank you so much Bill and Sandy because these are the stories that people really do want to hear.

Sandy: Thank you, Tracy.

Bill: Thank you.

Tracy: OK. Bye-bye.

Get the inside scoop on many other successful Lean Six Sigma projects at our Super Stories of Success page. Do you have a story to tell? We’d love to hear about your own project success! Please contact us.

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.
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