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Improving the Capital Design Review Process at Wastewater Treatment Division With Roger Browne - GoLeanSixSigma.com

King County Wastewater Treatment Division successfully improves the Capital Design process. Watch this 30 minute success story webinar featuring Roger Browne, an Engineering Supervisor. Roger talks about the successful project and how a team from Wastewater Treatment Division helped reduce lead time on this Capital Design Review Process.

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Success Story Transcript

Tracy: Hello and welcome to another Project Presentation Webinar hosted by GoLeanSixSigma.com. This is where we share stories about successful Lean Six Sigma projects because this is where the rubber meets the road.

I’m Tracy O’Rourke, Managing Partner for GoLeanSixSigma.com. And today, we are highlighting Roger Browne who works for Wastewater Treatment Division in King County. And his project is titled Improving Capital Design Review.

How are you today, Roger?

Roger: I’m great. Thanks.

Tracy: Good. And so, tell us a little bit about yourself.

About Our Presenter

Roger: I’m one of three Engineering Supervisors here in Wastewater Treatment Division and I’ve been with the county about 28 years.

Tracy: Only 28 years.

Roger: Only 28 years, a couple more to go. And I’ve been involved with Lean since about – well, since the executive concept in 2011 but this is my fifth Lean event and that my sixth one starting tomorrow. You could say it’s in my blood. I really think it’s an amazing process. It solves problems like nothing else. It beats anything.

It solves problems like nothing else.

And anybody who’s out there listening and thinking about jumping in, just do it. You’ll really, really like the results.

Tracy: As we’re saying here, because I’ve been working with King County and with other county folks, process improvement sometimes we really struggle. So it’s nice to hear and see the people that have passion.

So, what do you do for fun, Roger?

Roger: I program games for the Android and do other programming work. Sometimes I bring it out here in the office and use to help develop tools that we can use to make our lives better. So, that’s my hobby. I guess there are a lot of things that come with it.

Tracy: You’ve got stuff out there on Android for games.

Roger: Yeah.

Tracy: That’s awesome. Great. So I’m sure everybody is very excited to hear about the project that you’ve been doing.

30 Design Development Segment

Roger: So, 30% Design Development is part of the larger capital streamlining effort to improve the time it takes and you’ll hear that in a minute, per project to go from inception all the way to delivery to the customer.

Tracy: And you’re talking about building like buildings for wastewater like treatments centers, treatment plants.

Roger: Pumping station, pipelines.

Tracy: So stuff that people don’t think about every day but they really, really find valuable.

Roger: Right. We prefer to be out of the limelight because when we’re under the spotlight, it usually leads to problems. So if you’re not hearing from me, it’s good news.

Tracy: Yes.

Roger: 30% Design is part of that overall process. The project starts in planning. Maybe an analogy would be if you were going to – let’s say, you decided your family is too big for the house you’re in, so in planning you go, when you get bigger house. That’s planning.

And then alternative selection, which comes just before this process is where you to choose the area you want to live and maybe the subdivision, maybe you choose your architecture who is going to draw up the plans for you.

You think about how big the house needs to be. You need a 3-bedroom or 4-bedroom, even the style of the house.

In 30%, you cleared the lot. You made a foundation and you do the framing. You’ve done enough of the layout that you know maybe what your big appliances are going to be, what kind of furniture you’re going to use, so some of those design decisions that you’re making that are going to get fixed. And you discover things about the site that weren’t known in planning.

And then 60% of the total is this, you’ll fill in a lot of plumb work of details to do the plumbing, the wiring, to put the flooring down, right?

Tracy: That’s very helpful. Thank you, Roger.

Roger: And then eventually, you’ll do like 90%, because we talk about 90% here too, you’ll do the finishing and the paint, maybe you’ll pick out your carpet and do your trim. Put your counter tops.

So that’s an analogy to give you an idea of what 30% does. It’s establishing that framework for the overall project.

Tracy: Great. Thank you.

Roger: You bet. OK. So today, I’m going to show you how we use Lean to improve the process, this process. But we used to create our 30% Design documents.

How We (Don’t) Solve Problems

First, just a little history. You may recognize this problem-solving method. See you problem. Gather the stakeholders. Reach consensus on how to fix it. Ask and wait, for funding to do it. Then the team members get busy elsewhere and the momentum goes away. The process dissolves and the problems continue.

We might repeat the cycle several times. OK. Change is hard but it’s not impossible.

Tracy: I think that probably resonates with a lot of people, that process.


Roger: Right. So that’s why we like Lean. King County adopted Lean as a focus and efficient method for solving process problems. Employees are encouraged to act. And the process is guided so that anyone here can do it.

Compelling driver – Capital Project Needs

In Wastewater, we had a significant challenge driving us. With breakwater winding down, we now have time to do the projects we put on hold. But we’re short on staff. We need to find a way to reduce the time it takes to deliver a capital improvement project in order to free up resources to get more of them done.

We need to double output in the next two to three years to keep pace with the needs of the region. For practical reasons like budget and office space, we can’t just throw more staff at this although that will be part of the solution.

Tracy: So really, capacity, a real capacity in the agency. You needed to improve the capacity to do more projects.

Roger: Right. Exactly right.

Tracy: Wonderful.

CST Level Project Flow Chart – Draft for Markup

Roger: It would take a long time to deliver the capital improvement process.

Tracy: My goodness. That is a long process map.

Roger: For larger projects, it can take 10 years or more.

Tracy: So you’ve been here 28 years. So does that mean you’ve done three projects?

Roger: Well, we’re doing several projects all at the same time. So that’s part of it.

Tracy: Right. OK.

Roger: And so, the capital streamlining effort was created with the goal to reduce project delivery by a year or more and to free up 30% of our staff labor.

There are a lot of tests before moving a project from charter to delivery. For this main event, we examine the production of 30% Design documents, expands the timeline from gate 2 to alternative selection to gate 3 baseline approval.

Tracy: I’m really impressed that you guys map this whole process well. It’s a long process.

Roger: Right. We map that whole long chart in the south and then we just selected this segment to work on because there are a lot of tasks.

Tracy: Yes.

LEAN/Six Sigma

Roger: So Lean in King County, it’s a method that relies on a collaborative effort to improve performance. We bring team members to work the process together with customers served by the process to accomplish this.

Tracy: Very good strategy.

Roger: It has been working well for us. Lean is about creating more value for customers while eliminating waste. We’ll be looking for time spent waiting. Obstacles that prevent progress, steps that duplicate others or do not give value.

Six Sigma is a method that aims at eliminating defects. We’ll be using these 5 steps to improve our business process; define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.

Tracy: I’m very familiar with that. It’s a very successful methodology.

Roger: And these are always use in that order. We’ll see this methodology in action in our presentation PowerPoint.

Tracy: Wonderful.


Roger: In the define step, we articulate the problem or goal. In our case, this is inherited from the capital streamlining effort to reduce the time required to deliver the finished project. The purpose and goals of the improvement process are typically captured in a charter. And here is our charter.

Tracy: This can sometimes be the hardest part of a project, huh?

Design Development Streamline Process Charter

Roger: Right. Now, this chapter sponsor is John Komorita and he did almost all of the work I would say. I helped them with the mapping and of course, I’m helping with the presentation. But he led the effort and I encourage the team to dig in and solve the problem. They had a lot of fun and I’ll show you in a little bit.

Tracy: Wonderful.

Roger: It was having an initial goal of reducing the 30% process time by 2 to 3 months, reducing design review time and reducing overall design preparation costs and time.

Tracy: Those are very reasonable goals.

Roger: Before this main event started, we mapped the entire design process. Shown here is just the 30% Design process complete with its inputs and outputs and the steps required to take the project from alternative analysis to baseline.

We are focused on projects that cost less than $10 million to construct and we do the process like this. You have to choose your average target in order to estimate how long it takes to do it. So for example, if you were sweeping your floor, that takes some 5 minutes. But if you are cleaning the counters, maybe it takes some 10. So you have to pick something to target. So that completes our definition step, the mapping.

We are about to move to measure. And first, an early win grabs our attention. An option step is to replicate your results by spreading them to similar processes and roots. We’ll take advantage of that right away.

60% Engineering Review

Previous Lean process, we examine the review of the 60% Design documents. And in that, we went from isolated communications to do communications creating a significant improvement and reducing the review time by two and a half months.

Tracy: Wow! That’s great.

Roger: And now, with just a small adjustment, that can become more 30% design review process as well. And we estimate that we can trim this to one month duration.


All right. Now, we move on to the measure step. We are establishing baselines for our process so that we can later evaluate whether our improvements are successful. Measures should be appropriate to the problem involved. Our main goal here is to reduce the time spent in the process. So we will measure our process duration to establish our baseline.

Tracy: Right. People really struggle with measures not just in government, everywhere.

Roger: Considering our under $10 million construction project in an average review cycle, we estimate the timeline to be about 12 months with this review process.

A later review against historical data confirms that this is a good estimate. But we note that the data is sparse. Having good data on the actual performance of your processes can be invaluable when estimating the impacts of the proposed changes.

Having good data on the actual performance of your processes can be invaluable when estimating the impacts of the proposed changes.

Depending upon the business process, you may need to halt your main event to gather the data you will need to complete the charting with your process map.

Tracy: Did you guys have to do that? Did you have to halt your project?

Roger: No. Fortunately, we – because we completely mapped it out beforehand.

Tracy: That’s great.

Roger: We were ready to hit the ground. And we had historical data. While we say we didn’t have a lot of data but we had enough to get an idea of where we were going.


In the analyze step, we are searching for contributors to the problems and goals we identified in the charter. We might find more problems now like we did.

The idea is to just keep moving forward. We can use tools like the fishbone diagram to identify our root causes. Here again, more data may be required to evaluate each cause and to determine maybe it is a primary culprit.

There’s our highly motivated team digging in to start the work on the analyze step and looking for root causes to our identified problems.

Tracy: They look engaged.

Roger: They are. And here’s a typical work product to that step. What they’re doing is they’re adding their observations about inputs and sub-processes and several categories that are useful for evaluating business processes.

And then these are going to be prioritized according to relative impact and the ease of fixing them.

Here are the categories I was telling you about before.

Tracy: These are for the fishbone diagram.

Roger: Right.

Tracy: And brainstorming root causes.

Roger: So we’re adding the high impact, low degree of difficulty items to a fishbone diagram. The team identifies these problems and goals. That’s a fun problem to solve.

The overall process is perceived to take too long. There is inconsistent quality when we get to the end of the 30% Design. We don’t have enough information early to produce the baseline package. And we have problems stopping the consulting work because we don’t know enough about information gaps early in the process. We populate the fishbone with our high priority causes.

There is a general feeling that arriving at the end of this process with all of the efforts done at the same time was a matter of luck. The need for better coordination with the work products and deep communication improvements are noted several times. And so is the need for more information earlier in the process.


Time to move into the improve step.

Tracy: That’s where everybody always wants to be, right? They just want to move from define to improve.

Roger: Let’s fix it.

Tracy: Yup.

Roger: And engineers especially are bad at that.

Tracy: Right.

Roger: Even if they’re not invited to fix the problem. They see a problem and they go, “Oh, we’ve got to fix that.”

Tracy: Even if they’re not invited. That’s funny.

Roger: So here, we want to focus on the easiest and simplest solutions. We will test our improvements in a pilot project as part of a plan to check and act.

If all goes well or after appropriate adjustments, an implementation plan will follow. And we will deploy our improvements to all the capital projects.

Desired Outcomes

The team revisits the desired outcomes from the charter, obviously the thing to get before you dig to start improvements.

Tracy: Absolutely. Making sure that the improvements aligned to what you’re trying to accomplish.

Roger: Right. So we want to deliver the 30% Design documents fast.

Remove obstacles and steps that are not needed. Mostly, those obstacles are needed.

Reduce overall design delivery time.

And we’d like to maintain or improve the overall quality of the document.

We don’t identify any steps that are not needed but we begin to organize the process around inputs and outputs and/or mapping the process steps. Identify several products that can be independently tracked and managed from one phase of the design to the next. For example, from 30% to 60%.

The basis of the design report, the construction estimate, and the permitting matrix are examples of these. Focus on the progress of these products during the course of the 30% Design documents creates better coordination at the end of the process.

Tracy: And there’s John doing his thing.

Roger: There is John.

Tracy: Leading the team.

Roger: Fearless leader. In addition to process defects, we’re mindful that we want to eliminate waste as well while considering the lack of early information defect. One interesting waste reduction opportunity jumps out to us.

Most of the project support team including engineering has an idle period while the consultant contract is amended. The consultant team has an idle period while the support team gathers information needed to develop the design after we award the consultant contract. And all of it waits until gate 2 approval of the select alternative, which is likely to be approved.

Internal designs that don’t use a consultant are experiencing similar delays. Over the course of a project, opportunities or the schedule to change are numerous already. The carefully laid plan allocation of resources especially people can move from artfully balanced to overloaded or idle with little warning.

By frontloading information gathering tasks, we take advantage of design downtime during the consultant selection and the negotiation to locate materials that consultant need to produce the design. This also speeds the consultant negotiation by identifying information gaps before the consultant starts work and address another hard defects, the scope being of consultant tasks.

We move the geotechnical plan, permitting, and community involvement and consultant negotiation up before the gate 2 approval. We haven’t eliminated any steps but we have collapsed waste and defects into a 2-month savings that should result for most projects.

Tracy: That’s great. It’s really nice to know that some of the work that we’re doing gets results, right?

Roger: Right.

Tracy: And I’m glad to hear that many of the projects you’ve been working on are getting results.

Roger: The more of the Lean events that we have, the more engaged employees we’re getting in the process too because they see that we’re having success. So that’s really just splendid.

Tracy: It helps with the momentum.

Roger: Awesome. With the review of improving the quality and consistency of the 30% Design documents, team members work on standard tools. We created a standard checklist for consultants and internal design describing components of a complete design package of each phase.

We’ve updated the review checklist which informs staff reviewers about required components to conform to our changes. And we eliminated a competing document which would further confuse the reviewed process.

Finally, we created a standard method for determining whether a particular project design is designed in-house or with the consultant.

Now, when we revisit the decision at 30% Design check off, we will check changes against this method and quickly move forward.

Tracy: So that’s much more streamlined.

Roger: Right. We were sidetracked in ourselves sometimes for weeks deciding who is going to design it and whether that’s still the right decision. So now, we have an orderly way to do that.

Tracy: Very well.

30% Design Process

Roger: Here is the reorder process after improvements that the team implemented. Some key assumptions that will be confirmed during the pilot are that frontloading words as we expect, that review time that we forecast works in practice, and that ASJ and sustainability components which were previously unplanned impacts are adequately addressed during the Eco Sure. Address established here.

30% Development Document Development

Recapping our process improvements, we reduced the wait time, have staff engaged prior to gate 2, we improve the sequencing of tasks, we created standard work tools, and we streamlined the review. We trimmed about three months overall.

Tracy: Yay!

Next Steps

Roger: For next steps, we’re starting a pilot in August of 2017 on the Cold Creek Siphon and Trunk Peril Project and also on the Medina Odor Control Project.

We do our check and act as soon as projects complete their 30% design process.

We hope to formalize the process in 2018 and then extend improvements to 60 and 90% design processes if all goes as planned.

Tracy: Yeah. I mean the interesting thing about these projects is I mean they are long processes. So to actually see that it’s working can take a while, right?

Roger: Yeah, it can. Well, based on the example.

Tracy: Yeah, exactly. Like some of these are 10-year long processes. You would be like, “OK. Well, we’re going to retire and check back in 7 years to see if it actually worked.”


Roger: We’re on our last step. The control step would monitor the improved process after it is rolled out to ensure that we sustain the time we streamed from the process.

And that concludes the presentation.

Tracy: That is really exciting. Thank you, Roger. And it’s really nice to work with an engineer on this. And I really enjoy your process maps. I love your pictures. I really like the way you laid out the presentation in terms of DMAIC to really get people to understand what the process steps are. And I think the methodology helps a great deal. So thank you for sharing your process improvement.

Roger: You’re welcome.

Q & A

Tracy: So, is it OK if I ask you a couple of questions? Would that be OK?

Roger: Certainly.

Tracy: OK. So I actually have a lot of questions but I’ll try to not take up all of your time. So you said this is your fifth event.

Roger: Yes.

Tracy: So, what – when did you sort of become an advocate of Lean? At what point? Do you have a memory of like where it just clicked you like, “Oh my gosh! This is – we got to do this.” And then was there a point in time where you felt that that happened?

Roger: Yes. It was in the ‘90s. I watched the Department of Licensing improves the process that it takes to get your driver’s license renewal. I saw them map that out and all the steps that they used and they trimmed hours and hours off that. It was just amazing. I didn’t know what it was called back then. But it was clearly this process that they used.

So that piqued my interest. And ever since then in my career, I’ve been interested in process improvement. But we haven’t had the training or the appropriate program.

Tracy: Right.

Roger: So we’ve made a lot of attempts earlier to decide problem-solving. Sometimes it didn’t go anywhere because all of the energy just drained away from them. Part of that is not trusting that we’ll actually be able to effect change.

In my section, my boss, then Bruce Castor, came up with a workplace practices and improvement team. And John leads that now and I’m a member of that board. And we ask staff what’s frustrating, what’s getting in your way. And then we take those up with the committee and we see if we can do something. And that was almost groundbreaking for us because we were actually taking things and fixing them and making our workplace environment better and showing staff, “Yes, it can be done.”

So when Lean came along, when the executive announced it in 2011, we’re like, “Oh yeah, let’s get on board.”

Tracy: Yeah, that’s great. That’s great. So you had said earlier you would encourage anyone to just jump in with both feet. What are some of the challenges that you feel like hold people back or some of the challenges people in government face? Do you feel like there are special challenges that people in government face? And then maybe what advice might you have?

Roger: Well, in terms of fixing things, there’s an overwhelming sense that things are not what you’re looking for. That’s not actually the case. There are policies and there are procedures and there are people that you can lobby to change things. And it all takes a tremendous amount of time for those changes to occur.

Tracy: It is.

Roger: But yet, once you have a focused way and a successful method like Lean to say, “Here’s our plan. Here’s what we hope to accomplish and here’s how we’re going to do it.” Suddenly, all those obstacles just get out of your way because it looks good. It’s good for the council. It’s good for our executive. It’s good for our department. It’s good for the work. It’s great for the [Indiscernible] [0:29:23].

Tracy: Yes.

Roger: So, what’s not to like? Don’t be afraid of it because we’ve got help here in the county to get you started, to give you the tools, to give you the training, to walk you through it and make sure you have a successful outcome. Yeah.

Tracy: Good. Wonderful. What’s your favorite thing about Lean? What would you say? What would you like?

Roger: Well, I guess the favorite thing is that it gets results.

Tracy: Yeah. I think that’s everybody’s favorite.

Roger: But after that, the orderly way in which it moves you from here’s your problem to here’s the solution just really resonates with me.

Tracy: Yeah. Yeah, I agree with you. I think what I noticed, being an expert in Lean but not an expert in any of the processes in government is people do want to change but they don’t necessarily know how like what the process is. They want to look at their process but they don’t want to stumble through it. And it does feel like stumbling when you’ve never done that before.

You work in your process all day and now you got to look at the process and analyze it and make some fixes. And that process, people aren’t familiar with as well and people don’t like that. I think people don’t like to feel that way. But now you’ve got your fifth one under your belt.

You work in your process all day and now you got to look at the process and analyze it and make some fixes.

Roger: Right. Well, they know that their process isn’t perfect. I mean almost anyone here looked at their process and go, “We can do that better or more efficiently over the last time or whatever.” But having this well-structured and proven successful process to fix it is great.

Tracy: Yeah. So I have one more question for you, Roger. And so you’re going to be retiring in the next two years. And I have to be honest and I have to say that sometimes we run into challenges with people that are just on the verge of retirement but they just don’t want to do it. They just don’t want to do Lean and process improvement because they’re like, “Look, I’m out of here in two years. That’s somebody else’s problem.”

Do you have any advice for people that are experiencing let’s say, I don’t even know what to call it.

Roger: Lack of engagement.

Tracy: Yeah, lack of engagement or just shy of retirement. I guess it’s short-term disease.

Roger: Well, think of it this way. How are they going to remember you when you’re gone? What kind of legacy are you leaving behind? Are they going to call you up and say, “Hey, can you come back here and help us fix this process?”

Tracy: Yeah.

Roger: All of those things might give you some motivation. But really, just being involved in making life better and making the taxpayer’s get better value for their dollar, what’s not to like?

Tracy: Yeah, I agree. I agree. I’m on board. I’ve been on board for years.

Roger: Tracy, you have to get with this program.

Tracy: Well, thank you so much, Roger, for sharing your project success story with me and our audience at GoLeanSixSigma.com, and really all of King County. I really hope that people listen and tune in and spend 30 minutes learning about how you improve this process and the methodologies and your excitement and passion which I really felt, so I appreciate that.

Roger: Good.

Tracy: We do these webinars all the time mostly because our listeners have requested it. So we have gotten a lot of people saying, “Do you have an example of a project in this industry?” And it’s wonderful to hear your kinds of applications in capital projects because I do believe if you think about how many people do projects across the country, I mean this is a process that’s repeating itself all over the country. So thank you for sharing. I hope that it was an enjoyable experience for you.

Roger: Certainly.

Tracy: So, we also have lots of free templates, infographics and free tools and our Yellow Belt training is free. So for those of you that want to learn more about Lean and the process improvement, you can go through our Yellow Belt training online. It’s free. The certification costs money. But to actually go through the material, it’s free to anyone. And so, we want to commoditize that as much as possible because we want everybody to know as much as they can about Lean and process improvement for free.

And so, goodbye now. Until next time. Thank you, Roger.

Roger: And there will be a next time.

Tracy: And there will be a next time. Thank you so much, Roger.

Roger: You’re welcome.

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at University of California 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.