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Success Story: Reducing Cost Center Addition Lead Time by 40% -

Setting up cost centers help organizations manage budgets and funding. Learn how this improvement team helped remove unnecessary steps and made the process more consistent overall! Watch this 30 minute success story to learn how Megan Rulien is helping to transform King County’s Finance and Business Operations Division (FBOD).

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Success Story Transcript

Tracy O’Rourke: Hello! And welcome to our Success Stories Webinar hosted by My name is Tracy O’Rourke and I’m the Managing Partner, Executive Adviser at

We have a very exciting offering which is these are our series of webinars that help us see where the rubber meets the road. This is when we talk about real projects that haven’t been implemented within an organization particularly government and we want to share these stories with you.

And today, we are highlighting a great project success story from King County, Washington presented today by Megan Rulien who is an Administrator at FBOD, which is Finance and Business Operations Division in King County.

How are you today, Megan?

Megan Rulien: I’m great, Tracy. How are you?

Tracy O’Rourke: Good. Thanks for joining us today.

About Our Presenter

So let me tell you a little bit about Megan before we have her talk about her project. So Megan has been working with the county for close to three years. She started in Procurement Section and moved to the Financial Management Section.

In her time here at King County, she has been inspired by the groundbreaking work that the county is doing such as Lean Six Sigma and equity and social justice and is proud to be a part of both of those endeavors.

She wasn’t always working in an office though. Prior to her work with King County, she worked as a research technician testing the safety of vaccines and using nonhuman primates as a model. She loved the work she did because it basically involved playing with baby monkeys all day. That sounds like fun.

Megan Rulien: It was awesome.

Tracy O’Rourke: She’s an animal lover at heart. Her husband and her have three cats at home and they plan on bringing a bulldog puppy into their family soon. Oh my gosh! A dog in the mix, what’s going to happen?

Megan Rulien: I don’t know. I hope the cats and him get along OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, you’re going to have to see how that goes. We’re going to have Lean Six Sigma that. So Megan, tell us a little bit about your project.

Megan Rulien: All right. So I will just say, when working with Lean projects, you’re going to find a lot of surprises. I know I did with my project. I went in thinking I was going to be looking at a single process and it ended up being three processes.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wow!


Megan Rulien: Yeah. So let me give you a bit of background on the project. So what is a cost center? Cost centers are primarily used for budgeting and managing cost and the cost center is a portion of King County’s accounting code.

Tracy O’Rourke: So Megan, tell us a little bit about what FBOD does and then we can talk about what’s happening in your project. Would that be OK?

Megan Rulien: Yeah, it sounds great. So FBOD stands for the Finance and Business Operations Division. And so, we handle all the finance for the entire county. That includes any kind of procurements that have to be done, any type of accounting and fund monitoring, any type of property tax works, basically any kind of way that we’re bringing in money into the county comes through us.

Tracy O’Rourke: Nice. Good to know. So you’re like the accounting arm for all of King County.

Megan Rulien: Yes. It’s a big job for a big county.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah, you are. In Seattle, Seattle is part of your county, right?

Megan Rulien: Yup, Seattle is one of the cities which is part of King County. But there are quite a few other little towns and cities that are a part of it as well.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. Good. Thank you for that. So tell us a little bit about what your project is and if you could speak as much as you can because I think that would help people understand what your project is about.

Megan Rulien: Definitely. So I looked at adding a new cost center. And you’re probably thinking, “What is a cost center?” A cost center is a portion of King County’s accounting code and is primarily used for budgeting and managing cost. Other parts of King County’s accounting code include the following: project, the organization which is actually an alternative name for cost centers, that’s what I also looked at, an expenditure type, a task, and an award. And we use that handy acronym, POETA, to remember this.

So when and how would a new cost center need to be created? Cost centers are created when an agency has a new ongoing business purpose and objective that they need to manage. And they get created when an agency fills out to add a new cost center form and emails it to our Financial Systems Unit which we call the FSU team.

Tracy O’Rourke: So when you have an – I’m sorry, I just had a quick question about that.

Megan Rulien: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: So you said and ongoing effort?

Megan Rulien: Yeah, any kind of ongoing new purpose. So if they have to open a new project or they get a new grant then they’ll need to open up a new cost center and/or organization to kind of denote it from other projects and/or grants in their system.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So that they can actually pull money from that allocated fund bucket.

Megan Rulien: Yes, you are correct.

Tracy O’Rourke: Got it.


Megan Rulien: Yeah. So the first thing I needed to do was define the business problem. To start, I interviewed people that were part of the process. And from there, I was able to define the problem. We believe that at the time that it took to process a new cost center form was way too long and that the process itself was unclear. No one had ever written down instructions or mapped out the process.

We then decided what we want our goals to be. We wanted to reduce the processing time and in general, this would bring clarity to the process through mapping it out and then eventually creating standard work.

Tracy O’Rourke: This sounds like a universal problem for sure. I know a lot of people at a lot of organizations who think things take too long and they want to map the process and create standard work. So, I think a lot of people can learn from this. Go ahead.

I know a lot of people at a lot of organizations who think things take too long and they want to map the process and create standard work. So, I think a lot of people can learn from this. Go ahead.

Megan Rulien: Yes. This is definitely a problem in government I’m sure as we all know.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah.


Megan Rulien: So we needed to get out baseline data first. To do this, I went back through all the old cost center forums from the last two years and looked at the number of business days it took from the time the form was submitted to the time it took for the accounting staff and supervisor to approve the form. Also, from the accounting staff and supervisor approval to the time it took for the financial system supervisor to approve the form. And then from the financial system supervisor approval to the time it took for the financial system staff to create the new cost center entry in our financial system.

So I really looked at the number of business days it took from within the time it took with three different people and then also the total time. So out of 60 data points, on average, it took 7 and a half business days to add a new cost center with a median of 3 business days.

And I noticed that the average was very skewed due to the large variation in data. As you can see, there are 4 pretty large outliers out there. That’s how we got 7 and a half days average.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So we’ve got 80, 32, 24, and 18 days as significant outliers.

Megan Rulien: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: People are waiting this long. That’s scary.

Megan Rulien: Yeah, exactly. So people are not very happy or customers weren’t happy with this. And then what I was looking at when I looked at the really detailed parts where I saw how many businesses that was with each of the different staff members, I noticed specifically, it took the FAU staff and supervisor the longest to complete their portion of the process. On average, 4.6 business days of those 7.5 business days, so they seem to be kind of the problem.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, we’d like to say that people aren’t the problem but the process. There must be something wrong with the process is what we like to say, right?

…we’d like to say that people aren’t the problem but the process.

Megan Rulien: That is true. That’s a good point. They weren’t the problem. There might have just been redundancies in the process, which we will find out.

Tracy O’Rourke: So you’ve targeted an area of the process, right? Good.

Megan Rulien: Yeah. And just as a little thing to note, on average, we only really create 6 new cost centers a month. So I mean it takes up some time but it’s not like one of our main processes. But it’s definitely something we’re still wanting to look at.

Tracy O’Rourke: So just to recap on your data, Megan, it’s great that – so you had existing data that you were able to capture manually because you had all of this data from the last two years, which I think is great. It sounds to me like they’d never really looked at the cycle time or the lead time of this process before.

So, were people surprised at the data? Or were they – is that what the people expected?

Megan Rulien: People weren’t that surprised because everyone had always kind of known anecdotally that it was taking too long. We would hear from our customers. As you can see, I mean there is more than one person that had to wait the 80 days if you can see that from the graph. And unfortunately, they still wait too long as it is.

So everyone kind of had an idea that it was probably taking too long but seeing the numbers was always – was a bit of a shock.

Tracy O’Rourke: Good. Thank you.

Megan Rulien: So after I had my baseline data and the summary of my data, I decided to map out the process. To do this, I first started with interviews. And after really I think how many hand-offs there seem to be, I thought a swim lane map would probably be the best choice.

I discovered that there were seven hand-offs in the current process and often back and forth to the same group. And as you can see from the lanes, there were actually only four separate groups involved in the process. So there really shouldn’t be any reason that there were three additional hand-offs within that swim lane.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very insightful.

Megan Rulien: Yeah. So I quickly discovered that we have three of the eight ways here; transportation, the form was being moved between people too many times, waiting, the excessive movement of the form, so those that were involved in the process had to wait, and over processing. We can see from the swim lane map that there were only four groups involved in the process yet the form exchange hands seven times.

So after collecting our baseline data, summarizing our data, and mapping out the process. The next step was to walk the process. So a process walk is necessary to validate the data and to ensure that the process map is accurate.

So in August, we brought everyone together that was involved in the process as you can see here in this picture. That’s our project team, Chris Franco and Jean Prapitente from the Financial Systems Unit team, Jim Recker from the Office of Performance Strategy and Budget as well as Manny Cristobal, Jim Lyn, Nolan Rose, and Lily Sheets from the Financial Accounting Unit plus myself.

And after we walked the process, we, converged to a debrief. And in that debrief, we discovered that only were there non-value added hand-offs but that we were also dealing with more than one process here. This was a surprise that nobody really knew that was happening.

We actually have three separate processes. Together, we mapped out what we thought the new process should look like which on this form is at the very bottom in that picture then what the two newly discovered processes should look like.

Tracy O’Rourke: So what were the three processes, Megan? Were they different processes because it was a different request but they were all sharing the same process? What were the three processes that you discovered existed?

Megan Rulien: So it all involved adding a new cost center but the two new processes that we discovered just have completely different requirements of them. So all these years we’ve been processing them all like they were all the same – like they all should have the same process. And we realized with the bond water quality process that we discovered and also the bond cost center that we discovered that there really didn’t need to be that many approvals from all the different supervisors.

So that’s why if you see in that picture, the bottom one has four different hand-offs. The next one, it looks like four different hand-offs but I think we edited it to make it three. And then the very top one there that just says bond was actually just two hand-offs that we needed to do. So in general, we could shorten those processes even more.

Tracy O’Rourke: Oh, nice. I get it. So what you’re saying is that there was one process and everything that went through it went through the most intensive process steps because they shared the same process. And so you identified that two of them didn’t need to have all of those hand-offs or approvals and it could be faster for those things.

Megan Rulien: Exactly, yes.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. That’s always a nice discovery.


Megan Rulien: Yeah. So, after having a pretty good current understanding of the process, I set out to further analyze our data. To do this, I have decided to calculate the correlation coefficients of various steps in the current process in relation to the number of business days it took to create a new cost center. And I found that over 93% of the variation in adding a new cost center was due to the FAU Supervisor having to approve the document. So the largest variation happened with that.

And over 22% of the variation in adding a new cost center was due to the FSU Supervisor having to approve the document, so not a lot of variation.

And that over 38% of the variation in adding a new cost center was due to the FSU staff having to enter the information.

So it seemed to me pretty clearly that the largest variation was due to the FAU Supervisor.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, how was this data received? Because ultimately what you’re doing is you’re sort of – you’re analyzing the data and what I like about what you’ve done is you’ve identified the person but you’ve identified the step too.

Megan Rulien: Yes.

Tracy O’Rourke: And so, that’s important. But did you get any resistance? Did people feel like you were finger-pointing a little bit or were they open to it or did they just – they say, “Yes, it’s true! Get me out of this process.” Tell us a little bit about that.

Megan Rulien: That’s exactly right. They actually said, “Yes, it’s true. Get me out of the process.” They never saw their value in the process. It was – it simply brought in the forms into their email. It would sit in their inbox forever because they didn’t really see the value in it. And then eventually, that person will get around to approving the form without ever really looking at it to begin with. So the person just knew he wasn’t a value-added to this process.

They never saw their value in the process. It was – it simply brought in the forms into their email.

Tracy O’Rourke: I love that. I wish everybody will do that. I think sometimes people held on to the process because they want control or for whatever reason, they don’t want to let go. But it’s really nice to hear when people finally say, “Look, I’m not adding value. I’m not – take me out of this process.” Simplify the process. So that’s great to hear.

Megan Rulien: Yeah, exactly. It worked out really well. So, our team decided to delve even further and we used root cause analysis specifically with the fishbone diagram to brainstorm other possible root causes of the over processing that we were seeing.

And as you can see, we came up with many possible root causes.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah, there’s a lot here.

Megan Rulien: Yeah, there’s a lot.


So from the analysis of our data and the root cause analysis, we decided to come up with solutions to address the goals that we had outlined. And remember, our goals were to reduce processing and to eliminate a few hand-offs.

So, specifically, the FAU Supervisor review along with the statistical analysis, the Supervisor also let us know that the form was never wrong once it reached his desk so really, what was the point of his review. So we eliminated that. We also eliminate the FSU receiving the form from FAU. This hand-off had simply been done in the past because FAU didn’t know who to send the form to. And we realized that standard work could fix this problem.

And then we also eliminated FSU sending the form to the agency. This didn’t happen every time but there were agencies that didn’t know where to go to get the form. So we made sure from now on they were aware.

And for our next goal, which was to bring more clarity to the process, we decided to update the form as well as add a new form for the newly discovered processes and to create standard work for both the agencies and those involved in the process and to link both the form and standard work to each other for easy access.

Tracy O’Rourke: Aren’t improvements fun?

Megan Rulien: They are. I love it. All right. So by reducing the hand-offs, we went from 7 to 4 in the add a new cost center process, from 7 to 3 in the add a new water quality bond cost center, and from 7 to 2 in the add a new bond cost center. So we were able to greatly diminish a lot of the steps for the quality bond cost center and just bond cost center because we didn’t need them.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. Good.

Megan Rulien: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: So those people must be definitely happy for the bond group because they only need two hand-offs now. That’s cool.

Megan Rulien: Exactly. Yeah. They’ll usually get their cost center within one business day because it’s just so fast.

Tracy O’Rourke: Now, that’s a root cause that I have seen people find a lot is that there’s a process and there are multiple customers or types of things sharing one process. And it’s frustrating because they are sort of making some things go through more steps because that’s how the process is designed and nobody wants to make a different process. So I really think it’s great that you guys identified, simplifying and streamlining a process that doesn’t need to have that many reviews of hand-offs.

Megan Rulien: Exactly, yeah. We just want to make our customers more happy and there’s really no need to make them wait as long as they were waiting to receive their cost center.

So, on top of creating a second form, we also improved the add a new cost center form by naming the responsible party next to their corresponding section, which you can see there, circled in green, by adding a list of stakeholders that need to be informed once the cost center is created. We put that at the bottom of the form by linking the standard work. So we linked to it at the very top of the form so you could just easily get to it.

And by adding a dropdown to indicate which type of bond cost center the agency was requesting. So that was also at the top of the form. So the standard bond and the water quality bond were on the same form but we just added that little dropdown so we could figure out which one it needed to go to.

Tracy O’Rourke: Now, here is a question. The people that fill out this form, are they going to know?

Megan Rulien: No.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. Sometimes people ask for stuff on forms, I’m like, “How would I know that? I don’t know that.” Do they know? I mean is this something that they would know themselves?

Megan Rulien: They would know just because the water quality bond is only specific to water quality, the section. So it’s kind of if they are part of that department then they would choose water quality bond. But if not, standard bond.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK.

Megan Rulien: But that is good. They might have a question. So I’m not sure our fund accounts are getting that question. I haven’t heard.

Tracy O’Rourke: That could be a great check-in. We’ll see.

Megan Rulien: Yeah, exactly. That would be a great check-in.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK.

Megan Rulien: So, over the course of four months, we tested out our solutions. And at the end of those four months and went back through all the forms and analyze the data. Out of 61 data points, on average, it took 4.2 business days which was a drop from the original average of 7 and a half business days. There was a 3.3 day drop. But the median number of business days to process a new cost center form did end up staying the same at 3 days.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. Now, this data was skewed originally. It’s less skewed but still skewed now. I think also that might be because – well, you had 60 data points for your original measure as well. But that was for two years. Is that right?

Megan Rulien: Yeah, that’s very true. We had an uptake in different – like reorgs that happened in the county this last year and that’s why so many more cost centers.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. So some would say the median didn’t change so is it really an improvement? But I feel like you’ve reduced the number of steps, you have streamlined the process a great deal, and I’m thinking that it’s going to be more consistent. So we had some significant outliers before and the hope is that you would not have outliers like that anymore.

Megan Rulien: Exactly, yeah. And I will keep measuring this probably about once a quarter consistently to make sure that we’re still reaching our goals and make sure we don’t have that large variation anymore.

Tracy O’Rourke: And what is the goal? Is the goal to be at 3 days as a median and under a certain number of days for the average?

Megan Rulien: Yeah. My initial goal was to be under 3 business days for the average. That might be a bit much. So we’ll see if we can even drop it down to I don’t know, three and a half business days would also be OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: Sure. Well, it’s still an improvement for sure. And I think that might be your next – they always say, processes are always continuously improving, right? So maybe that is something that you end up looking at a little bit later. But this is great.


Megan Rulien: Yeah. So, now it was time for the control phase. We established the monitoring plan. And I as a project lead would measure the results every six months or quarterly, depending on how much data we had.

And another thing that I did realized, a process owner discovered this, that some of the accountants have been getting the form reviewed by their supervisor again. This was the FAU Supervisor, the one that we had eliminated.

So we had to talk to them and kind of ask them why they were doing it and they simply just said it was because they had forgotten to look at the standard work. So we had to remind them to review the standard work and the new form when they are creating a new cost center.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. And that we see happen a lot. People revert to the old process mostly because they’ve been doing it for 30 years and it has actually required some to think now that, “Oh, the process changed. I need to follow the new process.” Yeah, definitely.

Megan Rulien: Exactly. So going forward, I’m going to check in with them periodically, probably quarterly and kind of make sure – kind of just do a little quick interview, ask them how the process is going, are they actually following the standard work. And then I’ll also be able to see it from the data if that changes.

So yeah, going forward, I will just be checking in on this process periodically and perhaps maybe in the future, looking at it again to do further improvements.

Tracy O’Rourke: That’s wonderful. Let’s go to the next slide. And I have some questions for you, Megan.

Megan Rulien: Yeah.


Tracy O’Rourke: So I thought that was great. And I would like to know, what was it like going through this process with a process team?

Megan Rulien: It was really interesting. It was neat because you always have your own ideas and your own thoughts on how something can be improved. And there are some things that you wouldn’t even think of. And having that process team there and having everyone together brainstorming just – there are so many more root causes that you can get out of the group versus just yourself.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And how were people during this project? Did you feel like – because you know, I have to say that that sometimes a lot of resistance or territorial protection of current state processes, did you run into any of that? And if so, what did you do about it?

Megan Rulien: We didn’t really run into it. Luckily for us, our section had just done a process walk a few weeks prior to that. So they were a little resistant for the first process walk but after kind of seeing the improvements that could be made in such a short period of time and just feeling the camaraderie, being able to just talk in a group and looking at a process they had never done, they actually really enjoyed it and they were really excited for my process walk.

Tracy O’Rourke: That’s great. So obviously, a successful improvement effort by a team. What was your biggest challenge would you say?

Megan Rulien: Maybe the biggest challenge was just finding a process that I actually had some buy-in to and I was part of. When I initially started my Green Belt, I was part of another section. And then I moved over to a new section when we had to pick our projects. So at the time, I didn’t really know all of my processes personally. So I was given this process to look at. So I think in the future, if I was going to recommend a first time project for a Green Belt, I would say, “Look at a process that you have partial ownership of.”

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah, that’s great. That’s good. That’s good advice. And do you have any other advice for someone that’s looking to get started on a Green Belt project in government?

Megan Rulien: I would say just know you’re probably going to come up against resistance if you are the first Green Belt in your section or agency, whatever it may be. But just try to reiterate to people that like Tracy said, it’s not the person that we’re trying to eliminate. They’re not the problem. The process is the problem.

They’re not the problem. The process is the problem.

And I think if you reiterate that enough and you just try to make people – just let them know that you’re not trying to take away their job, you’re just trying to make their job easier, they’ll be pretty happy about it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Cool. So one last question. How has completion of this project impacted the way you look at things?

Megan Rulien: There are so many processes. People are just doing their normal day-to-day life like something as grocery shopping. It just kind of makes you look at everything that you do and ways to improve it kind of thing.

Tracy O’Rourke: Cool. Good. All right. That’s wonderful. Thanks for answering all my questions. So go ahead and go to the next slide.

So again, I’m Tracy O’Rourke. And you’re listening to Success Story Webinars, highlighting Megan Rulien today. I want to thank you, Megan, for sharing your process improvement success story today with our audience.

Megan Rulien: Thanks, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: You’re welcome. So let’s see. You can log in to our website. This is for our audience. And you can log in to our website at We’ve got a lot of success stories to share or if you have a presentation that you’d like to share with our audience, please contact us and we can work with you to try to get your success story shared because people love hearing this stuff.

Go ahead and go to the next slide for me, Megan. She has got control right now. So this is it. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for signing in and listening to our success story today. Again, if you have any more questions or if you have a presentation that you’d like to share, you can send us an email at [email protected]

We also have hundreds of free stuff, free things on our website, tools, templates, infographics, podcasts, and more. So thanks for joining us and have a great day.

Thanks a lot, Megan.

Megan Rulien: Thanks. 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 Managing Partner at 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.