Is Lean Six Sigma "Cool?" Ask Employees of Ft. Wayne, Indiana!


Is Lean Six Sigma "Cool?" Ask Employees of Ft. Wayne, Indiana!

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008 - 1:00
The use of Lean Six Sigma is finally making the cross-over from industry into government. Here are some examples.

Graham Richard, the recently retired mayor of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, was a huge advocate of Lean Six Sigma even before he took office in 2000. During his eight years as mayor, he infected the city's employees with his enthusiasm. Even the city's nine unions joined the effort. More than 100 projects led to over $30 million in savings for the city - and better services. In fact, they claim pothole repairs that used to take 48 hours to repair are now fixed within 3 hours of being reported!

Where did this new "miracle drug" come from? Like most new management innovations, Lean Six Sigma began in the private sector. It started in manufacturing and moved to services in the 1990s. Since 2000, it has been growing in government at all levels. In fact, over two-thirds of the organizational units within the Defense Department are currently sponsoring Lean Six Sigma initiatives.

What Is It?

Lean Six Sigma, according to George Washington University business professor Shivraj Kanungo, is "a set of tools, techniques, and a methodology that helps organizations improve their efficiency as well as their effectiveness." It is a blend of two corporate methodologies. "Lean" is a set of methods, initially developed by Toyota, used to ferret out waste, or non-value-added steps, in any repeatable process. This might tax collection, pot-hole filling, or delivering mail. "Six Sigma" developed by Motorola, is a set of methods that are used to reduce variation in any repeatable process. Together, the two methods eliminate waste and reduce variation in order to cut costs and improve quality

While the rigorous technical methods involved tend to be the focus of many observers, the crux of its value is that it empowers people closest to a particular business process to improve operations. In addition, Lean Six Sigma requires a cross-enterprise view of the sum of all the individual processes, so employees can see how what they do fits into the bigger picture. So, for example, instead of just focusing on improvements in the finance office, finance improvements are developed in the context of the overall efforts of the larger organization's mission.

According to Richard, Lean Six Sigma assumes that (1) work occurs through processes, (2) every process has customers, and (3) the customers define quality. It also assumes that decisions should be based on data and that, in order to achieve quality, you have to use data to control variations that can occur in processes. Lean Six Sigma methods are used to distinguish between value-added and non-value-added work (or waste), such as waiting in line, service delays, excess inventory, over-engineering, etc.

How it Evolved in Ft. Wayne

When businessman Graham Richard became mayor in 2000, he was already trained in Lean Six Sigma processes. This training includes certifications in the development of systematic analyses and interpreting statistical trends. However, his goal was not to deploy Lean Six Sigma methods throughout the city. His goal was to make the city government more effective. With his leadership team, he developed a series of priorities after taking office. He involved employees as well as unions. Together, they piloted Lean Six Sigma techniques. Based on several quick successes, the number of projects and trained facilitators grew. Corporate leaders in the Ft. Wayne metro area saw the value of what he was doing and lent the city some of their experts in the techniques to help support the training.

By 2005, there were more than 100 projects underway across the city. In addition to improving pot hole repair, the city sewer treatment plant improved its operations. In the past, each shift operated the sludge machine slightly differently based on years of experience. But in an effort to increase sludge processing, the efficiency of the machine was measured continuously over a period of time and results were compared across the different shifts. For the first time, shift operators saw the results of their fine-tuning techniques quantified and compared them. Soon they began to use the same process once they saw whose techniques worked best.

This fact-based approach was repeated in different departments, gradually changing the way the city did its work. When Richard retired in January, the local newspaper, the News-Sentinel, editorialized about his term: "Mayor Richard has reduced crime to its lowest rate in over 20 years, kept taxes low and dramatically increased government efficiency with the implementation of Six Sigma, where millions of dollars have been saved and government jobs, such as filling potholes, have been reduced from 48 hours to three hours after the initial contact." His successor, Tom Henry, has continued the city's Lean Six Sigma efforts.

Use in Other Governments

Lean Six Sigma is being adopted in other cities as well, such as Buffalo, NY; and in counties, such as the Lane County, Oregon, vehicle maintenance department. It is being used in state government, such as Florida's Department of Revenue, as well as the federal government, such as the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The biggest adopter is the Defense Department. According to Brian Robinson, a writer for Federal Computer News, "the methodology has become the Department of Defense's 'tool of choice' for business transformation." An April 2007 directive from Deputy Secretary Gordon England triggered a Department-wide effort. The Army has been the biggest adopter to date, with more than 770 projects that have already resulted in savings of $1.2 billion. Some projects underway in Defense even reach outside the Department, such as the government-wide effort to streamline the security clearance process.

Lessons in Using Effectively

Former mayor Richard says the "issue isn't commitment, it's engagement." While top leaders may be committed to a Lean Six Sigma initiative, the real test is whether employees use it in their day-to-day work. Professor John Maleyeff, who wrote a report,"Improving Service Delivery in Government with Lean Six Sigma," for the IBM Center for The Business of Government, found that successful Lean Six Sigma initiatives focused on three elements: developing an infrastructure, applying the technical methods on individual projects, and ensuring implementation.

In creating a Lean Six Sigma infrastructure, leaders must be able to directly communicate the importance of the initiative and be willing to engage employees in the process before launching an initiative. By focusing on program improvement, leaders begin to focus the organization on being more data-driven and results-oriented. Richard found that he wished he had better communicated efforts and successes both inside and outside the city government, and that he had started sooner in building a culture of learning for broader business skills. He created a leadership development roundtable to help managers be better sponsors and champions of initiatives, but wished he'd done it sooner.

In applying the technical methods of Lean Six Sigma, Richard wished he had incorporated the Lean methods sooner and emphasized managerial-level use of data. If he had to do it again, he said he would have better tailored training to government employees. Deployment of the initiative was easier in some city functions than others. He also found that strategic oversight was critical.

In implementing a Lean Six Sigma program, Maleyeff found, it is important to create a centralized focal point. While a new office may not be needed, a steering committee chaired by the top leader may be an important catalyst for attention. Also, the leader and the steering committee need to encourage organization-wide involvement, with trained champions in each organizational unit.

Should You Use It?

Lean Six Sigma is seen as just the latest management fad by some observers. However, Richard says that the key is to "create a team-based, disciplined approach" regardless of the name and methods adopted. There are many commonalities with other management techniques like Total Quality Management and other process improvement efforts. The availability of a tested set of methods that have been successful in a wide range of environments makes such an initiative easier to adopt, in many cases. Richard is sold on its value. In fact, he hopes to create a High Performance Government Network to promote its use among elected officials.

Featuring expert: