Process Improvement: Facilitating New Ways of Thinking About Everyday Work

The Business Analytics Division in the City’s Department of Innovation & Technology offers a Process Improvement Course through our employee training program, SB Academy. This work started back in January 2018 when we were visited by Brian Elms, formerly of Denver Peak Academy and currently of Change and Innovation Agency. He gave us a crash course in the Peak Academy’s tools and how to apply them here in South Bend!

The aftermath of a three day process improvement training

These tools give process owners a new way to look at the work they do through process mapping, waste identification, and root cause analysis. They also create a common and straightforward vocabulary to talk about the errors and frustrations that happen within processes.

By the end of the training we want colleagues across city government to be able to:

  • Map a complete process
  • Identify sources of waste in a process
  • Describe a challenge in structured, quantitative terms
  • Identify root causes of a challenge
  • Make logical statements and hypotheses for testing
  • Prioritize potential solutions to a problem for action
  • Can describe current state and outcomes in order to communicate impact
  • Consider process from the customer’s point of view
  • Identify tools for addressing multiple types of waste and know which tool is best suited to a given challenge
Staff from Public Works and Venues, Parks and Arts map out a process they share

Process Improvement in SB Academy

Since Brian’s initial visit, we’ve held several general process improvement training sessions as well as other sessions tailored for city teams focusing in on a single inefficient process.

The City-wide trainings have included employees from nearly every department, level of seniority, and job function. These give us a chance to connect with our innovation-driven colleagues and learn more about their work as they begin to view serving our city from a new perspective. In these trainings, employees from different departments with vastly different jobs are able to connect over shared problems and frustrations, work through these problems together using simple visual tools, and celebrate the discovery of possible solutions to take back to the office.

Team trainings give us a chance to do a deep dive into an aspect of someone’s job that frustrates them and our residents. It’s extremely rewarding for us, as facilitators, to walk these teams through possible causes for the issues they see and brainstorming solutions and experiments to solve those problems. We’ve gotten to work with a wide variety of teams through these trainings, but the same tools always apply.

This training almost acts as a retreat for employees to take a step back from their work. Though this isn’t to say it’s a break — usually everyone is exhausted after a full day of digesting new concepts, discussing what bothers us most, and participating in a healthy debate about what is really wrong with a process.

Taking that step back allows someone to think about why they print out that paper, put equipment in that order, or ask residents to fill out those fields on a form. Many of the solutions can seem obvious in retrospect, especially to an outsider, but it’s easy to get lost in the process when it’s what you do every day for eight hours a day!

Usually, all someone needs is a person to help them take that step back, and the SB Academy instructors are more than happy to be that person. These training sessions contain some of the most rewarding moments in our jobs — breakthroughs on what our customers value, realizations that complicated problems often have simple solutions, and excitement to implement those solutions.

Often the most useful tool we have during process improvement sessions is the years, sometimes decades, of institutional knowledge that our colleagues bring to the table. They know their processes inside and out — what codes and ordinances apply, what steps in a process fail the most often, and why things are done the way they are.

We begin each training by asking people how long they’ve been with the City — this gives us a chance to acknowledge their hard work and knowledge. As facilitators, we never want to give the impression that we think they’re doing everything wrong or that we’re smarter just because we came in with a bag of post-it notes and sharpies. We’re there to help our process owners think in new ways about their work in order to provide more meaning and value to them and to their customers.

One of the toughest (read: most fun) parts of the training is when we dig into what our customers, the residents of South Bend, care about. As facilitators, we lean in on the value of the end product to the customer, emphasizing the timely and streamlined delivery of a product that adds value to the day to day life of a resident. A resident cares about getting a permit, not where it needs to get shuffled around to internally for signatures. When we cut out unnecessary steps of a process or eliminate a form to complete, that gives both our colleagues and our residents their time back and saves on headaches on both sides.

Staff from the City Clerk’s Office maps out a process

The Results

Our first team training was with the Venues, Parks & Arts mowing crew. They clean and mow vacant and overgrown lots around the city. They do important work to help keep South Bend beautiful and safe, but were looking for a way to get that work done faster and with fewer mistakes.

After mapping out their process, we found that one of the issues was at the very beginning of their day — gathering supplies and getting out of the garage was taking around half an hour. Choosing to focus on this area of the process, instead of trying to grapple with a software system or an interdepartmental relationship process, allowed the mowing team to be in complete control of the improvements to their process. The crew took some time to reorganize the garage in a way that could get them out the door faster. They separated out supplies for different crews, set their own equipment in order, and many other small organizational things that helped them cut that time needed to get out of the garage in half.

As we continue to expand this training and SB Academy, we’re hoping planning to document these successes and feature the City employees who made them happen on the City’s website and social media.

Anna Kennedy is a Business Analyst in South Bend’s Department of Innovation & Technology