Building a Culture of Humble Inquirers and Innovators in San Francisco

Spotlighting the work of the San Francisco government Lean team

The Office of Civic Innovation believes that innovation in government is more encompassing than just a new technology or product. It can mean solving an old problem in a new way, or implementing a solution in a new way. To celebrate the spirit of civic innovation, we are highlighting work done by the City Performance Unit’s Lean Program housed in the Controller’s Office. The Lean Program equips City employees to rapidly and continuously improve the quality of government services through the Lean methodology.

Below, Kyra Sikora of the City Performance Lean Team discusses the impact of teaching Lean Process Improvement to City employees at the Recreation and Parks Department.

Follow Kyra on Twitter @kyra_sikora and the San Francisco Office of the Controller @sfcontroller.

By Kyra Sikora, Senior Performance Analyst, City Performance Unit — Controller’s Office

The Context: The Recreation and Parks Structural Maintenance Yard Team

When I first met Ryan Jackson, the lead electrician at the Recreation and Parks Structural Maintenance Yard (SMY), he was fishing through a bin of miscellaneous parts, struggling to find a particular size wire. The electrical shop, tucked into the far corner of the yard, was loved, but disorganized — new part deliveries were piled up in the front of the shop, spools of wire stacked haphazardly together, a pair of surfboards somehow hung on a high shelf of the lamp room, and the rear loading dock was permanently blocked by boxes.

The SMY handles all maintenance and repairs for San Francisco’s 221 parks and recreation centers. The division is comprised of eleven skilled trade shops and 200+ employees who oversee the completion of 1,500+ monthly work orders, conduct safety reviews of all architectural plans for new parks, and manage a sprawling open office space in the heart of Golden Gate Park. Clearly, the SMY team has a lot on their plate.

The Challenge

In the spring of 2017, the SMY team was ready to make some improvements to the way they conducted their work. They wanted to spend less time navigating complex and confusing work processes and more time providing value to San Franciscans through repairing and maintaining San Francisco’s beautiful parks.

Lean Methodology in Action

Our team at City Performance was happy to receive the SMY’s call for support. The challenge was ripe for a lean approach. Lean is a problem-solving methodology — originally developed in the private sector in Japan by Taiichi Ohno of the Toyota Company — for thinking critically about how to best provide services to customers. The methodology rests on a few simple yet revolutionary principles that, when combined, inspire new improvements and innovations:

Respect and engage front-line staff to make improvements — they are the experts,

Roll up your sleeves and observe the work happening in real time and collect data if you want to improve something, and

Making small, incremental improvements can lead to big, sweeping change if improvement happens continuously. Lean facilitators are humble inquirers: we approach problem-solving from a curious, non-judgmental perspective.

Over the span of nine months, the SMY tackled numerous major process improvement projects, engaging cross-functional teams of ~10 employees each in structured innovation sprints called Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs). During these RIEs, the teams immersed themselves in the Lean approach: they conducted real-time observations of problems (Gemba walks), set quantitative goals for improvement, analyzed root causes of problems through Fishbone Diagrams, studied the process by creating Process Maps, and prioritized their improvement ideas using the Impact/Effort Matrix.

One of the benefits of the Lean approach is that the Lean tools we use to analyze processes are easy to use. Through analyzing their process via the straightforward tools outlined above, teams discovered that some of the solutions to their problems did not require advanced technological solutions, but simple innovations.

Innovative Solutions

Issue Area: The SMY discovered that 40% of the repair requests had insufficient information or were duplicates of other requests. In other words, multiple city employees and park users would report the same broken bench, and the SMY supervisors would need to spend extra time sorting through these duplicate requests.

Solution: One team member devised a low-tech, Lean-inspired error-proofing solution: have the requestor put a sticker on the broken piece of equipment to notify other employees that the broken equipment had already been reported. By the end of their engagement, the team had implemented enough simple solutions to increase the percentage of work orders submitted to the SMY that have sufficient information from 60% to 82% in four months.

Issue Area: SMY needed to improve blueprint reviews after several newly-constructed park facilities required unforeseen costly repairs and retrofitting. Through extensive real-time observation of their blueprint review processes, the team discovered that part of the problem was that Shop Supervisors were not completing their blueprint reviews on time. This meant that the Recreation and Parks Capital Division and the SMY were not capturing valuable feedback about structural deficiencies depicted in park blueprints until it was too late.

Solution: The team improved their review process by utilizing a production board, a Lean-inspired Visual Management tool that allows all team members to view the status of a project at a glance. The team increased the percentage of time that plans are sufficiently reviewed and marked up by 35% over the span of 6 months. Simple changes to the review process will save millions of dollars in repair costs over the next 20 years.

Issue Area: Haphazard equipment placement and poor use of space was limiting the SMY’s ability to quickly deploy teams to repair San Francisco parks. Using a simple tool called a Spaghetti Diagram, the team mapped the motion of each of the shops’ dispatch routes, which indicated a bottleneck in several different areas of the Structural Maintenance Yard. Once the team was able to see the immediate effects of their poor space utilization practices, they decided to do something about it.

Solution: Over the span of one workday, the team cleared out 74 tons of excess materials and recyclable waste, freeing up thousands of extra square footage in their workspace for improved workflow.

Lean Methodology and Simple Innovations

When I walked into Ryan Jackson’s electrical shop the morning our Lean partnership ended a year later, I didn’t recognize the place. While I had taught Ryan the basics of Lean and the “5S” methodology, a Lean technique used to keep workspaces clean, neat, and organized, Ryan had taken his Lean practice to an entirely new level. Recently-delivered electrical parts had their own assigned spot in the shop. Hundreds of yards of multi-colored wires sat in neat rows on the shelves, allowing the electricians to find the wires they need in a split-second. The surfboards even had their own dedicated space. Ryan and his team had become true Lean practitioners.

I recently caught up with Ryan Jackson about the impact Lean has had on his and his team’s work at the SMY. Here’s what he said:

Lean has revolutionized the way we think about and do our work. Each day is an opportunity to use our minds to make small improvements to our processes, which improves our experience and adds value to our customers. 5S has given us freedom from the struggles we would have looking for wire and from the stumbling of non-standard work. The real kicker is we didn’t even know how much we were struggling until we were trained in Lean! We owe a huge thanks to SF Controller’s Office City Performance Unit for helping us find our purpose and set us on course.

Over the course of our conversation, Ryan also told me that he and the SMY supervisors recently took the initiative to apply for a 5-day study program in Japan to continue learning about Lean from the Japanese experts at the Toyota Company. While I was thrilled to hear about this new development in their Lean journey, I was not surprised by it: as I always say to our city trainees, once you start thinking like a Lean practitioner, it’s hard to stop.

The Lean methodology is all about thoughtful, continuous, incremental improvement. It’s about constantly asking yourself the question: how can I make my work today better than it was yesterday? Lean leads us to innovative solutions; it teaches us to pause, reflect, and think critically about our work in government. Most importantly, it allows us to apply fresh thinking to improve our work and, ultimately, improve the lives of San Franciscans.

City employees at every level can use Lean to improve the services they provide here in San Francisco. Through our work partnering with City Departments on Lean projects and guiding teams to innovation through our Lean Leaders training, our team has seen that this methodology, with its focus on customer experience and empowering frontline staff to develop their own solutions to problems, has immense power to improve San Franciscans’ experience with government services.

About the City Performance Unit and Lean Program in the Controller’s Office

Operating as the City’s internal management consulting unit, City Performance supports City Departments in making transparent, data-driven decisions, guides departments in aligning programming with resources for greater efficiency and impact, and provides departments with the tools they need to innovate, test, and learn. They execute over 100 consulting projects a year, providing project management, data analysis, facilitation, technical, and training support to departments across the city to make government work efficiently and effectively for all San Franciscans.

City Performance’s Lean Program aims to equip city employees to rapidly and continuously improve their processes so they can spend more time doing the work they love and less time navigating frustrating, complex bureaucracy. Through the Lean Program, they train and coach city employees to execute process improvements in city departments, partner with departments to support long-term, Lean-inspired culture change, and support a community of City leaders throughout San Francisco to continuously improve their daily work. Since founding the Program in 2016, City Performance has trained over 600 city employees in Lean, coached trainees to implement over 100 simple innovations, and executed 11 Lean partnerships with City Departments, making measurable improvements to departmental performance indicators.

For more information on the City Performance Lean Program, please visit our website at

For San Francisco government employees or lean practitioners in city governments:

To reach out about a potential partnership with the Lean Team, send an email to

Join the community of Lean practitioners in San Francisco City government here.

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

The Office of Civic Innovation helps make government more collaborative, inventive, and responsive for San Franciscans.

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

Written by

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation, making @sfgov more collaborative, inventive and responsive to San Franciscans. #civicinnovation

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

The Office of Civic Innovation helps make government more collaborative, inventive, and responsive for San Franciscans.

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