Connecting state and local government leaders
Every week Nebraska is contacted by other states to learn how it is saving staff time, streamlining projects and delivering better customer services. Here’s why.
Over the years, we’ve seen multiple city, county and state efforts that focus on achieving higher levels of efficiency and more effective services. Unfortunately, these efforts, which generally go by labels like process improvement or continuous improvement, are often hard to sustain, dependent as they can be on the passions of individual practitioners.
But despite past difficulties, the perceived value of continuous improvement hasn’t diminished and initiatives like these have caught fire in an increasing number of states, with particularly intense efforts in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and, Pennsylvania, according to Pam Goins, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Administrators, which held its first summit on the topic in September.
“Whether it’s looking at a system redesign or a state is unpacking and mapping out work processes, these continuous improvement efforts are showing reduced costs and having a positive impact to address labor shortages,” she says.
To see the benefits of these efforts, take a look at Nebraska’s Center of Operational Excellence, which launched in 2015, close to the start of outgoing Gov. Pete Rickett’s first term, and has been expanding and improving ever since.
Leaders there get calls from other states on a weekly basis to learn how to emulate Nebraska’s success, according to Director Matthew Singh. Since its inception, the state has engaged in more than 900 projects in 19 of the state’s departments, trained 23,000 employees over the last six years, eliminated 900,000 staff project work hours and achieved $100 million in documented savings.
Sustaining Excellence With a Whole State Approach
In the year prior to Singh’s arrival in 2016, the center had experienced some leadership turnover and had largely relied on external contractors. Singh, with a strong background in multiple methods of quality management and process improvement, made a number of changes.
To start, he sought permission to build up internal capacity for carrying out projects in an effort to slow turnover, increase morale, and take advantage of institutional knowledge. Next, he chose the Lean Six Sigma method of continuous improvement to use, which provides a structured approach for defining problems, researching solutions, and measuring results, and yet also offers creative latitude in its application—an important element given the varying cultures of different departments.
This approach combines elements of Lean, a word invented by an MIT professor, based on lessons learned in the Toyota Production System and other manufacturing process innovations from the middle of the 20th Century, and Six Sigma, which is more heavily based on statistics and data analysis. The appeal of Lean Six Sigma was also its highly structured training system, with Karate-like “white belt, yellow belt, green belt, black belt” levels of mastery.
This training program helped the state build an internal network of process improvement managers and coordinators throughout Nebraska departments. “There’s a standard way we do it here. We use the same methodology,” says Shayne Daughenbaugh, a process improvement project manager and one of six current “black belts” who are embedded in departments.
Daughenbaugh, who was a pastor for 18 years prior to joining the Nebraska government, is stationed in the Department of Transportation, but with his “black belt” status he also can work on bigger statewide projects and can easily shift to other departments when needed. “I don’t want to overstate this, but it does break down silos. We have a common language and a great network,” he says. “We’re all trying to do the same thing.”
Here's How It Works
Daughenbaugh works on an average of 15 projects a year. One that began shortly before the pandemic was sparked by the highway safety division’s concern that too few local law enforcement agencies were applying for small federal grants, which are designed to enforce seat belt use and promote sober driving and other safety initiatives. “Our office had contacted local agencies to encourage them to participate,” says William Kovarik, the Nebraska Highway Safety administrator. “The comment was that the process was too difficult and was not worth it.”
To address this potentially lifesaving issue, in early 2020, Daughenbaugh followed five steps which are standard for Lean Six Sigma: define, measure, analyze, improve and control.
In this case, the define stage involved working for about three weeks with Kovarik on project goals, which centered on simplifying the process by studying available data and talking directly with local governments. The next three steps—measure, analyze and improve—mostly took place in one room over a three-day period with nine active participants who used color-coded sticky notes and various writing tools to visually capture duplicative steps and failure points.
This process revealed where project managers and supervisors were duplicating efforts and where too much physical paper documentation was creating bottlenecks that impede the approval and dispersal of grants.
As a result, Kovarik set up a cover page and electronic signature system so that those in the department who needed to sign off on the grants could do so on their computers rather than printing out and physically handing around multiple copies. This and other changes were tested in a pilot that ensured that the improvements were effective. When the pilot was a success and the changes were implemented statewide, a “control” phase followed to be certain that the new process was not saddling workers with unnecessary new steps.
By 2021, Kovarik’s office had recorded a reduction of 102 hours per month for invoice submission and a 58% reduction in team member time. Moreover, the time it takes for local governments to get reimbursed by the state for overtime or other expenses has been reduced by 50%. With a continuous improvement lens, improvements are still ongoing, with the hope that the Highway Safety department will soon have grant management technology that will fully automate the process.
In a video that describes the project’s success, Tina Rockenbach, former highway safety office supervisor, says, “It’s reducing our menial tasks with the long-term hope that it will free up project managers and others in the office to increase the number of grantees that are engaged in safety programs. It’s allowing time to go out and connect with the stakeholders.”
Keys to Continuous Improvement Success
While Singh, the center’s director, picked a specific approach to put Nebraska’s operational excellence dreams into practice, he recognizes that many other methods could also do the job. “This was the one that resonated as a good fit,” he says, “but any one of these systems will work.”
In fact, many methods used to improve government processes share the same attributes: They emphasize the importance of defining the specific problem that they want to tackle, and they engage in sufficient research to understand the steps that go into a process and to identify those that have no value. An intense analysis of the steps in a process, although time consuming, avoids the alternate approach that occurs when the solution to a problem involves rapid conclusions about what needs to change, described by process improvement trainers as “closing your eyes, throwing a dart and hoping that it’s on target.”
Another key factor cited by Singh and others is the importance of including all levels of employees in the discussion. These are not top-down exercises in which higher level managers dictate what needs to be done, but include the insights of frontline staff into what is working and what is not. “It’s not the magic of the system, it’s the magic of the leaders leading the system,” Singh says.
Nebraska’s whole state approach and the commitment of state leadership over a long period has helped to create a sense of sustainability and has provided other benefits. On Dec. 12, the Center of Excellence held its second annual summit, which was attended by Gov. Ricketts, who acted as host, and Singh, who was emcee. This year, incoming Gov. Jim Pillen, elected on November 8, also attended.
That leadership support has been crucial—not just from the governor, but from his chief of staff and the director of the department of administrative services. “Even when we did stuff that didn’t work out, we still had 100% support from them,” says Singh. “It would have been impossible to achieve what we achieved without leadership support.”