A state agency that provides benefits to residents suffers staff cuts that result in long wait times for callers who want to apply for help over the phone. The agency decides the best solution is to speed up the intake process with automation. A Web portal is built and now residents can self-enroll online. Phone call wait times drop, but processing the applications for benefits takes as long as before, if not longer.
Because nothing changed on the back end, staff are forced to re-enter applicant data into the legacy system. Overtime costs spike and the Web portal is deemed a failure. The only benefit to come out of the costly project is that agency workers no longer listen to applicants complain about being put on hold when they call.
Alison Fisher, program director for the state of Connecticut’s LeanCT
program, provided this example to illustrate what happens when a government agency doesn’t try to figure out the root cause of their problem before turning to technology for a solution. Speaking at the Connecticut Digital Government Summit* on Oct. 19, Fisher explained that her job is to help agencies look at what they are doing and how they can improve the process.
But it’s much more than that. Besides the government process, there are fiscal or procurement issues as well as technology that needs to be considered. “Lean is about reviewing the work that we do to ensure that we are delivering service to the best of our ability, given the human resources that we have,” she said.
Others have defined lean as a bottom-up effort to reinvent government by identifying problems and eliminating waste. Lean was originally developed by Japanese manufacturing firms, such as Toyota, to encourage assembly-line workers to identify problems.
Since then, it has found its way into government, thanks in part to the “reinventing government”
movement launched by Ted Gaebler and David Osborne in the 1990s. Over time, the use of performance management systems in general — and Lean in particular — has spread across all levels of government, particularly, state and local.
In 2012, Connecticut launched LeanCT within the Office of Policy and Management
to help manage the state’s efforts to become more efficient. What’s interesting about Connecticut’s program is that it's aligned with another OPM program called the IT Capital Investment Program
, a $50 million fund that agencies can use to improve the effectiveness of their services using technology.
Any state agency that wants to tap that pool of funds must first undergo Fisher’s methodology to fully evaluate their process that needs to be improved, figure out how to make it more efficient, and only then begin a discussion about the use of technology.
“It’s important because our systems are complex, fragmented and procured in silos,” said Fisher. “LeanCT’s role is to help standardize, bring systems together and leverage technology for better efficiency.”
That’s easier said than done. “Lean depends on people who can think and focus on improvements,” she said. “You can’t change anything without understanding the people who are part of the process, both as customers and as workers.”
Fortunately Fisher is a people-person who is focused on communication and collaboration, two critical skills to making Lean a success. One agency where Lean has taken root is the Department of Motor Vehicles. She described how the agency knew it had a problem with long wait times, but initially thought the solution was to make the lines move faster. “They studied wait times, the number of transactions per employee and so on, but it didn’t make a big difference,” she said.
After looking at the problem from a different perspective and talking with workers, they realized the issue wasn’t wait times, but that customers weren’t prepared. “Customers didn’t know what they needed to have when they arrived at a DMV branch,” she explained. So, the real holdup was a lack of information and preparation, knowing what document to have before they talked to an agent.
Now, the state’s DMV offices have a “customer advocate” who helps each person by making sure they are ready before they get called to the counter. “It’s made a huge difference in the customer experience,” said Fisher. “Talking is so important.”
Fisher sees Lean having a cultural impact on how workers anticipate the automation of what had once been manual processes. “Before Lean, there was a feeling of panic, a feeling they were completely out of control [of the change] and how it would work. But now, they know there are resources to help them to prepare adequately for what is going to happen, and they have control over how the work gets done, as well as the ability to influence what the design of those requirements will look like,” she said.
But Lean isn’t universally accepted, according to Fisher. Pushback is there, and it will be there as long as there are people, she said. “It’s human nature to be afraid of change, and to want to control everything in a way you are comfortable. But it’s important to get out in front of that change and be part of the solution, rather than a victim of the process.”
In the Northeast, besides Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire have Lean programs. But the one program that is considered the gold standard in government is the state of Washington, which has its entire performance management system built around process improvement. Called "Results Washington
," the effort recently received the Harvard Kennedy School award
for operational excellence in government.
“Washington has the leadership, political will and private industry input to deploy a systemwide approach to performance that hasn’t been found elsewhere,” said Fisher. “Other states like Connecticut are envious of what they have accomplished, but it gives us hope and something to strive for.”
LeanCT works closely with state CIO Mark Raymond through its steering committee made up of members from state’s agencies. The IT Capital Investment Program is run by John Vittner, who splits his time as IT policy director at OPM with the state CIO. Fisher said the model is unique, but it creates synergies between IT and the budget office that don’t exist in other states.
But the uniqueness of LeanCT really lies in its ability to break down barriers and bring people together, said Fisher. “Ultimately it’s about trying to have the same conversation about state programs, technology and fiscal requirements, which can be difficult. But Lean allows you to do that. It’s what we’re focused on.”