Lean and Six Sigma practices are ultimately about helping businesses use efficiency to provide the ultimate customer experience. But what about state and county government entities? Can the same practices apply, and do they even have “customers”? The residents in the counties these government offices serve would likely say “yes”.
Kern County spans the southern end of central California and includes the city of Bakersfield and surrounding towns, making it home to just under one million residents. The Kern County Child Support Program, a division of their Human Services department, exists to help many of these residents by providing services aimed toward the health and development of their children. Because these services include not only establishing parentage, but also obtaining, enforcing, and modifying court orders, rendering these time-sensitive services more efficiently means more county residents receive the crucial assistance they need for their children.
But they weren’t efficient, and customer feedback was sending that message loud and clear. When the county turned to their Help Desk to increase efficiency, one long-term Help Desk employee came to a startling realization: the Help Desk wasn’t helping, because they were a big part of the problem.
Kern County’s Help Desk Items Take 30+ Days to Resolve
It came to the attention of a Senior Child Support Specialist in Kern County’s IT department that the Help Desk she was managing was not actually very helpful. When tickets were opened, it was taking anywhere from ten (on the low end) to 42 days to resolve. The ticket would travel through an inefficient system, requiring follow up and time from multiple teams before reaching resolution.
Lean Six Sigma initiatives were already on the Kern County radar. The county was hit hard financially, as many other were, when the oil and gas industry took a major downturn several years ago.
Driven by a passion to serve the local community well and with the best interests of the community children in mind, this Support Specialist saw an opportunity. And instead of ignoring it or giving up when she realized the amount of work involved, she took it and saw it through.
An Employee Gets Their Green Belt, and Implements DMAIC
As someone who analyzed the efficiency of her department’s daily processes on a regular basis, she was familiar with the Lean Six Sigma methodology. Additionally, other departments within the county office were seeing successful results after conducting efficiency projects.
That familiarity grew into belief that LSS was the solution to the Help Desk efficiency problem, so she took it upon herself to study and certify for the Six Sigma Green Belt exam. She decided on Green Belt because she knew it was the level of knowledge she needed to successfully use the program to make a difference.
After obtaining her Green Belt, the Support Specialist formed a project team and set to work implementing the DMAIC methodology to her Help Desk’s processes.
The goal? To put the “help” back in Help Desk.
Kern County’s Help Desk Uses DMAIC To Be Helpful
The project team followed the traditional 5-step DMAIC process of define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.
Would they meet their goal? Here’s a look at how they did it:
The most commonly expressed customer complaint received focused on the time taken to resolve a problem. Internal data allowed the team to see that the average resolution time was more than 10 days. As such, this was easily selected as the team’s first project, and their aim was to reduce this by 30%.
Once the overall project was defined, more detailed aspects of the endeavor were identified and further definitions were needed. For example, an official operational definition was put into place for what qualifies as a ‘completed’ ticket. The team also identified additional positive outcomes to a successful implementation, such as reduction in labor hours, saving money, and increased call volume without adding staff.
The team then decided upon a baseline time frame for their data (January – May of the same year). Doing so ensures that everyone on the team is collecting and measuring relevant data, which is critical to the successful identification of – and subsequent solution to – the problem.
In measuring the data, the team realized the output was very inconsistent, ranging anywhere from 10.6 to 42.7 days to fully complete. The labor hours required during the process varied from 255.3 to over 1,000 hours.
Once the team began analyzing the ticket process start to finish, there were some surprising reveals. Teams were inconsistent in their approach, and tickets would travel to different teams using different approaches, often slowing down or bottle-necking the process altogether. Teams were also handing tickets off to each other without properly completing their step of the process. It was also discovered that some callers discovered how to bypass the Help Desk entirely and reach the Specialists directly, making the Help Desk even less helpful.
The team took the information they had acquired thus far and organized it all via mind mapping (in lieu of a more traditional Fishbone Diagram) based on LSS’s ‘8 Wastes’ (eight types of issues with a process that devalue the customer experience). As a result, they were able to identify two main causes for the majority of the delays: waiting for customers to establish details and insufficient information, a defect which resulted in substantial rework and initially resulted in leading the project team down a wrong path. When the team spoke to both customers and technicians, they learned that many issues are getting pushed further along in the process that should be handled on the first call.
Once at this stage of implementation, the team set to work designing a process that changed their initial 30% reduction goal to a lofty 80%. They created a standardized Help Desk form, they educated residents and customers on the new process, every process had one central contact from onset to completion, and standardized training was given so that all requests followed the same process.
In so doing, customer expectations were managed, and a level of customer accountability was introduced.
The results of the implementation as laid out above were successful overall. The project resulted in the creation of an evergreen sustainability plan which includes changing the employee on-boarding procedure to account for the new process, regularly scheduled compliance reporting and departmental audits, system-wide, automated reminders to all staff with ongoing tickets, and allowing staff more access to a technologically updated infrastructure.
Mission Accomplished: Customers Getting Resolution 64% Faster
While the revised goal of 80% improvement proved to be too ambitious, Kern County came close and exceeded their initial 30% goal by far. Not only was the lead time reduced by 64%, but the corresponding labor hours were also reduced by 58%. These reductions were directly responsible for a cost reduction of over $156,000 at this one Help Desk alone.
LSS empowered Kern County to find an innovative way to address their own financial struggles that also benefited the community residents.
3 Best Practices for Kern County’s Implementation of DMAIC
Part of the successful implementation of a LSS practice includes sustainability. It needs to be implemented in a way that allows for practical, realistic, and repeatable results.
1. Be ambitious.
The team was not afraid to elevate their initial goal from 30% to 80%. They saw such an ambitious goal might be possible, so they went for it. More importantly, they did not give up and abandon the project altogether when that revised goal could not be met. Forging ahead, they still were able to achieve noteworthy improvements. The ending result might not have been so successful had they not been so ambitious. An 80% resolution rate remains on their radar for a future project.
2. Build a culture of continuous improvement.
Today, the employees that work at this Help Desk apply their new problem solving skills to other processes, everyday. This continues the momentum of reducing costs and improving the services received by the members of the community. This level of employee buy-in is required.
3. Get management support.
Managers in strategic positions within the organization should not only be fully aware of the implementation, but supportive and encouraging of it. The continuous improvement culture needed for ongoing success must be a mindset adopted by department heads if company-wide acceptance is to be had.
Residents Benefit From a Lean Kern County
Lean Six Sigma is not just useful in for-profit applications; far from it. More and more government offices are looking to Lean Six Sigma to help them be more efficient and service their community residents better. Since a financially-struggling Kern County began adopting Lean Six Sigma practices several years ago, several hundred (and counting) employees have been trained in Six Sigma methodology, and the county continues to evaluate processes and embark on efficiency projects.
LSS is empowering Kern County to move forward with other strategic initiatives they have identified: these include providing an enhanced quality of life for their residents, setting an example of resident-focused excellence to inspire other government offices to follow, and maintaining an innovation-focused environment.