UIX: Local champions are leaning into city building

Led by skilled and informed "Champions," Lean initiatives in Grand Rapids promote designs that foster process improvement through feedback, and empowering those working on a project with its reformation.

Lean thinking is improving our city. It's making utilities more effective, departments more capable, and resources more available.


In both the public and private sector, it transforms business as usual into something better than what was before, with lasting, systemic change. It helps leaders and policy makers see problems from a different point of view.


Lean Thinking initiatives promote designs that foster process improvement through feedback and empowering those working on a project with its reformation. Led by "Lean Champions," like those certified in GRCC’s Lean Champion Certification program, these initiatives often approach problems through consolidation and elimination of wasted time and effort.


At the city level, Inventory and Asset Manager and Certified Lean Champion Alen Ganic applied those principles to reduce the wait time for water permits from over two weeks to a single day. Meanwhile, Brad Brown, Captain of the Planning Division and Lean Champion for the Grand Rapids Fire Department, implemented a Lean process that helped the GRFD obtain a new fire truck, and simultaneously realize a savings of $23 million over 20 years.


Lean thinking GR


The benefits of Lean have been compelling enough to drive transformative municipal action in cities across the U.S. In Grand Rapids, that seed was planted in 2005, when Deputy City Manager Eric R. DeLong and the Mayor's Urban Development Advisors implemented the Lean Thinking Initiative.


Eric DeLong

Lean processes have since touched nearly every city department, as well as their collateral systems, businesses, and manufacturing environments. From public utility interfaces, to the staffing behind them, few of the Grand Rapids' value streams remain disinterested in the principles of consolidation and refinement through empowering Lean Champions.


The process is prolific, but it's also fairly simple. DeLong describes Lean in four words: plan, do, check, act.


Having learned the steps the same way other local Lean practitioners have done, in one of the city's Lean Initiative workshops, DeLong has long understood the value of the process from a facilitator's point of view.


"It starts with the people doing the work," he says, "Unlike other management philosophies, it really involves the people with their hands on the work. They know the work and they are the people who are best situated to figure out how to do it better."


When the city changed its refuse packing operation, Lean thinking was at the heart of the transition. The Recycling and Refuse department went from picking up bags to a cart based system, and then from having the driver get out at every stop to pick up the cart by hand, to picking up bins with a mechanical arm.


"Along with that, we implemented a new way of paying for disposal," DeLong says. "We've always had a pay as you throw system, but we've wanted to have the PAYT system be done through our web transactions, so you have an account, and every time we tip it, your account is credited."


It took years to build the waste services Grand Rapids offers today, and even those are still being refined, a crucial step in the Lean process. Ask anyone who has used the city's mobile payment services, and they may tell you the app is still leaning heavily on TLC lyrics from 1994, another feature suitable for the application of Lean methodology.


DeLong admits the city found it wasn't as efficient as it could be when first acclimating to Lean; redundancy and waste can be found in any organization. Identifying those problematic areas of the system was a start, but it would take fundamental changes in how the work was done to begin correcting those problems, bringing the city back from a $33 million deficit to the highest level its reserves have ever seen.


Words like "Lean," "agile," and "streamline," all connote some sort of trimming down at play, which can lead to some confusion in the business world. While you might see processes and positions consolidated with a Lean approach, the goal isn't necessarily to do more with less, or to expect a shrinking workforce to improve its output. The goal is to organize resources where they can best be used, and to put decision-making responsibility into the hands of the workers closest to the problem.


Grand Rapids consulted its refuse packer operators directly during the Lean process, relying on "A3 reports," to help outline how the system might be redesigned to operate more efficiently. The A3, named after the UK paper size on which Toyota first printed its reports, is essentially a storyboard detailing the relationship and interaction between a system and its product and users, showing its current operation, and the ideal solution.


"Working with our refuse packer operators using Lean technique, we were able to improve that significantly to where, now, we have an exceptionally efficient operation," DeLong says. "I'm very proud of the work they have done and are doing."


The city's $32 million Transformation Fund was rolled out in 2011 with a Lean approach, keeping an eye toward reducing operating costs. City Manager Greg Sundstrom at the time said Grand Rapids could stand to see 20 percent of its operations budget reduced over the next five years.


"It really starts with the persons who are doing the work," DeLong says.


And among those doing the work, few are doing more than the GRFD.


Lean fire fighting


Grand Rapids named John Shea Lehman as Fire Chief in 2016, and in the years since then, the department has become one of the city's best Lean implementations.


The GRFD is managing a number of key performance indicators (KPIs) to insure daily improvement, while its strategic plan is broken up into pillars, with a Lean Champion for each pillar.


Brad Brown"They are tracking in almost real-time, what they are achieving in terms of budget or outcomes they're trying to accomplish according to their plan," DeLong says. "That is communicated to the battalion chief and at the station level as well."


Brad Brown, Captain of the Planning Division for the GRFD, is one of those Lean Champions.


Brown is originally from North Carolina, and worked for the Greensboro Fire Department, an ISO (Insurance Services Office) class 1 and Internationally Accredited agency, before moving to Grand Rapids. When he arrived in 2003, the GRFD was...not.


"I saw that things were done quite differently and a gap was formed in my mind of where we were at as an organization and where we needed to be in order to serve our citizens in the best manner possible," Brown says.


With associates degrees in Fire Protection Technology and Fire Prevention/Investigation, Brown was initially exposed to the work that takes place outside of actual fire suppression on a daily basis within fire departments. But during his undergraduate work at Northwood University, he had a few operations management courses and became more interested in process design. Moving to his master’s degree in executive fire leadership, Brown studied organizational theory and behavior, community and human service delivery, as well as strategic planning, "which lent itself to a much more macro level view of the fire department and potential improvements at a systems level," he says.


Shortly after joining, Brown was moved into an administrative role with the GRFD, and assisted with adopting the Center for Public Safety Excellence Accreditation model as its improvement framework. Over the next 10 years, Brown and the GRFD worked towards accredited status by conducting a comprehensive self-assessment and a data driven risk assessment, constructing a community driven strategic plan, and preparing a standards of coverage document which defines both the desired and actual levels of performance for our emergency response efforts.


The department achieved accreditation in 2016, after which Brown was certified as a Lean Champion through the program at GRCC. Still, he felt he had room to grow.


"Although the city, and specifically the fire department, was seeing success with lean methodology, I felt I still had more to learn to be as effective as I could for our employees and the city that I serve," Brown says. "I enrolled into the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program and completed four distinct action research projects over a four-year period that incorporated lean practices and principles to link our budget to our strategic plan, create a risk based fire inspection model, ensure succession management for our emergency operations center roles, and create a process to evaluate and construct fire stations within Grand Rapids."


Along with his work with the GRFD, Brown is currently pursuing a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership and Development degree from Cornerstone University. His research focus is on policy deployment, "the act of intentionally aligning each day’s work to the targets, vision, and outcomes the organization has agreed to pursue" he says.


"A key piece of policy deployment is our daily huddle process that is currently being adopted citywide," Brown says. "I am hoping to optimize this brief exchange each day to ensure better alignment and outcomes."


Brown's tenure at the GRFD has left him no shortage of fanfare, after helping the department obtain a new multi-million dollar piece of equipment, and save nearly 20 times that over the next few decades—but it hasn't come easy. Implementing systemic change as Lean would require involves its fair share of feather ruffling.


"Change is hard in any industry, especially in an organization with deep traditions such as the fire service," Brown says. "Although there were many times the city or the fire department may have wanted to revert back to the old ways of managing, there was too much at stake to lose focus."


Brown offers a quote from Vince Lombardi to sum up the value at stake: “the difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”


"That’s the great thing about our city and our fire department," Brown says. "We have a firm vision of who we work for, of what “good” looks like, and we work tirelessly each day to exceed the expectations of our taxpayers."


And that vision has made all the difference. Lean methodologies have helped the department focus on what it can do for people, as opposed to what it can do to people.


"By using lean practices and principles to reduce headaches for our employees, they are better able to perform their critical job functions, which ultimately results in a better end product for our customers," Brown says.


One of the major internal changes the department has experienced is moving training from a push system, mandating courses to staff, to a pull system, allowing staff to ask for assistance and training as needed.


Large charts visually demonstrate data to all department staff so that everybody is literally on the same page. "Many of the concepts are not difficult to understand and are based upon common sense, but oftentimes we become blind to the inefficiencies present in our places of work," Brown says. "I am excited to see the city continue to be a leader in the country, both from a lean and a fire department perspective. I am proud of the work we have accomplished, and want our citizens to know that we are not done yet."


Lean city building


Grand Rapids citizens may rest easy knowing their Fire Department is not done yet, nor is their city, but what do they actually know? There are a lot of decisions being made behind the scenes of our city's public interfaces, decisions that may wind up saving you a few dollars on your water bill, or help connect you to other needed services quickly and efficiently. Making those decisions takes meticulous attention to how systems function, how workers work, and how users use.


Alen Ganic is the one making many of those decisions.


Before joining the City of Grand Rapids as Inventory and Asset Manager, Ganic spent 10 years in the automotive industry, quite arguably the birthplace of Lean thinking.


Using a Lean philosophy, much of which is derived from the Toyota Production System developed after WWII, Ganic served as project manager on transforming a warehouse into the first assembly line for Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX vehicles, where front consoles were molded and assembled.


He officially learned the Lean process in 2004, while working for Magna Donnelley, and has completed a number of Association for Operations Management APICS classes.


Applying the same principles he picked up working with automobiles, Ganic has transformed several areas of the city's public utilities in some profound ways.


Using a Lean tool called a “Value Stream Map,” Ganic and each of the employees involved in water tap permitting documented the current and future state of the process. They identified bottlenecks in the system, redundancies, and even a few outdated policies from the 1830s.


"With the team, we have removed the manual process of completing tap permit cards, and we have developed a process flow that was more customer oriented," Ganic says. "With that, we have improved our efficiency and opened up some work capacity. We have reduced the water tap permitting process from 16 days to just one day."


Today, Grand Rapids residents no longer have to visit City Hall to request their water be turned on. Everything is automated, and available online. The improvements have reduced the amount of staff required to complete the permitting process, and cleared up time for backlog work.


Applying Lean philosophies and a few from the Toyota playbook to the water stockroom at 1900 Oak Industrial Drive, Ganic empowered everyone on the staff to provide input on process improvements. Kaizen (quick improvements), Kanban (inventory alert system), and the 5S tool (for workplace organization and standardization) were implemented to help identify areas that most needed reform.


The solutions Ganic and his team put in place have so far improved the city's cash flow by almost $500,000 a year.


"Also, every transaction is documented in asset management software, which allowed us to create many good KPI reports," Ganic says. "With that, we became 100 percent transparent operation, and anyone with the organization could see how we operate. We have improved the process flow, reduced the operational cost, increased the efficiency of work, simplified the process, improved employee morale, and most importantly we have improved internal and external customer service."


The City Clerk's office, Parking Services, even local tree removal schedules have been optimized through Lean methodology, and in keeping with that system, will continue to improve as time goes on.


Leaning into the future


"Through the transformation of plans, and implementing it over these years, it really has affected almost every aspect of the organization," DeLong says.


It's also helped set a course for the future. The Lean philosophy is helping keep our Sustainability Plan sustainable, and providing leaders with a plan for continual improvement through incremental change.


Now in its seventh year, the city's sustainability plan is on track with 230 out of 232 targets. And it's thanks to Lean Champions, and caring citizens, like Brown, Ganic, and DeLong, that we can meet those goals


"We have citizens who are committed to our success," DLong says. "That's really key and we have had good leadership from the mayor and city commission, a dedicated city staff, but Lean is one of the reasons why we are successful."


For more information on Grand Rapids' Lean Thinking Initiative, visit http://grcity.us/city-manager/Lean-Initiative/Pages/default.aspx


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio

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