To say the city of Houston is working to cut a looming $120 million budget deficit one color copy at a time would not be accurate. It’s more like millions of color copies.
Cellphones no one is using, old cars no one is driving, a 50-step process for approving fire alarm permits no one can explain – these are the targets and triumphs of a small team of efficiency experts tasked with burrowing into mounds of data and analyzing city operations to find savings.
While city leaders are looking at some painful ways to close next year’s massive deficit – pension reform, layoffs, cuts in service – the six members of the Lean Six Sigma squad have generated $25 million in savings and better processes in three years, showing there are easier ways to cut.
Next on the list? Perhaps an email to the sixth floor of the Houston Fire Department headquarters at 600 Jefferson. The shared printer there spit out 32,519 color pages in September, the most of any of the city’s networked printers. About 81 percent of the machines’ pages printed in color, nine times the citywide average.
It may sound like small ball, but given the size of city operations – 55 million pages are printed each year – the potential savings can add up quickly.
Finance director Kelly Dowe, who formed the Lean Six Sigma team in May 2011, said the group – named for decades-old problem-solving methods that began in manufacturing – has a broad focus, targeting everything from shortening the time it takes to hire city workers to helping pollution and restaurant inspectors plan better daily routes.
It’s easier to ensure diners don’t get sick, he said, when restaurant inspectors are spending their time in restaurants rather than driving across the city from eatery to eatery.
“Anything I’m doing that is not valuable to the customer is waste. That’s the heart of it. The restaurant inspectors were going to north Houston, south Houston,” Dowe said, scribbling chaotic lines on a piece of paper. “What’s valuable? Someone not getting sick. And you can’t prevent that when you’re driving from north Houston to south Houston.”
The group has helped save not only dollars, but staff time. Processing fire alarm permit applications used to take an astonishing 50 steps; after the squad stepped in, permit volume rose 49 percent and processing time fell 86 percent.
One of group leader Jesse Bounds’ favorite fixes came from a project in the city permitting center. About a decade ago, someone paid for a permit with a counterfeit bill, leading city staff to launch a process that would devour 140 hours a month for the next decade: Recording each applicant’s driver’s license, along with the serial number on every single $100 and $50 bill.
Several counterfeit bills lost the city a few hundred dollars, Bounds noted; having employees invest 16,800 hours over 10 years hoping to prevent that loss cost taxpayers about $540,000 in salary and benefits.
“Just by the nature of what we do, it’s open to public scrutiny, and there’s this pervasive fear among city employees of screwing up,” Bounds said. “So we add policies, we add procedures, we add layers of bureaucracy. By doing this training, we’re kind of taking off the blinders and saying ‘Is that valuable?’ ”
Among the city departments to most quickly embrace Lean Six Sigma was the Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. So many of Director Tina Paez’s staff now have completed the group’s training that they no longer wait for Bounds’ team to start new projects. Some tasks that took 45 days now take five; others dropped from 20 days to three, or from two days to one.
“Whether you go to the private sector or the public sector, you’ll have a process in place to do whatever you do, and even though you may set your team at looking at efficiencies, it’s just a completely different way of thinking,” Paez said. “It’s more than just problem-solving. It’s actually having every level of management and every level of employee thinking about, ‘What can I do differently?’ ”
A growing number of local officials are embracing such efficiency efforts, said Tim Maniccia, the founder of Policy Innovation Inc., based in Albany, N.Y. That said, Maniccia added, modernizing can produce pushback, so these teams often find the most success tackling specific fixes.
“Is there likely to be a single magic solution that is going to eliminate all of the projected deficit that Houston is facing? No,” he said. “Those kinds of things are not often successful because it’s hard to get everybody on the same page and supportive of that level of disruption. It’s much more achievable if you are looking at not one big change but a whole host of smaller ones. You can still find substantial savings out there.”
With deficits looming, Bounds’ team is targeting small changes with broad reach, from changing cellphone plans to selling old cars.
Even Dowe’s office, which oversees the Lean Six Sigma team, is not immune from its analyses.
Shown his own department’s printing costs, Dowe decided to begin shading his charts and graphs so they can be read in black and white.
“It’s not going to save the world,” he said, “but what’s the point in doing it if it’s costing extra money?”