Mercer Island structural imbalance: Meet productivity | Letter

Fred Jarrett, former Mercer Island mayor, is described as implementing “lean management” principles.

Fred Jarrett, former Mercer Island mayor, is described as implementing “lean management” principles at King County for Dow Constantine (“King County Leaders’ Role Model: Toyota”, The Seattle Times, Oct. 13, 2011). This is noteworthy, because “lean” is often thought of as applicable primarily to manufacturing, or at least only to private industry. Jarrett describes lean as requiring a focus on customers, esp. improved quality and reduced flow times, and continuous improvement.

Jarrett describes lean as relying on front-line workers, “… as executives and managers can’t possibly know all their organizational flaws.” but they need to be persuaded to speak up and point out problems. Jarrett says a 3 percent per year cost savings is expected, enough to compensate for “structural imbalance.”

Lean has been used extensively and successfully outside of manufacturing at major companies such as Boeing, particularly for inter-functional project development/management teams. Some characteristics of these teams:

Purpose of project is driven by the customer.

Includes all front line participants plus key customers and is guided by a non-management team leader who does not have front line responsibilities for the project.

Authority, responsibility and accountability pushed down to the team. Team is accountable for cost and schedules and must prepare cost and schedule impacts for statement of work changes and submit them for approval. All members are accountable to each other for their cost and schedule contributions.

Each team member responsible to their functional management for processes.

The team is responsible to chief project manager for business processes; chief project manager oversees several teams and conducts monthly project reviews. Team prepares conceptual, preliminary and final design reviews, which involve all functional managers, the chief project manager, and their managers.

Charter and goals are established, typically an order of magnitude reduction in unreliability and half the recurring cost, which are almost always greatly exceeded. A business case analysis is conducted to assure the recurring savings justifies the non-recurring cost.

Team participates in a consultant-led one plus week training exercise with the chief project engineer, where conceptual designs, costs, and detailed schedules are developed. All conceptual design elements must have alternatives that are debated before adopting the preferred approach.

The team meets weekly, where schedules are reviewed and actions developed to offset changes, action items statused, technical issues are discussed, and new action items taken. Team meetings typically last one-and-a-half hours. Meeting minutes are taken, coordinated and distributed before the next meeting.

Teams don’t operate smoothly to begin with, as members are unfamiliar with their new roles, and must have a lot of participation and coaching by the chief project manager for the first couple of months. The resistance to the new teams does not come from the members—it comes from the functional managers who are reluctant to relinquish their authority and are resistant to having their department methods challenged by members from other departments. However, department managers have other responsibilities that limit the time they could devote to a team and thus become schedule roadblocks.

The emphasis of the teams is on reducing flow time, which is driven by the interfaces between front line workers and customers; therefore participation by all departments and customers is required. Sequential flows, where one department must complete their tasks before another one begins, give way for concurrent activity, where numerous partial deliveries and rapid feedback occur and major rework is avoided. Continuous flow time reductions expose bottlenecks, which when addressed, leads to more projects and flow time reductions. Support organization tasks are frequently absorbed by the departments they are supporting, further reducing interfaces. Project management expertise developed by team members may lead to job enrichment and their replacement of outside contractors and consultants.

An excellent opportunity for the city to enhance productivity is working with the recommendations by the consultant’s action items for the Public Works Department, using the line workers to develop objectives, plans, metrics, track and report status.

Dwight Schaeffer

Mercer Island