How Lean Six Sigma Changed a Sewer Division

Lean Six Sigma methods help empower Pierce County sewer division team members to evaluate processes and devise improvements.
How Lean Six Sigma Changed a Sewer Division
Pierce County Sewer Division Maintenance Section team members celebrated Public Works week.

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Running a department is fundamentally similar to growing a garden, says Brian Ziegler, Public Works director for Pierce County, Washington. It takes the right tools and groundwork to produce beneficial results.

When Ziegler took his position in 2003 he decided that rather than be a graveyard, his department would become a garden. A professional engineer with 26 years’ experience in state government, he brought a strong emphasis on total quality management (TQM). The methodology would be new for the Pierce County DPW, which employs more than 650, with the largest group reporting under the Sewer Division.

In his overall assessment, Ziegler saw a need to improve processes and efficiencies. He chose the Lean Six Sigma method. He was realistic about the time it would take for the process to be accepted: “It’s what I call patient equity. You can’t expect immediate returns. You have to first educate people and then let them get excited with the results. It’s an organic growth.”

A new methodology

Having implemented Lean Six Sigma in the past, Ziegler knew the management tools and techniques that could help advance business outcomes and increase operating efficiency. The methodology improves quality by finding and removing the causes of errors and variation (inconsistency).

The concepts were new to county personnel; Ziegler knew he would have to lead the culture change. He brought along three team members from the state government side who knew Lean Six Sigma and were certified TQM facilitators.

At the time, Pierce County was beginning a major expansion at its Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. “In that project, we appointed a business case evaluation team to analyze possible process improvements,” says Ziegler. “The expansion was a big budget line item and we wanted to find ways to lower costs. They looked at risk factors and developed ideas based on total quality principles.”

For the project, the Sewer Division team looked at ways to reduce treatment costs. They reviewed the Anammox process for creating a nitrogen-based fertilizer, testing various effluent strengths before submitting process improvement (PI) recommendations for the Anammox process.

“First the staff reviewed the process and identified possible evaluation stages for improvements,” says Ziegler. “Then, together with the manufacturer (Paques), our employees and our consulting engineers, we demonstrated the changes. We maintained specifications throughout and could immediately see the benefits.” The project led to significant cost-savings, and the PI project and business case evaluation tools proved the fertilizer process could be changed and improved.

Expanding outward

The success of that first Lean Six Sigma project generated awareness and excitement for what TQM methodology could do, and Ziegler knew it was time to expand the knowledge base and apply the tools to processes affecting the entire department. It was challenging to carve time out of employees’ schedules for formal training, so he sought out flexible opportunities.

Through a state-funded program, a Lean Six Sigma facilitator from the Washington state auditor’s office came on site to work with Sewer Division employees and members from the other five Public Works divisions. The training focused on expanding PI initiatives with the goal to have employees initiate and conduct performance audits for projects.

All PI teams underwent an intensive process to evaluate real projects and apply the findings with the facilitator. One member of the Sewer Division, Karl Imlig, Engineering Section manager, took part in the training. His team looked at contract services and discovered that all divisions operated independently in working with contractors, leading to substantial inefficiency.

“The contract services team collaboratively mapped out situations and worked through even the smallest of details,” says Ziegler. “At one point an entire wall was covered with yellow sticky notes.” In the end, the team presented a streamlined process for contract services to use across Public Works. The presentation included flowcharts, voice of customer (internal and vendors) and a series of recommendations for new efficiencies in procedures, shorter cycle times and improved customer service.

“Because team members asked for input from all who worked on contract services across the six divisions, there was a high level of acceptance,” Ziegler says.

“Everyone understood that opinions were vetted and processes evaluated. The final recommendation was the right recommendation for the right reasons.”

Boosting education

With that success in hand, Ziegler and his staff sought to continue building momentum. “Awareness and acceptance of the Lean Six Sigma methodology grew exponentially,” he says. “Now we wanted to populate the department with more trained, qualified and empowered people.”

The next step was to offer advanced Lean Six Sigma education to employees: “We were still in the learning phase, which can be frustrating because everyone wants to move quickly. However, there are times we have to go slow before we can go fast.”

In fall 2014, eight employees enrolled in a one-day-a-week, 14-week accredited Lean Six Sigma course at the University of Washington. As part of the course, they took part in exercises where they re-evaluated actual Pierce County projects that affected the six divisions.

One project focused on the recruitment and interview processes that were bogging down new hires with an extended timeline. They reduced the 120-day process by half and created a new policy procedure and checklist to help expedite hiring. The Sewer Division now benefits as its hiring activities proceed in a timely manner.

Assessing the changes

Beyond process changes, Lean Six Sigma is about employee development and job satisfaction. So far Sewer Division employees Terry Soden, Maintenance and Operations Section manager, and Katherine Brooks, Organizational Development Section manager, have taken the formal training. The county’s twice-a-year employee surveys have consistently reported increased job satisfaction. Ziegler correlates the increase with deploying the Lean Six Sigma process: It helps keep the Sewer Division’s frontline employees engaged.

“We take pride in encouraging employees to do and be their best,” says Ziegler. “When they offer solid ideas that are strategic and based on data, like the Anammox project, we can seriously consider them. When we implement changes they have recommended, employees feel validated and justified.”

For Ziegler, allowing staff to make strategic decisions and implement improvements is the best way to grow a team.


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