Can we process an annual review more efficiently? Can we make our ADA process more streamlined? How about improving the time it takes for us to turn a unit after a move out or increase the number of work-orders we close per day or week? If you buy a new housing software system or start inspecting units with iPads instead of paper will your work happen quicker? These are all questions that come up at every housing authority and are attacked in different ways. Anytime you try to improve this work or daily functions you are taking on process improvement. The question is, should you make process improvement a defined part of your day to day work instead of using it only when certain projects or problems arise? Is there a certain method or structure that you should use to implement process improvement? Is it even worth trying when HUD, Tax Credit Agencies and other regulatory bodies make everything we do so overcomplicated and bureaucratic?
Lets start with the basics. Process improvement can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. You can have PhD’s in business process reengineering or you could have a line staff member who read a few books on process improvement as potential players. There are different methodologies being used including Lean, Lean Six Sigma, Business Process Improvement, AGILE, SCRUM and probably another dozen that I do not know about. Any of these methodologies will probably work and I could not recommend one over another. I will throw in another methodology that is not listed which is common sense. If you can bring common sense to the table, that might be as good of a start as anything else you will find. You do not need to bow at the alter of any of these methods. They all possess ideals and concepts that can help you and your staff but do not necessarily have to become a religion.
Now that we know the different types of process improvement methods being used and the degrees of skill level that you will encounter it is good to think about structure of process improvement. In 2014, I visited several hospitals, businesses, non-profits and government agencies that had implemented Lean or Lean Six Sigma. Most if not all of them had implemented the process improvement across the entire organization. That meant leadership as well as staff had been included and buy in was high. I spoke with a lot of the leaders of these transitions and they told me that without senior leadership buy it was a waste of time to even start. I visited a few other medium sized agencies and businesses where process improvement was only engrained within a department or even a business unit of a department. The folks there told me that implementing lean or process improvement without buy-in from leadership was fine and that their actions were starting to win over doubters within the agency. You are probably asking if I have a damn point in writing all of this? It is taking me a while to get around to it but what I learned is process improvement can come from anywhere within an agency and can be started or implemented in any number of ways. You need to decide what is best for your agency, department, business unit or small team. Yes total buy in from leadership is great but that is not always realistic. In my mind, something is better than nothing and it is surprising how exciting a process movement can become once you get it started.
My process improvement journey started in Tacoma with an intern. I hired a recent University of Washington MBA grad as an intern. I assigned her to several projects and was impressed with the methods she took when it came to solving process related issues and attacking projects. She had more of a plan than I did. I looked a little more into her methods and found that they lined up with the Six Sigma Lean methodology. I wanted to learn more so I took a Six Sigma Lean Green Belt course at the University of Washington. I can promise you that I did not learn anything revolutionary that blew my mind but the course was extremely practical and gave a good method for solving problems and designing projects. I learned that in most of my prior projects I had completely skipped over the measure phase to define how big our problem was and the analyze phase to make sure we were vetting out all of the potential issues that were causing our core problems. Think about this for a second. If you say you are going to implement a new process in accounting because it will save time, should you not measure how much time the original process is taking before making the change? Many of us jump to the solution without taking the time to really understand, define and measure the problem to begin with. In that way, I found Lean Six Sigma to be extremely practical.
I put together a small cross agency wide Lean Team with my new found knowledge and taught as much as I could to them. We started tackling different projects within the agency and trying to hone our skills as we went. Pretty soon staff were asking more and more about this “Lean Team” and wanted to join us. The news spread and soon we scheduled a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training for dozens of employees. Again, nothing about the methods will blow you away but they are practical and sometimes that is all you need. There are very complicated process improvement tools available but I find that process maps, fishbone diagrams, brainstorming, Pareto charts and some of the more basic tools are good enough within our housing authority world. We used these tools to help us look at our day to day work and find simpler smarter ways to do it.
I like Lean Six Sigma because of the DMAIC structure of how projects are attacked. D=Define your issue, M=Measure your problem, A=Analyze, I=Improve and C=Control. Within all of these phases there are tools ranging from simple to complicated to help you work through core business process issues and come to solutions as a group or team. The good news is these tools will help you regardless of whether you are looking at annual reviews, maintenance work-orders, accounting processes or how to process an ADA request. I maintain that the simplest of tools are all that are needed. If you employee some statistical wizards who want to play with more complicated tool, great!
This blog is not meant to sell Six Sigma Lean as the method that you should look at to introduce process improvement to your housing authority. I like it but there are plenty of other solutions available. I also did not write this blog to get into extreme detail. I will try to expound more in following posts. Housing authority employees are often talking about how their processes are broken and need work. Leadership often names efficiency as a core goal without understanding that true efficiency will only come when staff directly involved in operations have the tools necessary to help them become more efficient.
I will end the post by saying that no one person or consultant can come in and make your agency more efficient. Efficiency will come by directly involving staff and empowering them to improve their day to day work. Some basic training in process improvement methods is necessary. Find what works for you and your agency and find a way to introduce it in a way that will be the most effective for your situation. There will be many that disagree with me but I do believe starting somewhere is better than nothing. Has anyone out there in the PHA world started a process improvement journey? If so, what are you doing and how is it working?