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EDITOR'S NOTE: The Auburn Technical Assistance Center at Auburn University and the Alabama Productivity Center at the University of Alabama are jointly facilitating a program called "Lean for Government" with the cities of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Foley and the Baldwin County, Ala. governments. The initiative is a result of the two universities providing community outreach assistance in the wake of last year's Deep Horizon oil spill. The objective is to train personnel in the philosophy of lean continuous improvement and to instill the ability to apply continuous improvement methods to minimize process waste and improve efficiency in the midst of reduced revenues.
BY JOHN MULLEN -- firstname.lastname@example.org
GULF SHORES, Ala. – David Peleschak had seen this before. Or at least he thought he had.
The city had signed up for a nine-class program called the Lean Process through both Auburn University and the University of Alabama and would focus on the process of work orders sent to Public Works.
“It comes out of the Toyota production system, a continuous improvement system,” Mitch Emmons of Auburn said. “It focuses on removing or minimizing waste or non-value-added activity in a process.”
Emmons said the same process will be used in Orange Beach this spring and in the future at Foley and the Baldwin County government.
In the wake of the BP oil spill and the prospect of reduced revenues, the city was wondering how services would continue at the same level as before.
According to Councilwoman Carolyn Doughty, University of Alabama Systems Chancellor Malcolm Portera called asking what the system could do to help the city.
“Within a few days they sent a team down here,” Doughty said. “Each one of the universities sent somebody from their business schools, somebody kind of with social services and their grants program.”
The end result was the Lean Process program. The program cost is approximately $90,000, but the Auburn and Alabama provided the majority of the money. Gulf Shores paid $2,500.
Peleschak from Public Works participated, somewhat skeptically at first.
“I’ve been involved with the city a number of years and involved through all these processes and evolutions,” Peleschak said. “And when this first came about I thought ‘oh boy, here’s another one of these programs that we’re going to have to sit through with absolutely very little benefit.’
“I was frankly shocked.”
Doughty wanted one thing understood before the first step was taken: this was not about trimming staff.
“When it came to the number of personnel, we had already gone through that reduction in force back in the end of 2008 due to just the downfall of the economy,” she said. “And I knew we couldn’t operate with fewer people and I didn’t want our people thinking that’s what we were doing.”
With that one caveat, she was ready to go. She said Human Resources Director Sandy Carden was the city’s lead person in the program.
According to participant Bridgett Reynolds of the Parks and Recreation Department the whole process centered on a single question.
“Ask why,” Reynolds said. “Why are we doing this?” Why does the city process work orders sent to Public Works the way it does?
“I found out when somebody needed some work done in the city they had to physically fill out a piece of paper, they had to walk over to City Hall and put it in a box,” Doughty said. “Then Janice Childress had to walk downstairs from Public Works and pick it up out of the box, go back upstairs to her computer, scan it save it and she really didn’t know why, but she always did it.”
Next it was sent to Director of Public Works Mark Acreman, then processed back down the line.
“I don’t know how many hours to get it through the process,” Doughty said.
After examining the process, it was decided it could work much better electronically. And there was software already in place to accomplish that. But nobody knew that.
“We brought a software person to town and we had great software program in Public Works,” Doughty said. “And we said ‘we want it to do this’ and he said ‘it will.’
“Now they’ve got the process down to where somebody can sit at their desk, enter a work-order request and know, at least by tomorrow, that Mark has received it and got it done and they’ll know the second it gets completed.”
Emmons said that both universities that worked with Gulf Shores were impressed with the outcome. Lean was initially used in manufacturing, but has in the last several years spread to hospitals, businesses and now local government.
“That’s what Lean is all about,” Emmons said. “Trying to be able to maximize your efficiency with existing ability.”
Gulf Shores is continuing to look at ways to be more efficient in areas like purchasing and hopefully throughout the workings of government.
“I was thrilled because everybody really seemed to grasp the concept,” Doughty said. “It was amazing and fascinating to me to see the light bulb got off in everybody’s head.
“It was a great service and we’re really very appreciative of Auburn and Alabama both stepping up to the plate to help us like this. I think in the long run it will lead to money saving in the city as well as time saving and getting a little pressure off the employees and allowing them to excel in additional areas.”