Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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The historic city of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has implemented Lean thinking and doing in local government to provide better and faster services to its citizens.
Interviewees: Joost Klein Velderman, Master Black Belt , and Anne Brandse-Westerink, Black Belt, Municipality of Amersfoort
Can you tell us a bit about the city of Amersfoort?
Amersfoort is a historic city of 150,000 located in the heart of the Netherlands, near Utrecht. We are known for our beautiful medieval center - in 2009 we celebrated the city's 750th anniversary - and as one of the country's most important railroad hubs. We are the 14th largest city in the country.
When did your Lean journey begin?
It started in late 2009 in one department with two small projects. Even though there was no plan in the beginning, it spread like an oil slick as more and more people became interested in what we were doing and asked to be a part of it. It grew organically and touched all of our 20 departments (not all to the same extent) where we found supportive department heads.
We developed a Lean Yellow Belt training for our people, and we now have 350 colleagues who are certified. By May, half of our people will be trained, and before the summer all of our middle managers will be.
What are the biggest obstacles to applying Lean in a government environment?
First, the political cycle ensures that leadership changes frequently. And with a new boss comes new problems. Priorities will constantly change, which means we have to be adaptable. It takes a lot of time and effort to instill a lean culture in an organization, and the only way to do that in an environment like ours is to grow it from the bottom up.
Every political leader wants our customers to be served - people come to us for a passport or a driver's license, and we have to meet those kinds of needs regardless of the political party in power.
The better we do and the smaller the efforts we have to make, the better it is for our city. You invest a lot at first, but then it becomes an upward spiral.
Does leadership support your efforts to make municipal government Lean ?
More than supportive. Two years ago, we realized that despite all the projects we were implementing, we were somehow stalling. We needed top management to be an active part of our initiative, rather than simply assigning a problem to a Lean team and excluding results. Now that leadership is involved, we notice a huge difference.
We are currently training middle managers, teaching them what it takes to be a Lean leader and what behaviors are needed to manage people and processes in a Lean way.
Can you tell us about the roadmap you developed?
We have built a maturity framework for the organization, and the involvement of senior leadership and now middle management is part of that. We have a vision, our True North, and a set of goals to get there. In early 2017, we want to reach the next level of the framework. We are getting better at defining the individual steps, but it is a fluid, dynamic situation. We have an idea of what we want to be and are experimenting as we go. For us as a Lean team, we need to let go and let the middle managers do their thing. As an organization, we want to be proud of where we work. That is the core of our vision for 2020.
There are other things. We want to do things right the first time; we want to make sure all our customers are satisfied, not just most of them; we want to give them undivided, personal attention; and we don't want to do tomorrow what we can do today. Our customers cannot choose to go anywhere else, and it is our responsibility (and dream) to serve them as well as they deserve.
What was the reason you decided to embark on a Lean journey?
Our turnaround times for serving customers were far too long. Even though they met legal requirements, we wanted to do better.
We didn't really have a burning platform. We were actually doing really well in all the rankings, and people responded by saying, "See, we're already good!" But we knew we could do much better. Building a transformation on a sense of excitement rather than a sense of urgency can be very difficult.
There is no law that says we have to improve what we do, but we want to do it anyway. Why should it take us six weeks to do something we can do in an hour?
Can you share some of the results that the Amersfoort municipality has been able to achieve?
Of course. Among other things, we were able to reduce the average wait time at City Hall counters (for people applying for a passport or renewing a driver's license, for example) from 12 minutes to three minutes. The maximum wait time went down from 75 to 25 minutes, and there are many more opportunities to make an appointment, which means you are helped right away instead of just walking in and waiting. Repairs in public spaces (such as broken sidewalks or traffic lights, as well as green spaces) are now handled in eight days instead of 19. The number of complaints that take longer than four weeks to process has dropped from 17% to 6%. The number of complaints that are handled properly in one go has also increased from 52% to 83%. Applications for tax exemption (for example, for low-income citizens) are processed in three weeks instead of three months. When documents are missing, the applicant is notified in one day instead of 11 weeks. We have also made it easier for people to apply for benefits, handling applications in seven days instead of 19. If an application is not approved after four weeks (28 days), an advance payment must be made. The number of advances fell from 35% to 6%, while the number of cases handled properly in one go rose from 79% to 96%.