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King County's New Management: Failing Forward and Other Good Ideas

A Conversation with Fred Jarrett, Part 1

In 2010, newly-elected King County Executive Dow Constantine tapped Fred Jarrett to be his deputy to help carry forward an ambitious reform agenda.  Recently, Lynn Nordby, MRSC management consultant, and I sat down with Fred to capture his ideas on organizational change, strategic planning, failing forward, and other interesting ideas.  Here is Part 1 of an edited version of our conversation.  (Part 2 will elaborate on the Lean Management principles that he’s bringing to King County.)

Sitting down with Fred Jarrett for an hour is like having a one-on-one tutorial with a political economy professor.   His background is in private industry, with 35 years of management experience at Boeing.  He’s also been an elected official for 30 years at the school district, local, and state government levels.  He’s motivated by a core belief that our highest aspirations for community and the individual can only be attained within a society founded upon institutions that work.  To find out what works, Jarrett mines ideas from sources as diverse as Mary Kay Ash, Mary Kay Cosmetics; and Soviet economist, Nikolai Kondratieff, who pioneered the theory of 50 to 60 year economic cycles.

Fred is one of the most innovative thinkers on local government in the nation.  As for King County, Jarrett professes that, “We haven’t done anything yet.”  But people are starting to take notice of the changes going on at the county.

Q. What are the keys to organizational change?  How do you avoid the danger of trying to do too much too soon?

A. I am impatient all the time.  And I try to be patient all the time.  When you’re changing an organization in the private sector, you have a huge advantage.  You lay out a plan to achieve profitability and inherently everyone agrees on the goal.  In the public sector, there is no clear outcome called profit.  You have to persuade the organization that it has to change. And you can’t do that overnight.  You have to slowly change the climate so that staff can continually adapt and adjust over time.  There are two big mistakes that you can make when you are trying to effect change in the public sector:

1)      Assuming that you know what needs to change when you don’t

2)      Trying to make the change too quickly.

Q. Where do you start?

A. The strategic plan is step one in focusing an organization on change.  The plan’s most important function is to say “no.”   You have to narrow the focus and recognize you cannot do everything all at once.  The second most important function of the plan is to integrate and align strategies with the organization’s goals.  You have to focus on customer needs. You’ve got to make good choices about the products you are investing in.  The strategic plan should help you do that.

Q. You’re bringing private sector ideas into government.  What’s the difference between the two?

A. The difference between the government sector and the private sector is a market.  In the private sector, the market establishes value.  In most cases, the public sector has nothing like a market.  Government exists to provide certain public services because private markets don’t work to provide them. Profitability is not the goal.

In the case of local government, the strategic plan provides the function of the market.  Through the plan, the legislative body establishes the value for public sector products.

Q. How are you changing the way staff thinks about the way they do their jobs?

A. In terms of allocating resources to the priorities, we have shifted the organization’s focus from programs to products.  Government hasn’t traditionally thought of itself as delivering products.  Government has been used to develop programs and fund programs, without enough emphasis on whether the programs were effective or not.  We’re moving toward a budget based on delivering results, not just based on effort. We define our work in terms of a product that has a standard of quality and cost per unit. Over time, we measure whether that product effectively contributes to the outcomes we are working to achieve.

Q. How do you foster a learning organization?

A. You have to become a learning organization.  Let’s say your goal as an organization is to clean up Puget Sound.  You develop the product that you will deliver to achieve the outcome of improved water quality for the Sound.   You hold staff accountable for delivering that product at the established level of quality and cost.  Over time, you measure the improvement vector – is the curve bending in the right direction?  Is the water quality improving?  If it’s not, you go back to refine the product.  That tension between the product and the outcome is how you become a learning organization.   You fail, you learn, you try again.

Q. Who do you trust to get the job done?

A. We’re in the age of “The Strategic Corporal.”    The person on the ground has far more influence over the outcome of an engagement than does the general who is directing the operation from afar.   The manager’s role is really serving the workgroup – making sure that staff has the resources, training, and skills they need.  The workers are in the best position to figure out how to do the job more efficiently.

King County has been criticized for so long for not being focused on the right things.  Now, we have a real opportunity for change.    We’re changing the way people think about what they do.  We have a lot of talented staff who have been frustrated by the system.  When we unleash that potential, good things happen - real improvements in employee engagement and customer service.

Q. What is “failing forward” and why should we embrace it?

A. I talk about the concept of “Failing Forward” so often that my staff awarded me the Mary Kay Cosmetics “Fail Forward” Certificate of Achievement.   Mary Kay Ash said, “People fail forward to success,”   and I am a big proponent of that way of thinking.  My goal is to create an environment where people are willing to take risks.  You fail, you learn, you try again.

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About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.