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Spokane County’s Journey to Lean

Spokane County’s Journey to Lean

Over the past three years, Spokane County has been aggressively improving our processes utilizing the lean methodology. Our transformation strategy is focused on the two pillars of lean – Continuous Improvement and Respect for People. While most organizations utilizing lean methodologies do a good job with the Continuous Improvement pillar (using tools such as value stream mapping, 5S, and mistake-proofing to improve processes), most unintentionally struggle with the Respect for People pillar.  

The biggest reason for this struggle that I’ve observed, both in private industry and in government, is that organizations fail to dedicate enough time and effort to training their staff – especially management – on how to successfully lead a lean transformation. It’s not intentional, and we can’t expect that managers and executives will instinctively know how to become increasingly effective coaches and conflict resolvers as their processes improve. I’ve also observed that when managers receive this training and then are able to quickly apply what they’ve learned with executive support, most do very well.

At Spokane County, our lean implementation strategy has predominantly been focused on our people. After becoming our county’s COO in March 2013, I quickly developed and taught our first 4-session Lean Leadership Course that all department heads were required to attend. During this course, they learned the basics of lean and how their leadership role will change in the coming years as our processes systematically improve. To apply what they learned, each lead a process improvement event in their department during the course. To date, I’ve taught 14 leadership courses and have had over 250 graduates, which has included elected officials, senior executives, managers, and front-line staff.

I’ve experienced both at the state and now county level that government staff are exceedingly good at running lean projects. Management support is a crucial factor. And to share our improvement activities across the county, in February 2014 we launched our intranet-based County Improvements Portal. Over the past two years, our Spokane County staff have initiated 474 lean projects! Here’s a screenshot of our Project Count page, and of the 474 projects, you’ll see that 358 projects have been completed.


A number of MRSC blog posts have done a great job describing lean in government. Larisa Benson’s 3-part Lean on Me series (Supporting Your Staff Through the Lean Process, The Pitfalls of Performance Management, and A Culture of Respect in the Workplace) is particularly good. So what I want to share with MRSC blog readers every few months is a lean process improvement story from our front-line staff who are running the vast majority of our projects.

As you can see from the Project Count chart above, our utilities team is leading the way at Spokane County with 58 active and completed improvement projects over the past couple years. So our first lean story, in my next blog post, will be from the utilities billing team, which assists more than 45,000 customers with their solid waste and sewer billing accounts. Customer service remains their number one priority and they ‘Strive for 5’ in their customer ratings!

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Photo of John Dickson

About John Dickson

John Dickson writes for MRSC as a guest author.

John is the chief operating officer for Spokane County a role that he began in March 2013. He is leading significant operational improvement activities across Spokane County government to make it more ‘Lean’, efficient and customer-focused. Over 200 county leaders and elected officials have already completed his 4-week Lean Leadership Course and significant cost savings/avoidances are being realized across the county.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.