Spokane County Utility Billing Team Lean Success Story
As promised in my first blog post, I will be sharing a new story every few months from Spokane County’s front-line staff about how they’re leading our lean transformation at Spokane County – in their own words. This will offer readers a unique insight from staff actually doing government process improvement activities on their lean successes and challenges. Our first lean story is from Bethany Ellifritz, in the Utilities Billing team, which assists more than 45,000 customers with their solid waste and sewer billing accounts. Bethany has worked for the Spokane County Utilities Division for approximately 18 months and has recently been promoted from the front counter to the position of Customer Accounting Specialist 2.
Journey to Lean - Spokane County Utilities (by Bethany Ellifritz)
I vividly remember my first day with the Spokane County Division of Utilities Billing Section. As a recent college graduate, I was excited and ready for anything. Along with getting my badge picture taken, going to orientation, and learning the roles of my new position, I specifically remember my manager saying a new word to me that I hadn’t heard before in a professional context – ‘huddle’. It was a new concept to me, but one that I soon came to value for myself and the rest of the team.
Our billing section meets Monday through Thursday mornings before we open for business for our daily huddle. We discuss any successes we enjoyed or challenges we encountered the previous day, and we review the tasks and projects ahead of us. I have had many jobs before but never one that had a morning get together like this. Our morning huddles are just a small example of what the lean process has been for the Spokane County Division of Utilities. When people heard about lean they were concerned. After all, they had a ‘system’ in place, why change it? Were they being replaced? Why complicate everything?
I heard that when the daily huddles were first introduced, the concept was met with skepticism and some resistance. Billing Manager Maureen Adès would talk lean management (lean) principles and process improvement…but nobody else said a word. Occasionally, someone would glance at the clock or sigh. It seemed they were being told to work harder and simultaneously change the old processes that they knew worked.
This is why we need everyone to have an essential role in our lean process and need each other to succeed along with assistance from management. Maureen Adès and our Director Kevin Cooke provided constant support during these huddles. Kevin wrote a cultural philosophy to ensure collaboration and promote an atmosphere of trust. Chief Operations Officer John Dickson would sometimes join the morning huddles to encourage us and to get to know the team. We learned a lot through in-house training and visits to outside agencies to ‘see what they were doing.’ As our awareness developed, our support increased. And then one day, everything changed. Staff was engaged, new ideas were shared, trust had been built, and a fresh sense of purpose flowed through the entire division. Our ideas were implemented – and IT WORKED!
One of the Billing Section’s first projects was ‘Rate Our Service.’ We wanted an easy way of getting customer feedback so problems could be addressed quickly. According to Karen Gehret, Customer Accounting Specialist 2:
“The first phase of the project, steered by Janice Clark, Marci Taylor, Sue Joslin, Kimberlee Crist and I, was front counter survey cards. Participation in the beginning was overwhelming with the staff receiving information about what the customers liked and disliked during their visits. However, this phase of the project started to fade out and it was a struggle getting customers to respond, especially with customers who do not come into the office. Phase two of the ‘Rate Our Service’ project came to light with the creation of an online survey option. Having an online survey with easier access for our customers has proven very effective with customer response."
Lean is a strategy, but it doesn’t work without constant communication and collaboration. For example, Billing Lead Lindsey Anderson enjoys seeing what her coworkers contribute. “My favorite part about lean is the opportunity to collaborate with fellow team members, and being able to break from the norm of everyday tasks and bring in new perspectives,” she said. Lindsey, along with team members Marci Taylor, Jessica DeGon, and myself, redesigned the Billing Sections front office layout to be more customer service friendly; from the furniture arrangement to the color of the walls. This is why lean is so effective because no one is underutilized. Everyone’s strengths come into play with projects. We feel like we have a part in the process of everyday procedures, thus validating our role in the department. Many times people in small office roles do not feel they can or need to offer their opinions or ideas due to their ‘small’ role.
With lean, everyone participates with the projects as we all have our own strengths and weaknesses and intrinsic motivations for change. When everyone has a chance to participate and their input is valued and utilized, great things happen; not only on an individual basis, but a collective one as well!
Bethany and her Utilities Billing team continue to inspire me. Every so often I get an action item from their team on things I need to change at the county to enable another one of their improvement projects to succeed. And the most respectful thing I can do for Bethany and her team is to try hard to meet their needs. As managers and executives of continuously improving organizations, this is the mindset we must deeply embrace to assure that our lean transformations are successful, which aligns directly with both the Continuous Improvement and Respect for People pillars.
Photo: The Spokane County Utilities Billing Team. Left to right: Mike Longergan, Maureen Adès, Stephanie Anguiano, Janice Clark, Jessica Coan, Bethany Ellifritz, Karen Gehret, Jessica DeGon, Kimberlee Crist, Lindsey Anderson and Sue Joslin.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.