A Tree Grows in Detroit: Improving Detroit with Lean Process

May 5, 2015 3:43 pm PST | Effective Governing

When Improve Detroit launched last October on the City’s open data portal and on smartphones around the city, residents could use it to report issues with trees – trees blocking streets, trees leaning on rooftops, anything to do with trees.

Since launching Improve Detroit, the City has added a dozen more issues including potholes and illegal dumping, rolling them out one at a time to pent-up demand from residents for an easy, effective way to report issues and track the city’s progress to fix them.

The story of what happened behind the scenes, and how preparing Improve Detroit featured processes and tools more commonly seen in manufacturing and business, were spotlighted in a recent Socrata webinar.

Socrata powers Detroit’s open data portal. SeeClickFix is the technology behind what the City branded as Improve Detroit. The companies partnered with the City to create the online service, which gives residents an easy way to report problems like broken traffic signs and clogged sewer lines. Then, they receive email updates on the status of the repairs.

Improve Detroit creates processes that save time and money, increase citizen engagement, and improve the delivery of city services.

Lean, a term coined in the 1980s for a method of efficiently delivering value in automobile manufacturing by reducing wasted time and resources, was looped in from the beginning, says Amy Sovereign, the city’s senior Lean consultant. Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan implemented Lean methodology as CEO at the Detroit Medical Center and brought it to city government as a common sense approach to looking at processes from a different perspective.

“City government can be as much of a victim of ‘that’s the way we’ve always done things,’ as really any other industry,” Sovereign says.

What can a city learn from Lean?

“It’s a set of problem-solving skills and tools that are used to reduce process variability and to increase efficiency,” Sovereign explains. The idea is to design a process that does what it’s supposed to do with very high reliability. Make it easy to do the right thing and people will do the right thing. Focus on waste-reduction and defects, which will reduce time and resources (thus saving money) and increase the quality of whatever service you provide.

“This is an organized, common sense approach. We use data to drive our decisions,” she says.

The mayor kicked things off in early 2014 when he asked for volunteers from the local business community to help the City get Improve Detroit off the ground. Companies worked pro bono for eight weeks on projects the City selected. Sovereign calls it the “lean launch.”

Next, the City started a robust training program to educate employees and certify a critical mass of staff on Lean Six Sigma. Certification requires about 80 hours of online and classroom training, plus mentorship and project work. Those in leadership roles participated in a four hour seminar on lean and what it means to be a project champion.

From Lean came tools such as process mapping, error proofing, and failure modes effects analysis – “Which I like to call, what could possibly go wrong,” Sovereign says. The City also used the DMAIC framework (define, measure, analyze, improve, control), a core tool used to drive Six Sigma projects.

Almost 100 employees volunteered as testers in what was dubbed the Improve Detroit Ambassador Program. They used the program for six weeks “in the wild,” Sovereign explains, and provided feedback in a survey.

The City prepared an implementation guide that included an alert to be prepared for “the surge.” When pothole repair launched, Sovereign says, “the potholes people went from 90 calls per week to 90 issues being reported per day.” The savings in time and resources were immediate.

Photos and other data posted about issues make it possible to send the right crew with the right equipment the first time. Status reports are emailed automatically, saving time time for people who had been doing the follow-ups. Replacing spreadsheets and manual processes shave as much as two days off the cycle of responding to street-repair requests.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of Detroit’s effort to establish a level of trust and understanding with its citizens by implementing open data policies and services.

Garlin Gilchrist II, deputy technology director for Detroit, said during the webinar that open data and Improve Detroit are helping to reset the relationship between Detroit city government and the citizens, businesses, and residents it serves.

“We believe that being more open, more clear, more honest about what’s happening, what are the quantitative facts about city operations, is a great way to reset that relationship,” he says.

Hear more about how to implement your own city’s version of Improve Detroit; watch the full webinar below.


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