Kern County Cultivates a Culture of Continuous Improvement
Budget shortfalls and structural deficits are never good news for counties. And when a steep drop in oil and gas property tax revenues left Kern County $44 million in the red, they turned lemons into lemonade with LaunchKern, a business transformation initiative based on the principles of Lean Six Sigma.
“In Kern County, we believe in continuous improvement and that culture drives great results,” said Ryan Alsop, County Administrative Officer. He explains that Lean Six Sigma is a series of business management principles that enable “becoming better, and faster at what it is that we do as an organization, to provide value to residents, cost savings, and streamlining processes that better serve the public.”
“We had to do something to maintain a level of services, to maintain a quality of life that we wanted to keep in Kern County, but at the same time do it with dramatically less dollars,” said Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason. “We decided to completely embrace the challenge and approach the problem, from a different angle.”
LaunchKern is centered around workshops that teach employees how to make self-directed changes that have a positive impact on daily work environments. “We’ve empowered our employees to identify waste and pain points in their work processes and see if there’s a way to improve on that,” said Amanda Ruiz, Senior Fiscal and Policy Analyst. “While Lean Six Sigma has origins in the private sector, we’re really looking at how the public sector and local government can use these principles to improve efficiencies for our county taxpayers and residents.”
“You’re allowing your staff to be creative and curious and not necessarily approach problems the same way they may have historically,” said Mac Avancena, Information Technology Services (ITS) Director. “We’ve used LaunchKern in ITS to simplify our business processes, standardizations and centralizing operations, evaluating our vendors and how we spend money. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve saved $1.2 million implementing Lean Six. A lot of our hard dollar savings are a result of consolidating and centralizing operations for Kern County.”
“One of the main principles of Lean Six Sigma is empowerment from the ground up,” Bill Walker, Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Director. “I am like four steps removed at times from the ground floor as the director of a large department and I have been amazed, regardless of that person’s job, what they know and what they can share. That empowerment can then lead to things that are better. “
One behavioral health project applied Lean Six Sigma principles to examine the staff time required to conduct a particular internal audit. “Instead of taking three staff 90 days, it’s now two staff taking 45 days with a cost savings of around a quarter of a million dollars a year,” said Walker. “That money is now going to stay in direct service, because everything we save on logistics in the Department of Behavioral Health buys a therapist, buys a recovery specialist, a substance abuse or peer specialist. It gets services out there.”
Other improvements included redesigning a confusing tax bill that was causing duplicate payments, generating multiple phone calls and frustration for both residents and county staff. In addition to providing improved customer service to residents, the county saved about $100,000 in staff time.
“We’re finding really creative ways to save money. One of the most recent examples is in our healthcare benefits section,” said Alsop. “After looking at it and making some reforms, we were able to save $10 million annually.”
Individual departments report successes to the Board of Supervisors, and share their projects, resources, status and results on LaunchKern.com. “We’ve experienced a lot of momentum in the two years since we started. Now every department has a project on the LaunchKern website,” said Ruiz. Since its implementation, the county has saved more $18 million in both staff time and hard costs, and trained more than 900 of employees.
The benefits go beyond cost savings and customer service improvements. “It’s not just the dollars we’ve saved, the hours we’ve saved, the training we’ve done, but it’s the morale,” said Supervisor Gleason. “It reinvigorates employees’ attitudes about why they come to work in the first place. It’s a lot of fun, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“Any of California’s 58 counties can apply the principles of a culture of continuous improvement. It’s all about decision making, direction and vision,” said Alsop. “And my advice to any county interested doing a program similar to what Kern is doing is just start.
This Kern County program is a recipient of a 2018 CSAC Challenge Award, which spotlights the most innovative programs in county government.