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Like every other sector in this slow economic recovery, government must learn to do more with less.
“An organization’s only sustainable advantage in today’s economy is to work lean,” says Anthony Timmons, director of budget and business services for Wisconsin’s Department of Revenue. Timmons, who oversees his department’s budget, revenues, and expenses, says that organizations should use a strategy of rigorous methodologies to remove waste, control costs, and improve quality.
To help his own division work lean, Timmons enrolled in Six Sigma executive education courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says the on-site, three-day classes offered an exploration of various frameworks for diagnosing, improving, and designing systems that eliminate waste and improve efficiency. Timmons, who has an M.B.A., already used many of the processes but in a less formalized, more ad hoc way. He wanted to develop a methodology that would address departmental inefficiencies and increase his confidence in his analysis. “With this instruction, I’m better equipped to address the nuances that make government service delivery uniquely challenging,” says Timmons. Crediting Six Sigma with enhancing his department’s processes, Timmons applied the following takeaways:
Data is king. Without comprehensive data, project team members often risk making recommendations based on inaccurate or incomplete information and may fall prey to blaming each other for process problems. Timmons created process maps that outlined customer service activities so the division could gain a better understanding of its process. To improve efficiency across the tax processing function, which involves multiple divisions, Timmons highlighted cross-functional employee interactions to ensure an objective analysis of the divisions’ work flow.
Understanding variability is crucial. “While variability is more likely to occur in service industries, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a faulty process,” says Timmons, whose overview of the customer service process helped the division distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable variance. “A spike in customer call wait times is expected during tax season, but a spike in tax bill mistakes is not.”
Effective process improvements address root causes, not just symptoms. Process improvement projects should include a root cause analysis to identify underlying reasons for problems, such as mistakes, delays, duplication, and inefficiencies. After uncovering reasons for delays in processing tax returns, including lengthy reviews, excess paperwork, and time spent fixing mistakes, Timmons discovered that the real culprit was the ineffective management of the tax return backlog.