Apr 20, 2007

History repeats itself, sometimes in a good way

Neither Graham Richard, current mayor of Ft. Wayne, IN, nor Joe Sensenbrenner, mayor of Madison, WI, from 1983-1989, knew of the other’s work to bring data-driven quality methods to city government. Yet there are a number of similar strategies they used.

First, they added the word “customer” to city employees’ vocabularies, as well as the concepts of internal and external customers.

Each promoted making change through gathering data about a problem and applying statistical problem solving. Sensenbrenner called it “Quality and Productivity” or QP, and Richard chose the current favorite label, six sigma.

Each offered training to any city employee who wanted to tackle problems in their part of the system, whether they were managers or front-line workers. Each emphasized teamwork in project-oriented improvements. Top-level managers were required to take some quality orientation training, even if reluctantly. Those folks who really took hold learned about leadership in Richard’s Leadership Roundtable and Sensenbrenner’s Leadership and Facilitator Training (LFT) program.

Each created ties to external partnership organizations. Richard was a founding member of the Northeast Indiana TQM Network some years before he entered office. Sensenbrenner built up the Madison-Area Quality Improvement Network, MAQIN.

Both Richard and Sensenbrenner reduced the number of aides allowed them to create a full-time position for a quality coordinator and leader, yet both made it a point to interact with the people throughout the ranks who were moving the quality improvements ahead.

The mayors both reached out to community resources to help foster and guide their efforts. ITT and Raytheon in Ft. Wayne, among other companies with six sigma expertise, shared knowledge with the city. Madison is a university town, not a manufacturing town, so it was University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty who came in, mostly gratis, to foster the development of statistical quality thinking.

Getting the word out repeatedly created visibility for the programs driving improvements that were paying off in better service to customers, as well as better use of tax revenues. The local press frequently published stories about what was going on. Then Richard wrote and published a book, “Performance is the Best Politics,” about what could happen when a public sector organization grasped quality methods, and Sensenbrenner’s article, “Quality Comes to City Hall,” appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Unions became partners in both cities’ progress. Union leaders expect participation in policy in future administrations, and will negotiate with the aim of keeping members in the forefront of a continued drive to perfect services.

Each firmly grasped the reality that a mayor’s powers are limited and temporary. Thus, they deliberately planned for sustaining the gains after they would leave office.

Middle managers with experience in quality projects are the future leaders of government departments, and their joy in creating change would keep them motivated. If systems change enough, they will persist. Publicity created awareness of what was going on in city hall, and citizens would expect that excellence would continue, and would give them reason to ask future mayors about continued progress. External organizations, the TQM Network in Ft. Wayne and MAQIN in Madison, would keep local companies in a position to influence and aid city leaders. Joe Sensenbrenner still serves on civic boards, and makes it a point to stay in touch with the current mayor.

Finally, each began to organize broader knowledge-sharing in national-level organizations. Sensenbrenner helped develop the ASQ government division, still in existence today, even if its peak of activity may have passed. Richard is developing a High Performance Government network, drawing the involvement of government leaders in Indiana in preparation for a national drive for public sector improvement.

So is it good or bad that Richard was unaware of Sensenbrenner’s pathfinding, and Sensenbrenner didn’t know that Richard was transforming a city’s operations? It’s unfortunate that Richard didn’t know he had a potential mentor and source of new relationships just two states away. It’s unfortunate that Sensenbrenner didn’t reach out to foster Richard’s efforts. Or at least they didn’t know about each other before I started talking to them.

The good news is that the inherent wisdom of statistical quality and productivity improvement methods has persisted and spread long after people like Deming and Juran have gone. Newer teachers have come along to inspire leaders in business, academia and public agencies, who in turn teach those in their organizations how to love and drive change. Maybe there’s hope after all.

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Copyright @ 2005-2013 by Karen Wilhelm