Employee-Driven Process Improvements

  • May 5, 2017
  • Operational Excellence in Government

This resource is part of the Ash Center's Operational Excellence in Government Project.


Cities, counties, and states are increasingly giving employees the tools they need to tap into their ideas and innovate the processes and policies that govern their work. Frontline employees are the ones who often best know how to solve a problem because they live and breathe it in their daily work — theirs is a unique perspective on the process. According to Stephen Goldsmith, Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government at Harvard Kennedy School, former deputy mayor for Operations in New York City, and mayor of Indianapolis, “While mayor of Indianapolis, I used to walk around offices and talk to field crews, asking them what one thing they would change to improve their jobs. Almost everyone had a worthwhile idea. What governments too often lack is a plan to change the culture and support those ideas, operationalizing enough of them to provide an incentive to those interested in continuous improvement.”

Numerous promising efforts are giving frontline staff and managers the tools to take ownership of the changes needed to make government more efficient and customer-friendly. Among the first was in Denver, whose Peak Academy is now in its sixth year, has produced 5,000 graduates, and has saved $15 million with the process improvements of those graduates across the state.

Many governments have empowered frontline staff. New Hampshire has a Lean training program that in partnership with a local university trains staff from across departments. Hundreds of successful projects have resulted, including a recent one that streamlined employee time and expense reporting reducing redundancy, improving accuracy, and saving $26,000 in state funds in the first year. Minnesota also instituted a Lean training program and, in the first three years, 160 business processes had been streamlined by the employees themselves. Topics ranged from the issuance of duplicate birth certificates to the processing of State Soldiers Assistance grant requests. Colorado’s Lean training program has reduced tax-form processing time from a month to less than two days, saving the state $2 million per year. In Snohomish County, Washington, a Lean process was used to streamline the permitting process, significantly reducing processing time.

Examples of employee-driven process innovation from Philadelphia, San Diego, and Denver are described in the following sections.

San Diego’s Operational Excellence Academy

In his 2015 State of the City address, San Diego Mayor Kevin L. Faulconer announced his vision to “create a City government that’s as innovative as the people it represents.” In that spirit, San Diego has recently launched its Operational Excellence Academy with the goal of empowering city employees across all departments to make government better by “eliminating waste, basing decisions on data, and delivering better value to their customers.”  The curriculum is based on Lean methodology, tailored to government rather than the corporate manufacturing process where it originated. Courses are free and are offered in three levels of intensity – champion, introductory, and advanced. According to Almis Udrys, director of the city's Performance and Analytics Department, the academy is part of an overall effort to improve city government with greater use of data to gain insight, and more opportunity for employees to generate ideas to improve operations. Udrys describes the academy as where ”we turn buzzwords into reality.”

The city’s Performance and Analytics team started by each taking the course themselves so they could both pilot test it and provide a proof of concept for their city employee peers.  Early graduates of the course have made significant contributions to the city. One team took on the challenge of reducing the answering time for 911 calls, which at the time were below national standards. The team used Lean Six Sigma techniques to define, measure and analyze, improve and control the 911 call answering and dispatch process. Looking at the data allowed them to see how many non-emergency calls were coming in, so they did a public information campaign to reduce non-emergency calls, allowing true emergency calls to be answered faster. Data analysis also showed where modifications of staff shifts could reduce wait times for callers during the busiest times. With these and other technology and process improvements, the city of San Diego achieved a 40% improvement in call pick up time and is now better than the national standard. Another project resulted in a 42% improvement in the time spent hand sorting materials that library patrons request through careful analysis of motion diagrams and process maps and the elimination of non-value-add steps in the process. As these examples demonstrate, the academy graduates take on challenges across city government. Udrys remarks that, “Large problem or small, it doesn’t really matter, we’re squeezing out every idea to make it better for our customers.”

Denver’s Peak Academy

In 2011, then newly-elected Mayor Hancock faced an $80 million deficit in a city-county government that had already endured layoffs, a pay freeze, and increased employee contributions to their pensions. With thinly staffed agencies and waning morale, he knew he wouldn’t solve the budget problem with more staffing cuts. He thought there had to be a better way, which led to the launch of Denver’s Peak Academy. It was an experiment in innovation designed to unleash new ideas from within the ranks of city employees. The mayor decided that if he didn’t have the answers, he would turn to those who might.

Denver created its Peak Academy using the staff-led innovation methodology that Toyota used in the 1970s and 80s to reengineer processes. Peak Academy teaches the Lean management principles normally applied to manufacturing and business, but in the context of solving municipal problems like a slow process to get a permit or a long line to get a license. The Lean curriculum was chosen both because it was effective in process improvement and because the basics could be accessed for free or low cost, which was very important given the project started when Denver was in financial crisis. While the content was all tailored to government, much of the underlying source material was available free on a variety of websites.

Over 5,000 employees have completed the curriculum on process improvement, creating projects that have saved the city $15 million since the project began. While it began as an experiment that was only a pilot, to be discontinued if it did not produce results, it did demonstrate results within the first year, returning $3 for every $1 invested. In the second year, the return on investment was $5 for every dollar of cost.    

At the start, enrollment was slow and enthusiasm was low. Some employees were fearful that streamlined processes would mean they’d lose their job. So the team made a promise, which turned out to be an important one: no one would lose their job because of a process innovation they suggested during the Peak Academy. This reassured some of the early participants.

Now, six years in, the academy is a proven approach, and its courses sell out sometimes months in advance. Mayor Hancock attributes the success to employee empowerment and says, “When we stopped asking employees for just their ideas, and started asking them to implement their ideas and investing in them, we started to get results. Our people know their areas of work better than anyone else. It makes sense to give them the tools to change their work. The results speak for themselves, both in terms of strategic outcomes and employee engagement.” 

Now, the Peak Academy website shares its curriculum so that other municipalities can benefit. And the story behind the Peak Academy has been shared in a book called “Peak Performance: How Denver’s Peak Academy Is Saving Money, Boosting Morale and Just Maybe Changing the World. (And How You Can, Too!).”

The program has gained attention far beyond the city and county of Denver, with requests from 30+ other municipalities in the US and Canada to participate. One recent example is Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is launching its own Lean training program based on the Denver curriculum and with the support of the Peak Academy team. Peak Academy has recently established a partnership with the San Francisco Data Academy to share curriculum materials on both process improvement and data analytics courses, and Kansas City, Missouri, is building its own academy based on the Denver Peak Academy model and tools. 

Peak Academy aims to teach employees tools they can use not just during the training but that they can permanently embed into their work. Tools and techniques for problem diagnosis include process maps, production boards, and fishbone diagrams. Courses can be as short as few hours or as long as a full week.

Some examples of successful employee-led projects that have resulted from the Peak Academy include:

  • A Peak Academy graduate figured out how to reduce processing time for a food stamps application from 6 days to 24 hours, making it 5 times faster than before by taking out the bottlenecks. A similar review of the Medicaid processing time reduced it from 20 days to 6 days.
  • Procurement improvements saved $1 million for vehicle purchases in the Public Works department.
  • An employee at the city’s animal shelter wanted to cut the time it takes for an animal to be adopted so they spend less time in the shelter. She created a way to track all the steps of the process in a dashboard so that employees could see where they were in the process and how their work impacted the animal’s progress. This resulted in a new data dashboard, which cut the time for an animal to be ready for adoption from 14 days to nine and saved the city more than $495,950 in its first two years.
  • One graduate returned from Peak Academy and the next day received the same 500-page report he got every day. He had a realization post-training: they only needed the last six pages of the report and routinely throw out the rest, but then get the same 500 pages every day and print it out every day, recycling 494 pages of it. So he decided to change the process. He asked the vendor to stop sending the full report and just send the six pages they needed. Sounds simple, but it saved $5,000 in print costs, and a few trees too. Says Brian Elms, director of the Peak Academy, of small changes like this, “the truth is, incremental improvements add up. They sometimes even pave the way for a breakthrough change.”
  • One Peak Academy graduate noticed that the city’s wastewater division used certified mail instead of regular mail to warn residents when the city planned to put a lien on their property for unpaid bills. Switching to the lower cost mail method saved the city an estimated $46,000 a year. This is a considerable return on the investment of four hours of training for that employee. 

What’s innovative about this approach is how it embeds process improvement into the culture of city government. Unlike a consultant’s report, or an outside audit or a performance management critique, Denver Peak Academy graduates create innovations in process themselves and own the implementation process as well. Peak Academy teaches city staff to improve customer service and to make small, continuous improvements in city processes. The Vision of Peak Academy clearly articulates that focus on the customer by “changing the way government operates to improve your experience.” 

After initially focusing just on the academy participants, Peak Academy now supports department managers with leadership skills so that academy graduates come back to an environment that is hospitable to and supportive of innovation. This reinforces the motto, “Innovate. Elevate. Repeat.”


Whether following a model such as the ones described here, or creating their own, state and local governments can create a culture of innovation by giving tools to those on the front lines — the staff who serve the public. 

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