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There's No Place Like Plano

September 1, 1997
Related Topics: Total Quality Management, Featured Article
Once upon a time, there was a city in Texas named Plano, located in a suburb of Dallas. In 1994, this city's 1,500 employees embarked on a journey to Quality. You might even say we followed our own Yellow Brick Road. While there were no tornado-swept budget crunches, no wicked downsizings and no scarecrow threatening the city's tax base, Plano's residents were about to witness a change in the sun-sweetened air.

Let me tell you about Plano, the largest city in Collin County. It was incorporated in 1873 and is located 20 miles north of downtown Dallas. The city's corporate boundaries include 69.8 square miles, with a protected planning area for ultimate city expansion to approximately 71.7 square miles. Residents pride themselves in maintaining a city lifestyle with small-town charm.

In 1994, the National Civic League and AllState Foundation named Plano an All-America City for outstanding grass-roots action and collaboration among the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The award recognized crime prevention efforts, family support services and free medical services for children whose families don't have insurance. So why initiate a quality improvement process when we in city management already knew we were managing well?

Just look around Corporate America. Many companies and public entities initiate quality movements because of a crisis. Plano-the fifth fastest growing city in the nation-simply wanted to be better than it already was. As the city continued to grow, city management was committed to improve its quality services to maintain the admiration of its citizenry.

Our city already had earned a national reputation as one of the best places in the country for employers to do business and for families to live and work. Simply stated, our mission was to improve customer service by making employee-driven changes that would yield big improvements. Our proudest achievements are the 55 plus employee-based teams that have driven such improvements as:

  • Increased efficiency in the solid waste division's procedures for special collections
  • Increased use of libraries' self-checkout system
  • Increased efficiency and improved customer service in investigating residential burglaries
  • Implementing a key-control system for our city-operated Plano Centre.
  • Today, Plano still draws families to its public school system. And corporations such as EDS, JC Penney Co. Inc., Frito-Lay, Fina Inc. and Dr Pepper/7-Up Inc. also have made it home. Growth requires constant change. It also causes stumbling along the way. Fortunately, Plano's city manager, Thomas H. Muehlenbeck, knew it wouldn't be an easy journey.

It's no "business as usual." Three years ago, Plano's City Council members wanted to ensure every effort was made to provide services that met or exceeded citizens' requests. Plano's population (then 176,000) was increasing rapidly, and the council members wanted assurances that services were delivered in the most cost- and time-efficient way. Prided as a benchmark city, the council wanted to exceed service standards. Muehlenbeck's vision generated the quality initiative. While many local government administrators prefer to do things in the same way, he has always looked for new ways to do things.

Before I came on board in November 1994, Muehlenbeck already had brainstormed with the previous training manager about what the city could do in terms of a quality initiative. He and Plano's police chief, Bruce Glasscock, pulled together a Quality Steering Committee to examine current services. The initial group included Muehlenbeck and the police chief, the director of facilities, the HR director and the director of public works. Soon after, however, the HR director was succeeded by Charlie Shapard in January 1995. Shapard formerly worked for the City of Fort Worth and immediately was supportive of the quality initiative that was under way. In addition to becoming a training facilitator himself, he served on the strategic team that oversaw the quality process.

Before Shapard and I were hired, our city manager already had chosen the administrative committee and an outside consultant. But he was committed from the start that HR would have a critical role in training and monitoring the process. For example, when a team is formed, I appoint a facilitator who assists the group, ensures its focus and monitors its progress. Teams can be proposed by employees, a supervisor or the city manager. It's not a top-down process.

Although HR handles the traditional functions of any human resources department, my position as training manager reports to the assistant city manager, Deborah Broome. I still work closely with Shapard and HR, but my accountability is to the assistant city manager.

Lions, tigers and barriers-oh my! As the city began its quality journey, our management staff encountered obstacles and learned some hard lessons along the way. One such lesson was that top management support isn't enough. For example, when the efforts began, the Quality Steering Committee was composed of a few department directors who had selected the consultant. In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to include front-line employees early on. Because they weren't included, employees initially viewed the quality efforts as another management fad. They even expressed resistance to a required two-day training session on problem solving, meeting management and process improvement. (Supervisors also received additional training on coaching for improved performance, cost benefits of quality and benchmarking.)

After recognizing the lack of buy-in from employees, a better venue for their participation seemed necessary. Under the guidance of local consultants, Joe Brancaccio and Rick Weintraub, a Quality Council was created. It's composed of 13 employee representatives from various departments who initially met on a monthly basis to talk about quality initiatives and share department experiences. The representatives were selected by their respective supervisors.

Like Dorothy, Plano's managers learned the city as an organization can't get to Oz in a day. It has been difficult explaining to employees who already pride themselves in their successes that they can scale greater heights. The city's managers, therefore, encourage front-line employees to create ways to perform their tasks more efficiently. They constantly reinforce the idea that small victories mean success by sharing examples at management meetings. Although our changes may not be earth-shattering, we recognize that changes such as better scheduling of bulk trash pickup have made necessary tasks more convenient for Plano citizens. Our building blocks have been employee-based teams.

Employee teams drive innovation. Worker input and participation have been the critical link between the success of the quality initiative process and our long-term journey. The city's managers recognized that every employee in every department must be trained in the learning tools that include concepts from management experts Stephen Covey, Peter Senge and William Edwards Deming: meeting management, benchmarking, systems thinking, brainstorming, exhibiting habits of highly effective people, repeatedly asking 'why' until one gets to the root of a problem (the five why's) and other concepts.

Our greatest successes have stemmed from the employee teams that made recommendations to enhance our public services. Those who personally experience involvement on a problem-solving or process-improvement team will become our greatest marketing representatives in the long run.

One of the most successful improvements came from the Solid Waste Department team. It undertook the task of revising the city's special collections procedures to curtail excessive wait time experienced by residents and to deal with the limitations of a fully automated refuse collection system. This 11-member team utilized problem-solving and process-improvement tools to gain insight into customer dissatisfaction and the entire special collections system, says Diane Lohr, solid waste administrative coordinator and team member. Using the process-improvement and problem-solving tools, the team examined a service or problem from every possible angle.

Through extensive research using customer surveys, benchmarking and information gathering, team members accumulated such information as the average response time for special collections and the average number of requests from citizens for these special collections. Through analysis of the data, they discovered that Plano citizens wanted free monthly special collection pickups and wanted this service within a week of making their requests.

The team recommended that effective November 1, 1995, citizens could receive free, automatic monthly special collection pickups of bulky items, excluding brush. This monthly pickup of toys, furniture and appliances replaced a system that allowed for a yearly large-item pickup that had to be scheduled by citizens by telephone and was limited to 20 cubic yards.

The Solid Waste Department team's plan was implemented with high praise from management and citizens alike for its efforts in increasing customer service with a minimum budgetary impact. The team managed to accomplish this without incurring any additional costs to the citizens. Moreover, the number of drivers and resources needed to fulfill the 12-times-a-year bulky collections remained the same: two temporary laborers and an additional rear-load truck, which was purchased for approximately $47,000. The improved system eliminated a part-time customer-service representative position through attrition and still enables residents to access service representatives without a long wait.

There's no one Wizard. Believe in yourself. This is Plano's first try at a quality journey. We've taken some wrong turns and have had to detour a couple of times. Managers and front-line employees alike are learning as they go. For our journey to be successful, we'll need to acquire a number of attributes: courage, brains and a heart. In the final analysis, the quest for quality must be a shared vision with all Plano employees pulling together as a team to give our citizens the best service possible. In other words, everyone's a wizard.

We've learned we have to believe in ourselves to find our way home.

Workforce, September 1997, Vol. 76, No. 9, pp.104-111.

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