“Doing more with less.” Four words that are definitely the scariest you can hear in government today. There are others that come pretty close, like “We’re taking away Columbus Day as a holiday,” and “We’re in a hiring freeze.” However, none strikes fear into the workplace like “doing more with less” because we all know what we’re really saying is that you are about to get a whole lot less.

A whole lot less people, a whole lot less money, a whole lot less support, and a whole lot less enthusiasm for doing the work we love. Nothing will induce rolling-eyes syndrome like “we have to do more with less.” It’s outdated, it’s overused and it’s the catch-phrase used by managers and budget directors who just don’t have anymore rabbits to pull out of their collective hats. It’s where we are at, so it’s what we’ve got.

Unfortunately, our customers just hear the first part, “We have to do more.” The “less” is implied when they complain about their taxes. And speaking of taxes, there are more people needing tax assistance after floating between odd jobs for two years and cashing in their investments for food, more people on unemployment, more on benefits, more in line at job programs. We all get the “more” part. The “less” part is what causes us to throw up a little in our mouth (admit it, you know the feeling).

Regrettably, the phrase is also correct. Doing more with less is the key to satisfying the growing demand and to cutting costs. But as Ken’s last article pointed out, the solution is not making the number in your fiscal books lower than last year, and it’s not in cutting your physical assets. Those are simply lazy, superficial cuts. For “less” to have a positive impact, it has to be less of the following:

Less Errors

In order to talk about errors in a constructive way, we need to lose the words accountability, blame and fault. We need to stop thinking of errors as a people mistake, or a mistake at all. An error is simply what happens when something didn’t go down the quickest path the first time. For example, if you have a pipeline where customers can appeal a decision, chances are you have errors. Anytime a decision is overturned, you can consider it a process error. After all, something happened that switched the answer. It could have been new information that the client did not provide earlier. It could be a “misleading” statement that has been refuted by credible evidence, and it could be a varied interpretation of the same policy. When we think of those as errors, our first reaction is to say, “Who was wrong?” But the truth is that everyone could have been making the right decisions based on the information they had at the time they made the call. It is an error all the same, and if we can get past the “mistake” and “wrong” part, we can have a dialogue about why we have so many appeals and what kink in the pipe is causing them. Straighten the pipe and you reduce the errors, reduce the errors and you free up capacity, free up capacity and you save costs.

Less Phone Calls

Before losing the land-line forever, my wife and I used to joke that the only calls we got were from our alumni associations or the sheriff’s association looking for a donation. In government we get flooded with two kinds of calls as well: “What do you want me to do?” and “Where is my stuff?” I’m not sure which calls I would rather answer, but they all have one thing in common: They are unproductive and rob us of our capacity.

“Where is my stuff?” is a pretty scary question when you think about it. When customers call to find out where their permit is in the process or where their tax return is, we have to stop doing work to track it down. As we track, we get further behind, and more customers call. Before you know it, we’re answering so many calls we request a call center, and before the end of the year, we have more call center operators than engineers processing permits. The same holds true when we spend half our time explaining our forms to the people we are asking to fill them out. Every second explaining and tracking is like a pay phone eating quarters. There are real costs in our call centers and wasted time.

Less Handoffs

We talked in a previous article how Adam Smith, father of the division of labor theories, was a pinhead. The more we divide our labor, the more we have handoffs between units. The more handoffs, the more costs. Each person that touches the application, the permit, the tax return, has a specific role to play. That specific role, which must be accomplished by that unit, causes a myriad of issues including batching, bottlenecks and backlog.

These killer B’s rarely occur when handoffs are one or zero, but almost always occur when you have multiple offices working along the pipeline. Whenever work sits in these traps, it’s costing you money. If the division of labor is the root cause of our gunked-up pipes, the handoffs represent the strong stem that allows food to travel from the roots to the weeds we can see: CYA.

Less CYA

See, while a root may be at the heart of the problem, it’s the weed that ruins the yard, and CYA is our crab grass. Every date-stamp, second signature, third pair of eyes and needless coversheet is a weed that has sprung up to choke out the real work. An IT shop I oversaw once had a letter go out that we had printed the wrong phone number on it. Needless to say, customers swamped the wrong number with calls (mainly because no one would pick up the actual number and frustrated customers were desperate to talk to anyone) and the business units were none to happy. The answer to the problem was to make sure an extra set of “non-IT” eyes looked at every new letter before mass printing. To be sure that nothing got to the second pair of eyes with a mistake, IT put its own second pair of eyes on it, and a cover sheet where each reviewer had to sign off that they had reviewed the letter.

Which All Means — Less Time in Line

Whether the line is actual, or virtual, it doesn’t matter: There is money in line. The more time customers are in line waiting for things, the more the work clogs the pipe. Like hard water buildup on the inside, work that is not flowing fast stagnates and compounds the problems. If you want to see your costs go down, you need to get people in and out of the pipes quickly. If you want to wring the money out of your pipes, you need to stop the errors and rework, reduce the reasons people are calling, and reduce the number of handoffs and subsequent CYA. In order to go fast, the pipes must be flushed and straightened. When we are fast, our capacity increases, and when our capacity increases, we free up the money we spend being slow.

Does it Work?

The Washington Department of Social and Health Services set out to fundamentally overhaul their plumbing with regards to delivering food stamp services. In these budget times they were able to:

  • Reduce wait times from 3-4 weeks down to 5-45 minutes
  • Reduce average days to process benefits from 14-18 days down to 4-8 days
  • Increase accuracy
  • Absorb a 40 percent increase in customer demand while taking a 25 percent hit in resources

In short, more customers are able to get through the system faster than before because the pipes have been straightened and the average cost per SNAP (food stamp) FTE fell from $136 under the old system to an average of $64. Compare that with another state that recently hired almost 1,000 new staff to try and keep up with their demand, at a cost of over $50 million.

There is money in the pipes — we’re just too spooked to change the way we work sometimes. What’s really scary is that when we cut costs outside the pipes, we usually only slow work down more. Cutting staff, closing offices, and reducing hours only adds time, and time is money. Time is money — now that should really scare us.

In the comments section, leave your thoughts on these scary words, and any others you can think of. Like “furlough”….

*Originally published as The Scariest Four Words in Government (Public Great @ Governing.com, October 25, 2010)

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