The time it takes to get a complaint decided at Ohio's Bureau of Workers' Compensation has plummeted from an average of 142 days to 34. Licensing a snowmobile in Iowa involves 90 percent fewer steps today than it did two years ago.
A growing number of cash-strapped states are attacking bulky, frustrating and time-consuming bureaucracies with a Japanese weapon: the notion of kaizen, or continuous improvement.
"It has taken off like wildfire around the country," said Teresa Hay McMahon, performance results director in Iowa, where kaizen was first used in state government about five years ago.
Kaizen (pronounced ky-ZEHN) is a way of thinking that diagrams a job step by step, puts workers at the center, gives them a sense of the total process they're involved in, and then frees them to think of ways to best do their jobs.
"We're making the work visible by doing the mapping," said Walter Lowell, director of lean management at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. "Everybody knows they play a role in it, but they don't know the whole thing.
To get at the root of a problem, kaizen encourages people to ask "why" five times.
"You start to hear things like 'Why are you doing that?'" Lowell said.
In five-day exercises, managers, workers, lawyers, regulators, technicians and end users of a single government process _ say, getting a coal mine permit _ are assembled in one room to get educated about the big picture of a process and discuss each little piece.
The targeted task is meticulously mapped, using colored sticky notes to identify junctures where paperwork must be filed, decisions made, sign-offs obtained. The results emerge as a complex network, stretching sometimes across an entire conference room wall.
Then the participants set to work to eliminate most of what's there.
Latasha Phillips, an account clerk with the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, was apprehensive heading into her first kaizen exercise in October. She wound up a true believer.
"For me, it was exciting," said the 12-year state employee. "A lot of times you think that you may not be a part of something, but this teaches you are a part of it _ and you get to put your piece into it, to fit your piece into the puzzle."
State environmental regulators around the nation, whose cumbersome processes have long been the targets of business developers, have taken particular interest in kaizen. By this year, 29 states environmental agencies had conducted a kaizen session or were planning one.
Steve Wall, quality services director at the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, said dedicating an uninterrupted week to streamlining the process is the key to success.
"You cannot filibuster, you cannot stall. You look at this thing and say 'OK, justify that,'" Wall said.
Mental light bulbs pop on. Epiphanies are experienced.
In Maine, it occurred to someone during a kaizen session that death certificates could be issued months faster if copies, instead of the originals, were sent to be copied to microfiche archives. That way, vital records employees, who can't release a death certificate without the original in hand, could speed up the process.
Processing Maine death certificates _ required to access bank accounts and distribute an estate _ went from 95 days on average to five.
"We got calls from people saying they want to die in Maine now because they can get the death records so quickly," said Maine's Lowell.
Critics say that the downfalls of a process can never be understood that quickly and not without well-mapped data showing where a system is failing. And many argue that kaizen treats the symptom and not the cause of bureaucratic build-up.
It is made clear at the outset of each kaizen exercise that no one will lose their job as a result of the efficiencies that result, although some state agencies have shrunk their staffs through attrition following kaizen improvements.
Instead, jobs mostly change, like those of Iowa's environmental engineers after the landfill permitting process was broken down. It now takes 30 days on average to renew a permit instead of 187 days, for example, allowing engineers more time to inspect sites for regulatory violations, McMahon said.
Kaizen has its roots in the flow production of the auto assembly line pioneered by Henry Ford in 1913. Toyota adapted Ford's model beginning in the 1940s to add the employee-centered notion of continuous improvement, according to a history of the movement by the Lean Enterprise Institute.
The Toyota Production System, or Toyota Way, shifted the focus of workers from specific jobs to their places in the big picture. Machines were retooled to have more than one function and employees were encouraged to continually rethink how their job could be done better.
Toyota became the largest automaker in the world last year, a success many attribute to its approach to management and production.
Lowell said kaizen might not have taken off so forcefully in the public sector if it weren't for the pressure of economic hard times.
"When times are good, you don't worry whether you produce a lot of non-value-added work, but when times are tough and resources get scarce, you want to make sure you're using resources wisely," he said.
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