Untangling Family Medical Leave at Transit

There are two timekeepers in Transit Operations, keeping track of shifting schedules and leave status for 2,800 transit operators, among others.  As the new ABT/PeopleSoft application was coming online, the timekeepers were about to be swamped with errors and rework caused by the need to enter the Family Medical Leave (FML) status for up to a quarter of all the operators.  Payroll – and the timekeepers – were in jeopardy.

Karen Blacketer and Laura Omelas, Transit Operations Timekeepers

Karen Blacketer and Laura Omelas, Transit Operations Timekeepers

Transit operations leadership realized that this was not just a technology problem; there were also serious process problems.  Incorrect status entries resulted in the need to correct up to half of all leave entries, which put tremendous pressure on payroll and required that many manual checks be cut.  Frantic calls were made to correct benefits before payroll ran.  In some cases, an employee was recorded as out on FML when it turned out that the person was not qualified.  But by then, benefits had been improperly paid.  And supervisors did not have the data they needed to manage their operators.

So in May, Transit Operations and the Human Resources Division (HRD) sponsored a kaizen event to start untangling these FML challenges.  The multi-agency kaizen team has been working hard to implement solutions ever since.

What’s better now? 

Instead of dispatchers at each of the seven transit bases fielding “not coming in today” calls in their own way, they now ask the same questions in the same way, which results in more consistent and accurate initial leave status entries.  While we don’t have data yet, Ralph Keyport, Transit’s Operations Planning Superintendent, and Senior HR analyst Peter Hu are both confident there are fewer errors and rework, like manual pay corrections and manual benefit notices.  The system will start generating relevant data on January 1.  For now, those most closely involved are relieved that payroll is no longer in such jeopardy.  The timekeepers are happier campers.

Ralph Keyport, Transit Operations Planning Superintendent

Ralph Keyport, Transit Operations Planning Superintendent

On December 1, Transit Operations will do away with their paper-and-pencil attendance cards.  Attendance will be kept electronically, which will give Transit much better information.  For example, in the paper-and-pencil system, an employee could only be recorded in one status each day.  So there was no way to record that someone worked four hours and was on leave for four hours.  That person was either working or on leave that day.

Eliminating the paper-and-pencil system will also save admin staff the two or three hours a day they now spend transferring the information from digital to paper.  Also, when operators shifted from one base to another – a common result after one of the three-times-a-year “shakeups” when operators can bid on different routes – the paper records had to be trucked to the new base and it took a while for supervisors to get up to speed on their “new” workforce.  Now, electronic records on attendance and leave status will be instantly available.  No more trucking paper.  More accurate and timely records can also ensure that employees get the benefits to which they are entitled, for example COBRA and long-term disability benefits.

Echoing other King County kaizen team members, timekeeper Karen Blacketer notes how the kaizen event got everyone on the same path.  Everyone in the process now understands what we have to do to get the correct information to payroll ops for confirmation.  She describes the timekeepers as the ones who have to “clean up.”  Now that others understand what we go through after the information leaves their hands, they do a better job of giving us better information, which means fewer errors and less cleaning up.

Ryerson Base Superintendent Michael List also sees potential benefits to the County in the new data supporting the “ability to work” program.  With more accurate and timely attendance data, supervisors can now much more readily identify instances where attendance is an issue and take appropriate action.  Better attendance means less backfilling, which means less cost.  Transit can deliver better service with the money it has.

Advice to others implementing Lean projects

In hindsight, Keyport notes the importance of carefully scoping a kaizen event.  Anticipate as best you can the downstream consequences of what you are working on.  For example, Transit ended up revising 15 pages of policies and procedures, which they hadn’t foreseen.  Keyport advises: bite off the largest digestible piece you can do.  Look for places to break the work into pieces.  Ironically, Keyport had initially thought that this project could be completed in a few meetings.  What would we do for a whole week?

A couple of participants noted the tendency for scope creep during implementation.  As people were making changes, they saw opportunities for even more improvements, like a much richer reporting environment for supervisors, which were then added to the agenda.

Keyport also emphasizes the importance of being clear at the end of the event about who will be responsible for what.  This team was in a hurry at the end of their busy kaizen week and didn’t realize that they hadn’t been clear, which made Keyport’s job as the implementation manager more difficult.  He also noted that kaizen implementation isn’t the typical project management task because implementation involves many people who don’t report to him.  So clarity up-front is even more important.

Peter Hu, Transit Senior Human Resources Analyst

Peter Hu, Transit Senior Human Resources Analyst

Finally, Peter Hu emphasized the need to be sure that team members know that they are not just committing to the kaizen event itself.  Many of the team members will have important implementation roles and they need to be ready to fulfill them.  Lean is a lot of work, Hu reminds us, but it was well worth it here because it will lead to less work for everyone.

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