Want Work to Be Easier? Standard Work Can Do That

Good News! Customers love their ORCA Passports

Bad News! King Co didn’t have the capacity to keep up with contract demands

Solution: Identify Standard Work Processes and Share the Work

by Susan Whitmore, Continuous Improvement Specialist at KCMetro Transit

Lean challenges us not to jump to solutions until we truly understand the problem we are trying to solve.  When we hear ourselves say, “This is taking too long,” we should immediately ask, “How long does it take?”

Turns out, we often don’t know how long our business processes take—even for some of the ones we do hundreds of times a year. Almost as commonly, we don’t have a standard process, so one employee may take fewer than 2 minutes and another employee may take 5 minutes. This variation in process length is not because some employees aren’t working as hard as others.  It is frequently caused by the lack of standard work.

During a Lean event in June of 2013, the ORCA Passport team (see background below) learned about Lean philosophy and methods, walked the actual process, and saw for themselves the variability in how each employee did the work.  When the team mapped the existing process of manually cutting and pasting customer information into process tracking tools, contact logs, and ultimately into the Passport contract, it identified steps in the process that did not add value, resulted in a longer process, and created “pinch points” that caused conflicts among team members.

The team then engaged in asking the “5 Whys” about why a step was conducted or why a hand-off was made, to try to get to the root causes of the problems.   For example, prior to the Lean event, an average of 96 minutes per month was spent reassigning accounts to different staff.  When we asked, “why?” we realized that this was a practice that was useful during the conversion to the ORCA system in 2009, but was no longer of value.

Variation in hours

Another example: only half of the staff members were trained to conduct “finishing work” on a contract.  The other staff members would hand off this work to them.  This exacerbated the pinch felt during the peak load of renewals at year end.  When we asked “why?” we realized that this was, again, a practice that was useful during the conversion to the ORCA system in 2009, but was no longer adding value.  Staff decided to eliminate this “hand-off” of work so that each staff person is now in control of their own work from beginning to completion.

Before Lean event

After Lean event

Staff spent 96 minutes per month assigning customers to staff people and reviewing those assignments.

Permanent staff/customer assignments resulted in 20- 46% reduction of cycle time per month. Also, account reps are able to develop relationships with customers.

Staff worked approximately 50 hours of overtime in the 4th quarter each year to complete the January 1st renewals.

Standardizing work processes made it possible for other staff to help out with the peak workload January renewals.  The team eliminated the need for overtime.

Customers received an initial 12-page email with detailed instructions on how to manage their ORCA business account online.  During a focus group, our customers consistently said that they did not read the email.

Email templates that provide the basic information a customer needs when they need it during the process.  We also provide a web link and phone number for customers to use to “pull” additional information should they want it.

Staff had no central data source for tracking the renewal process, maintaining customer contact information and notes, and renewal notices and contracts were built for each organization.

A central database tracks the process, helping the team report on the program and generate renewal notices and contracts via a standard merge feature.

Continuous improvement means the improvements to standard work and PDCA doesn’t stop!

Now that the process is stable and the tools to measure the impacts to changes in the process are in place, the team is beginning to see greater opportunities for improvement.

  • The team holds a 15-minute weekly huddle to review the status of the renewal process, communicate about problems, identify issues and balance workloads.
  • The team holds a bi-monthly sit-down meeting to focus on process improvement implementation.
  • They will soon initiate a customer satisfaction survey that will be emailed to customers within the month after a contract renewal so they can gather regular customer feedback.


ORCA Business Passport is the annual transit pass available to employers and schools for their employees and students to use for commuting. Over 800 organizations in King County purchase Passport as a benefit for their employees and students. These organizations vary widely in size and industry type: from UW, Amazon and Microsoft, which purchase tens of thousands of passes, to Sound Bird Initiative and bookrags.com, which purchase 20 or fewer passes.

Purchasing an annual pass requires less administrative time for customers than purchasing monthly passes. Also, they do not have to pay up front for their passes; they can set up payment terms with King County. The yearly pass purchase requires an annual contract.

The number of Passport contracts continues to grow each year, but our capacity to process those contracts was not growing: the contract renewal process took too long and, more than two times as many customers wanted to begin their contract on January 1st compared to other months. This peak work load at the end of the year created stress for employees and resulted in staff overtime during the holidays.

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