Process Improvement Delivers Major Capital Projects A Whole Year Sooner

Not long ago, we shared how our Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) has been making momentous improvements in how their largest capital projects are designed and built.

Now the property acquisition team at WTD has used Lean thinking and process improvement to shave another full year off the average eight-year large capital project construction timeline, delivering much needed projects faster while saving money.

For these major projects—projects like water treatment plants—the acquisition of the property alone has typically taken two years. How did they get it down to one year, a 50% time reduction? The answers are surprisingly simple: asking “why do we do it like this?” and developing standard work.

“We didn’t have a well defined standard; that was the epiphany of this whole Lean process improvement workshop,” says Bill Wilbert, Environmental Programs Managing Supervisor with WTD. “First, you map the current state. That opens up the doors to asking, ‘why do you do that?'”

Bill Wilbert of Wastewater Treatment Division describes the property acquisition process improvement

Bill Wilbert describes the old process that used to delay projects and frustrate County staff and those engaging in acquisition discussions with King County. “Each one of these Post-Its is ripe for questioning,” he says.

Here’s an example: for every property acquisition, and there can be several for big projects, WTD staff used to prepare an elaborate justification packet for the department director, replete with maps and oodles of explanatory information. But as they examined the process, asked “why?” and discussed it with Director Christie True, the group decided that a two-page briefing memo would suffice. That memo includes a basic factual and narrative description of the acquisition.

In situations like these, the team had already done the due diligence and it wasn’t a worthwhile use of anyone’s time for the director to reassess the entire acquisition decision. “We were re-explaining that for every single acquisition. That was just the way we did it. We were assuming she needs all this information,” says Wilbert, “which she didn’t in most cases.”

In the new process, in the rare case when the director might want to examine the decision more closely, the group can always produce that more in-depth packet. But it wasn’t needed or useful for most acquisitions–and it took a lot of time that the team can now dedicate to other work that advances projects. “”We’ve reduced the timeline by not doing unnecessary work like that,” Wilbert explains.

When projects are in progress,  waiting on property acquisition can mean costly delivery delays. Saving a year of project time can add up to big dollar savings for the county—hundreds of thousands of dollars in most projects.

Just as importantly, the redesigned negotiation and mediation process includes communications templates and standard timelines that provide more clarity and certainty to property owners with whom WTD negotiates.

“Our goal is to treat property owners fairly and see if we can address their concerns. We’d like to avoid litigation. That’s is just being a responsible government entity.”

“The beauty is that everyone gets treated the same and the expectations are the same for everybody.”

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