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Why Government Managers Often Miss the Astonishing Power in Front-Line Ideas

Innovation in Government

THE Practical Innovation in Government study is one of the largest studies in the last three decades on how to improve government efficiency. Over a six-year period, we analyzed 77 government organizations—ranging from small departments to entire cities and states—in five countries and interviewed more than 1,000 people.

Our revelatory finding? The highest performers in the study were operating at levels of efficiency and service that rivaled the best private-sector companies anywhere. One thing stood out about them: their transformations took place on the front lines, where highly engaged employees were regularly innovating, solving problems, and championing improvements.

We came to call this front-line–driven improvement, and it turned out to be a highly effective way to improve performance in a government setting. This is particularly important as, according to extensive research, 80% of any organization’s improvement potential lies in the ideas and creativity of its people on the front lines.

If front-line ideas have so much potential to improve government operations, why do so many managers largely ignore them? Here, we offer some insights into this paradox.

A Case Study: Denver’s Department of Excise and Licensing

Let’s begin by looking at some ideas from one of the front-line driven units in our study: Denver’s Department of Excise and Licensing, which is responsible for issuing some 80 different types of licenses, from individual licenses for taxi drivers and merchant security guards to business licenses for restaurants and liquor stores.

Denver Licensing used to be the city’s “problem” department because of excruciatingly long delays: average wait times were one hour and 40 minutes, with maximum wait times of eight hours. But under a new manager in just 18 months, Denver Licensing was transformed into the city’s showcase department. Through hundreds of small, front-line ideas, wait times were all but eliminated.

To make our point, let’s look at two of these front-line ideas.

The first idea had to do with the computer and printer that had been set up in the lobby so that applicants who needed to submit criminal background checks as part of their license application could conduct and print these checks themselves. The problem was that the specialized software used to run the checks was cumbersome and confusing. Customers were constantly getting stuck and having to ask a licensing technician for help. On average, this happened 36 times per day, with each incident taking about five minutes of a technician’s time.

Denver Licensing’s staff came up with a solution: they created a simple instruction manual with screenshots and arrows to walk applicants through the process step by step. The idea saved, on average, three hours of technician time every day.

A second idea also saved technicians’ time and eliminated minor errors. When applicants arrived at the service counters and handed over their completed applications, which could include seven or more forms, the technicians had to enter this information into a computer. The problem was that the computer’s input screens were set up differently than the forms, which meant the technicians had to constantly flip pages back and forth to locate the next piece of information. Not only was this irritating and time-consuming, but it also led to a slew of input errors.

The solution? A front-line technician suggested that the application forms be redesigned to line up with the computer screens.

Think about these two simple improvements. They were spotted by the people doing the work, not by their bosses. How would managers, especially those above the level of direct supervisors, even know about the underlying problems? Yet, to the technicians who had to deal with them every day, these issues were annoyances and time wasters. More importantly, they could be dealt with by the employees themselves if given the necessary authority, time, and resources.

Small Improvements Add Up Quickly

Although the solutions were simple and involved relatively minor changes, considering the many times each day these problems occurred, the cumulative impact of eliminating them was huge. The simple instruction manual idea, for example, saved five minutes of a technician’s time for each avoided interruption. Multiply this by 36 times per day, five days per week, and 52 weeks a year, and you have more than 750 hours of technician time per year. And remember: this idea was only one of hundreds of such improvements identified and implemented by Denver Licensing’s front-line staff.

Front-Line Solutions Are Often Invisible

All of this brings us to the primary question: “When government managers think about improving their departments or organizations, why don’t they think of front-line ideas as a go-to source for improvement?” It all comes down to the “invisible” nature of most front-line ideas. Both the problems and their solutions are small enough to be effectively invisible to anyone not directly involved in doing the work.

The good part of being invisible is that these kinds of ideas and changes encounter very little resistance. The bad part of being invisible is that no one in management sees them or appreciates their impact. Such improvements simply disappear into the way the daily work gets done, with management none the wiser. All that higher-level managers see is a well-run department.

So here you have this strange situation: government managers most need what they can’t see. What’s the remedy? Provide managers with education that raises their awareness of the fact that 80% of an organization’s improvement capability lies in the creativity and ideas of their front-line staff. Teach managers how to lead in ways that promote and support front-line–driven improvement. And then design and implement mechanisms so higher managers are regularly exposed to front-line staff and their small-but-mighty ideas.

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Leading Forum
Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder have helped hundreds of organizations in more than 30 countries improve their performance, including Cleveland Clinic, the Federal Reserve Bank, General Electric, the government of Singapore, Heineken, IKEA, Kraft, Liberty Mutual, Siemens, the U.S. Navy, and The Washington Post. They are the leading world experts in front-line idea systems and the bestselling authors of Ideas Are Free, The Idea-Driven Organization, and Practical Innovation in Government: How Front-Line Leaders Are Transforming Public-Sector Organizations. Learn more at alanrobinson.com and dmschroeder.com.

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