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'Constraints Management' Breaks Down Barriers to Efficiency

Government efficiency initiatives come and go. But Utah has had continued success with one in particular.

Anyone who has been around state or local government for a while can recall a litany of efforts to make the world of government a smoothly functioning place. The list goes on and on, and it includes such wondrous phrases as zero-based budgeting, continuous improvement and value engineering. Some of these efforts -- often held forth as panaceas -- are still up and running, attracting and losing adherents. Others are deeply buried in the graveyard of yesterday’s good ideas.

So we hesitate to bring you another cool-sounding concept for fear that you’ll be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. But the experience Utah has had with one particular notion -- called “constraints management” -- has been sufficiently successful, and we think it justifies attention.

Let’s start with a basic definition: Constraints management, which has been around for nearly 30 years, is predicated on the idea that nearly every effort to achieve a goal runs into a bottleneck at some point. Clearing out those bottlenecks, it’s argued, is a key to getting important things done. Consider a very simple hypothetical example: Let’s say your goal is to make sure that county roads are kept as clean as possible. On examining the sequence of steps required to accomplish that, it’s discovered that getting the cleaning equipment from a central location to distant thoroughfares takes a lot of time. Constraints management techniques might lead county officials to store that equipment closer to remote locations, with hopes that it will result in cleaner streets. “When we think about the connections between people and processes, there is a weak link in there somewhere. There is some place that is the limiting factor,” says James Holt, professor of Engineering and Technology Management at Washington State University.

This process begins, of course, with identifying the constraint itself and figuring out how to expand the capacity of the constrained process (widening the neck in the bottle). But that’s the easy part. The next step is to make sure the entire organization is ready to actively work toward supporting that change.

Utah has become the poster child for constraints management. It is clearly leagues ahead of other states in this field, and some insight into Utah’s work is instructive.

As with so many government service agencies across the country, the Great Recession put unforeseeable pressures on Utah’s Department of Workforce Services. Caseloads for food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, unemployment benefits and the like had more than tripled from pre-recession levels. At the same time, state budget reductions forced Executive Director Kristen Cox to cut more than $9 million from the eligibility service area’s $80 million budget. “The question,” Cox says, “was how can we do more with less, but in a way that supported our staff?”

In an “every silver lining has a cloud” kind of way, the Department of Workforce Services found that previous efforts to improve everything from interactive applications to phone center competency were simply increasing the log jam of work for people making those eligibility decisions. Utah leaders -- and Cox in particular -- had become intrigued by constraints management, and so they set out to find the single constraint that was most worthy of focus. After substantial exploration, it became clear that the process of making eligibility determinations was gumming up the works.

Having identified the constraint, Utah focused all of its resources on making more eligibility determinations more quickly. The state pinpointed all the things pulling staff members who were making eligibility determinations away from this task. One of the interferences was staff being called away to help other staff -- meaning eligibility staff was “overwhelmed with everyone else’s priorities.” Another was answering “status calls” from clients who were wondering if their eligibility had been resolved yet. Quite the irony, we think: Taking lots of time keeping clients up to date about delays in determining their eligibility actually served to delay their eligibility.

Cox and her team prioritized all the tasks staff faced, stripping away the least important. One key focus was on making sure that a client’s file was complete -- that everything needed to determine eligibility was there when it hit the eligibility worker’s desk. Previously, staff making evaluations had to periodically stop in their tracks while they searched out a missing piece of data. It turned out that the time required to make sure that workers had the “full kit” before starting a case was less than getting to the same place piece by piece.

The results were striking. The number of days to decide food stamp eligibility dropped from 15 to 11; phone wait times were reduced from 23 minutes to nine minutes. Budgetary savings have exceeded the $9 million originally cut.

Is Utah’s experience replicable and does it apply to all other government functions? Should other states jump on the bandwagon? A few cautionary notes are in order:

• One of the basic principles of constraints management is that all parties will join in on remedying the issue at hand. But normal politics can easily stand in the way of that kind of necessary consensus.

• Actually identifying the constraint can be very difficult when the activity being explored isn’t very concrete and lacks a series of clear-cut steps.

• There can be resistance to viewing some of the work of government in such a process-oriented fashion. Consider, for example, educating schoolchildren. Viewing the education of young people in the same terms as building a bridge has the capacity to alienate educators and parents.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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