How Colorado's Transportation Department Is Institutionalizing Improvement

Not only is the agency becoming more efficient, but its culture is being changed.
April 11, 2014 AT 9:00 AM
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

Not so many years ago, it would have been unheard of for anyone in government to have Gary Vansuch's title. He's the director of process improvement for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and a symbol of the fact that change can be a very good thing.

Vansuch is charged with introducing continuous-improvement tools and techniques at CDOT. In the process, he's also overseeing a change in the department's culture.

CDOT's process improvements are broken into three parts. The first, "Cross-Functional Process Improvements," addresses larger issues that involve multiple parts of the department. An effort that resulted in oversize/overweight (OS/OW) permits being issued to truck drivers more quickly and with fewer errors illustrates how this aspect of process improvement works.

During a 2012 audit, CDOT learned that its permit office had a major OS/OW error rate (errors that could cause structural damage to transportation infrastructure or accidents that might result in bodily harm) of 6 percent. A process-improvement team was created, team members participated in a rapid-improvement event, and improvement objectives were identified that included reducing the error rate in the OS/OW permit office by 50 percent and cutting the time it takes to process a permit application.

The improvement team charted the permit process and was able to identify steps that often needlessly delayed an application's review. By trimming wasteful work and providing new training opportunities, the department reduced the number of steps in the approval process from 17 to 12, with plans to reduce them even further in the future. Over the course of a year, the team also reduced the major error rate to 2.4 percent. The project was a finalist for a 2013 International Team Excellence Award from the American Society for Quality.

The second aspect of the Colorado effort, "Localized Process Improvements," focuses on upgrades within a single function or workgroup, normally driven by an individual or a small team. One team, for example, reduced the time it takes to review contracts from around five days to about three by eliminating 23 steps that added little value. Improving the way W-9 forms are processed has cut the time it takes new vendors to get set up in CDOT's computer system, allowing them to do business with the department more quickly.

Both cross-functional and localized improvements are helping to change the CDOT's culture, but nothing makes employees more invested in their work than knowing that their expertise is respected and that their ideas can make a difference. That's why the department considers the third part its effort, "Everyday Ideas," to be so important. Among ideas implemented by frontline workers empowered by the department's improvement efforts are a new way of storing tire chains that reduces the likelihood of rust, adding guards to the sides of snowplows to improve safety and an innovative hydraulic-fluid holding box that prevents spills when working on heavy equipment.

It's easy to dismiss terms like "cross-functional process improvement" as jargon. But the reality is that by applying the tools of continuous improvement, people like Gary Vansuch are helping to create a government that is more efficient, a better business partner and a better employer.