Extreme Government Makeover

What can we learn from the George Foreman grill, Southwest Airlines and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"?
by | December 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM

If you are a loyal reader of this column, you probably noticed that I missed last month. I had planned on writing it from the comfort of my new home office. My homebuilder, however, had different plans.

Like many masochists in our society, my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to build a house. This decision was made in August 2006 with an expected completion date of June of 2007 -- which is when we sold our existing home. Those of you who have lived through this part of the American Dream can probably guess what happened next. June 2007 came and went, as did two apartments and numerous hotel nights. After four months of "just another two weeks," our house was finally done in November 2007, a mere half-year off schedule.

So I thought I would use this column to vent about my builder -- and to highlight some critical things that we can apply to improving government processes.

I don't know how many of you have seen the television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." (Yeah, guys, I don't watch it either -- my wife does. And it never makes me cry....) The premise of the show is to find families with uniquely dire circumstances who really need and deserve improvements to their homes. When the show first started, the crew would descend upon the home and make improvements and upgrades -- maybe even an addition. Now that they have gained popularity, they basically show up, knock down the existing home and rebuild an entire new house on the same spot -- IN SEVEN DAYS!

How can someone build a house in seven days? I found out the answer when my wife and I first started the home-building process. When interviewing builders for our ill-fated project, we actually met with one of the managers who led an "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" project in Kansas City. When I asked him how long it would take to build our house, he said nine months. I replied, "Kevin, I've seen you on TV. You can't get it done in seven days?"

Nine months (or 14 months in my case) versus seven days. Why such a discrepancy? Is it camera tricks and Hollywood magic? The answer is actually the secret to understanding how to make the operations of government run faster. Deciphering the code starts when we look at time in a different way. When viewing any work process there are two ways of looking at time. One is looking at labor or work time -- the amount of time in a process where work is actually occurring. The other is to look at the elapsed time -- that is, the actual amount of time that passes in the process (work time plus any time spent on handoffs, waiting, batches, backlog and so on). What's the difference between the two? Typically between 95 percent and 99.95 percent (according to research by George Stalk Jr. and Thomas M. Hout published in their book Competing against Time: How Time-Based Competition Is Reshaping Global Markets). That is, at least 95 percent of the time in most processes is waste.

Think about it. How long does it take to get your expense account reimbursed? About 30 days? Do you honestly believe there is an accountant toiling away in a sweatshop for 30 days to build the perfect check for you? Out of that 30 days, there may be 5 minutes of work time, but the accountant has to wait for the form to be date-stamped and put with all the forms from your department; your department is looked at on Mondays and today is Tuesday; next week the employee looking at your paperwork has taken Monday off and he already had a stack awaiting approval before yours, etc.

The same is true with so many of our government processes. There is a workshop on fast government I do across the country. At one point in the workshop, we have all the teams stop and do the calculations for their processes -- what is the elapsed time (start to finish from the customers' perspective) and what percentage of that is work time? Here's what we find, again and again:

In any process that has not gone through a major redesign, the gap between elapsed and work time is at least 95 percent. How much of that opportunity can you capture? I challenge you to capture at least 80 percent. Teams of government employees across the country are meeting this goal right now.

So how do you do it? "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" provides a powerful clue. (No, I'm not advocating that 400 people descend on your cubicle for seven days). What's important to notice about homes that are built on the show is that they all have roofs. And they have plumbing, carpet, lights and lawns. That is, the work still gets done. The builders aren't cutting corners. What they are cutting is the elapsed, lost time when no work is being done. The same is true for improving our government processes.

Note that this is the exact opposite approach to improvement than we are usually taught. Typically we flow-chart a process to an excruciating level of detail, and then zoom in on each particular task and suggest better ways of doing it. What's wrong with that? First, you are only attacking the 5 percent problem (the work time). Second, you are telling people how to do their jobs. No wonder everybody resists these efforts. There is great liberation (and results) when we are clear about our message: We are going to change the process, not the work. We are fixing the system, not you.

And nowhere is this more apparent than on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Are they doing nine months' worth of work in seven days? No, they are doing seven days worth of work in seven days. The tactic they use is called "processing in parallel." Essentially, they are doing multiple tasks simultaneously. As a carpenter is putting the cabinets in place, the electrician is wiring the lights in the kitchen, and the drywall installer is going to work in the living room. Since all three jobs can be completed at once, no one worker is waiting on the other.

If home improvement is not your thing, anybody who has ever flown Southwest Airlines or used a George Foreman grill understands this concept. George Foreman made millions off of this very simple principle. The old way of making hamburgers was a two-step, 14-minute process. Step 1, cook side A for 7 minutes. Step 2, cook side B for 7 minutes. Foreman, with five little Georges to feed, asked the question, "Why can't we cook side A and side B at the same time?" Voila! One fully cooked hamburger in half the time. (Again, the work itself is still the same -- 7 minutes per side. He sped up the process, not the cooking. Microwaving the burger would be an example of speeding up work time -- but you know how well that turns out!)

Southwest Airlines is one of the few airlines that consistently makes money. Why? Because the company was founded on the radical idea that "airplanes don't make money on the ground." That is, the more flights we can squeeze out of the same fleet, the more money we can make. So Southwest used a NASCAR pit crew (another beautiful example of parallel processing) to see how they could turn a plane around quickly. The airline learned how to sequence all of the tasks necessary to clean and restock a plane and get it ready to board in 10 minutes. One of Southwest's chronically bankrupt large competitors just instituted this concept and was able to add 125 more flights with the same fleet at no additional cost. That's pure profit.

So what's the difference between "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and my builder? Besides 14 months, it's management. Pulling off an entire construction project in a week means -- hold on to your seats -- you must manage. That is, you must plan, communicate and supervise.

It's the same with government processes. When you look at how long your processes take, remember the gap between elapsed and work time. How long do your customers wait for their "house"? How long does it really take you to build your agency's "house"? What can you do to close that gap? What can occur simultaneously? I'm still amazed every time I see them build a house in seven days. You'll be amazed what your people can do as well.

Oh, and you're probably wondering why we didn't go with the builder from "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The laundry room was too small. Most pain in life is self-inflicted.