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Driving a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Driving a Culture of Continuous Improvement

By Governor Pete Ricketts

October 25, 2022

 

Governor’s official photo here

 

American companies are the most innovative and customer-friendly in the world.  People have numerous experiences as customers each day, and they’re accustomed to the exceptional service provided in the private sector.  They shouldn’t expect any less from their state government.

 

When I became Governor, I set out to strengthen our reputation for high-quality customer service in Nebraska state government.  We’ve applied principles from business to our day-to-day operations to improve customer service.  We’ve created annual business plans to work smarter.  We’ve set performance metrics to provide greater accountability.  And we’ve used process improvement principles—like Lean Six Sigma methods—to operate more efficiently.

 

We’ve worked to change the culture in state government to put the focus on our customers.  In 2016, my team and I created the Center of Operational Excellence (COE) to lead this effort.  The COE has driven a culture of continuous improvement in state government by training teammates in process improvement skills to identify waste, eliminate unnecessary steps, and deliver a better customer experience for taxpayers. 

 

The COE awards certifications, or “belts,” to state teammates who have achieved increasing degrees of competency in process improvement techniques.  Through the belt award system—white, yellow, green, and black—the COE has trained more than 26,000 existing and former state teammates to improve the delivery of state services over the years.  We have teammates who’ve received specialized COE training working as process improvement coordinators in each of our code agencies.  They’re identifying opportunities to improve, driving change daily, and helping to create a culture where people feel empowered to bring forward new ideas that challenge the status quo.

 

Since May 2016, the COE has helped facilitate around 900 improvement projects across 18 agencies resulting in over 900,000 hours being freed up to better serve Nebraskans.  And the mentality it’s created throughout our agencies has had far-reaching impacts.

 

The State’s culture of continuous improvement was critical to our success responding to the coronavirus pandemic.  When the virus hit Nebraska, our teams had to adjust on the fly.  Because the COE mentality was already a part of our team culture, our agencies were equipped to address new challenges head on.

 

For example, the Department of Administrative Services – Procurement Division built a logistics system to rapidly procure and distribute PPE statewide to hospitals, health clinics, and first responders.  As a result, Nebraska was the first state to secure a 120-day supply of PPE. 

 

Our Department of Labor streamlined operations to process the sudden influx of unemployment claims (in just four months, they received four years’ worth of claims).  This allowed us to better serve Nebraskans in their time of need and get them back on their feet.  We had the nation’s lowest annual average unemployment rate in 2020 and 2021.

 

Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Nebraska National Guard worked together to stand up a laboratory and set up mobile testing sites across the state under intense time pressure as part of Test Nebraska.  Their process improvement skills helped us perform these critical tasks with excellence.  Test Nebraska doubled our testing capacity during the early stage of the pandemic and delivered over 785,000 results.  We were one of the first states in America to offer no-cost, burden-free testing to anyone.  Our ability to react to the pandemic quickly and effectively across all of our agencies is one of the reasons why Politico ranked Nebraska as having the #1 COVID response in the nation. 

 

The COE’s work has also helped the State be a better steward of taxpayer dollars.  Using a critical eye to implement cost savings in all areas of state government has reduced the annual growth of the State budget from 7.2% in fiscal year 2014-2015 to an average of 2.8% during my time in office.  Part of these savings are a direct result of the hundreds of process improvement projects we have deployed.  In fact, by the end of this year, COE projects will have saved Nebraskans $100 million.  These savings enable the state to deliver meaningful tax relief and responsibly invest in other projects, like rural broadband projects and the construction of the Perkins County Canal. 

 

Most importantly, COE projects have helped us put our customers—Nebraskans—first.  This has real, positive impacts on everyday people. 

 

One example is the work DHHS has done to better serve families caring for children with special needs.  DHHS reimburses families in the Disabled Children’s Program and Medically Handicapped Children’s Program for mileage and hotel expenses when they take a child to see a specialist.  Many of the families enrolled in these programs are financially disadvantaged.  

 

At one point, DHHS had a processing time of 13-15 business days to approve reimbursement requests.  For a family living paycheck to paycheck, that’s outside of a two-week pay period.  Having to pay expenses up front, and then wait for reimbursement across two pay periods, causes financial hardship. 

 

DHHS enlisted the State’s Center of Operational Excellence to improve the way they processed reimbursements.  By leveraging electronic/fillable forms, the COE helped DHHS shorten the time to process reimbursements from an average of 13-15 business days to 2 business days.  Now, the payments are being processed well within a two-week pay cycle.  That’s impressive improvement, and it makes a huge difference to families in Nebraska as they manage their budget while caring for children with complex medical needs.

 

There are always people who are skeptical that government can be run like a business.  But here in Nebraska we’ve demonstrated that state agencies can operate with the level of service that people have come to expect from the companies they use in everyday life.  Running government like a business shows our citizens their tax dollars matter and won’t be wasted.  It communicates that their time is valuable and will be respected.  And it conveys that Nebraskans’ needs come first.  If you have questions about the COE’s work to improve customer service, please write me at pete.ricketts@nebraska.gov or call 402-471-2244.