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Instilling a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Instilling a Culture of Continuous Improvement

By Governor Pete Ricketts

October 28, 2019


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Since I first took office, my vision for the state has been to grow Nebraska.  In order to accomplish this, I realized that we would have to change the culture in state government.  Changing the culture of an entire enterprise isn’t something that happens overnight.  It’s a large undertaking that requires focus, time, and hard work.  That’s why, in my first year as Governor, my team and I created the Center of Operational Excellence (COE).


As a division of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services (DAS), the COE is leading the charge to instill a culture of continuous improvement throughout state government.  To achieve this goal, the COE utilizes Lean Six Sigma (LSS) methodologies to train state teammates in process improvement practices.  Process improvement skills help state teammates identify waste, eliminate unnecessary steps, and deliver a better customer experience for taxpayers. 


The COE awards certifications, or “belts,” to state teammates who achieve competency in LSS methods.  Through the belt award system—white, yellow, green, executive green, certified lean leader, and black belt—the COE has trained thousands of teammates to improve the delivery of state services.  Individuals in each rank are challenged to use resources and time in the most effective and efficient manner.  This helps them complete projects faster and maximizes State resources.  In the last three years, the COE has facilitated over 350 process improvement projects across 18 agencies resulting in over 300,000 hours being freed up for the agencies’ teammates.  Since October is Center of Operational Excellence Month in Nebraska, I want to highlight the State’s recent successes in process improvement.


The COE and the Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) worked together so that Nebraska residents with concealed handgun carry permits can now renew them online.  COE found a way to use an existing fingerprint database so that renewal applicants no longer need to be fingerprinted again.  Online renewals save each applicant an average of one hour.  Online renewals also save NSP teammates 35 minutes per application.  In 2018, these time savings allowed the NSP to shift 6,300 hours from reviewing paperwork to actively protecting Nebraskans.


State teammates also make continuous improvements to ensure that visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) are quick and easy.  For example, in April 2018 the DMV opened a new service center in South Omaha so that customers no longer need to line up twice—once for the DMV and once for the County Treasurer.  This has reduced wait times from 29 minutes to 8 minutes in South Omaha.  When Marieli Rodriguez needed to go to the DMV, she “planned to be there most of the day but only spent about 9 minutes there.”  Another customer, Wassim Almansur, also complimented the DMV on its speedy service: “When I tell people my visit to the DMV was less than 10 minutes they don't believe me.  Great job.”


In August 2014, customers calling ACCESSNebraska—the State program that manages food stamps (SNAP)—for economic assistance spent an average of nearly 24 minutes on hold.  ACCESSNebraska was also criticized for its slowness in processing applications for SNAP benefits.  When I took office in January 2015, the federal government was threatening to fine the State of Nebraska $17 million due to poor performance.  Imagine being a parent in urgent need of resources to feed your family.  It’s unacceptable for anyone in this position to be stuck on the phone for a half hour or to be in limbo for months as an application is reviewed. 


ACCESSNebraska quickly turned around its performance by focusing on process improvement.  By March 2015, it had met its goal of processing 96% of SNAP applications in a timely manner.  The team has exceeded this goal every month since then.  In addition, ACCESSNebraska reduced call wait times for economic assistance to less than five minutes by September 2015.  It has kept these wait times under five minutes for 35 consecutive months.  By 2017, Nebraska ranked 8th nationally in payment accuracy to SNAP recipients and 2nd among all states in ensuring that ineligible SNAP applicants did not receive benefits.  In recognition of this outstanding improvement, the State not only avoided federal fines, but also received $2.3 million of bonuses.


These successes, along with countless others over the past few years, have led the COE and State of Nebraska to be nationally recognized as leaders in the area of process improvement.  In September, during the National Association of State Chief Administrators’ (NASCA) conference, the COE and State teammates received recognition from a Harvard University study for their work in process improvement.  And just last week, DAS teammates traveled to Missouri to discuss Nebraska’s efforts and successes in the area of process improvement at the 2019 State of Missouri Continuous Improvement Summit.


I’m excited about these successes and the recognition we’ve received, but our work has only begun.  We still have big challenges in front of us.  At the State, we will continue to explore ways to enhance operational excellence and strengthen our culture of continuous improvement.  If you have questions or ideas about how Nebraska state government can become more effective, efficient, and customer-focused, I hope you will contact me at or by calling 402-471-2244.