Department of the Year: Glendale, Calif.

Population: 207,000
Budget: $100 million
Employees: 400

All systems go

Our winning entry overcame the day-to-day crisis mentality of public service to develop—and stick to—a 10-year strategic and tactical plan. How Glendale uses a “for-profit” concept to deliver award-winning service consistently at or under budget.

Mention “total quality management” or “quality improvement process” to the average worker today, and watch their eyes roll.

Yet in the 1980s, U.S. manufacturers heralded the concept—the process of continually improving internal systems, and the people who work within those systems, to continually improve an organization's overall output—as the Next Great Management Strategy, the key to wresting market share from foreign competitors who were wooing Americans with higher-quality, more-stylish cars and electronics.

Companies ranging from IBM and Xerox to Ford and General Motors spent millions hiring “quality consultants” to organize and lead cross-functional employee teams in analyzing processes and policies. The goal was to break the bonds of entrenched organizational assumptions and behavior, to cross-pollinate the talent that resides—usually dormant—within every organization, and to focus each activity around a single overriding objective.

The concept is almost comically obvious, but very, very difficult in reality. Because if done correctly, the organization must never, ever stop questioning what it does, why it does it, and how it does it. It's not a “program of the year,” but a profound cultural change. And that's where many companies failed.

Common wisdom was that quality improvement theories applied only to manufacturing operations, where the results of system changes can be easily measured in fewer product defects and less waste.

But Glendale, Calif., public works director Steve Zurn was convinced the same principles could be applied to service organizations like public works, which could measure success by improved quality of life for their communities.

His openness to experimentation may be due to his background. He'd never given much thought one way or another to public works until he saw an ad for an administrative assistant to Glendale's public works director. A recent graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, with a degree in comparative politics, he was considering law school or a master's degree in international relations. He'd never even been to Glendale.

The next thing he knew, at 24 he was overseeing the city's transit system of six buses and 50,000 passengers. Glendale was a bedroom community of Los Angeles on the verge of a growth spurt. Today the city's 31 buses carry 3 million passengers annually, and almost half of Zurn's 20 years in the Glendale Public Works Department have been devoted to managing the process of continuous improvement.

“We didn't do a lot of thinking about the future,” he says of the department's former operating philosophy. “You know how it is in public works: you're just happy to get through the day, the week, the month.”

The department began its journey in 1997. Each week for 13 weeks, the managers of its eight divisions—administration, project management, engineering, building and safety, maintenance services, mechanical maintenance, traffic and transportation, and integrated waste management—spent three hours working with a retired college professor of organizational effectiveness. Since they spent after-work time in training, theirs was a personal as well as a professional commitment.

The managers then shared quality-improvement concepts with their employees. Cross-functional teams were formed to better coordinate activities like the permit/plan-review process, which involves two public works divisions: engineering and building and safety. Based on how they wanted public works to be perceived by the community, the team defined the department's top priorities and used them to develop one-, two-, five-, and 10-year action plans for each division.

The staff developed criteria—revenue-generation, customer satisfaction, and quality of service—to measure the effectiveness of new initiatives. Division managers meet regularly to monitor progress, and each year the plans are revised as necessary.

“Sure, there were naysayers, but you'd be surprised,” says Zurn. “I see these concepts continue to blossom with different folks. The seeds that were planted are still there.

“It's my job to make sure we don't stagnate.”

AND THE RESULTS?

Regardless of how total quality management may (or may not) have worked for U.S. companies, it's working for Glendale.

Besides earning top honors from our judges, here are a few of the specific accomplishments that have come out of the department's approach. The checklist is impressive.

Environmentally friendly operations that reduce waste and contribute to city revenues?Check. (The department sells methane generated by one of its two landfills to Glendale Water and Power, which uses it to produce 6% of the city's electricity; the department's newly constructed recycling center site includes facilities that remove trash, fine sediment, oil, and grease from stormwater flows before they're discharged from the site.)

Experience with alternative fuel?Check. (The department's tested vehicles run on electricity, ethanol, methanol, propane, and bio-diesel; in addition to its transit bus fleet, which runs on compressed natural gas (CNG), the department is buying CNG-powered street sweepers and refuse trucks.)

Employees who are expected not only to contribute, but are empowered to do so?Check. (Each Integrated Waste Management Division crew member is assigned a neighborhood to patrol for abandoned items like discarded furniture, mattresses, and appliances.)

Encouraging employees to advance their careers?Check. (Each year, Zurn nominates employees for a special supervisory-certification program offered through the city's continuing-education network.)

Exposing youth to potential careers?Check. (Every summer, the department hosts at least two college interns; several divisions have hired employees who were trained through a citywide jobs program for youth aged 14 to 21.)

A National Incident Management System-compliant disaster-recovery plan that integrates public works with other first-responders?Check. (In May, employees received a week's worth of training on organizing Community Emergency Response Teams; public works participated in a joint first-responder effort with the cities of Burbank and Pasadena to develop a pandemic preparedness plan.)

Technologically savvy?Check. (The department used geographic information system data to recover 94% of the cost of repairing a mile-long stretch of road wiped out by a landslide late last year.)

Open lines of communication with other city agencies to ensure infrastructure issues are addressed?Check. (Public works participates in all applicable interdepartmental planning committees.)

Strong constituent relations?Check. (Zurn gives presentations to all types of community groups; the department's community outreach associate manages communication with the city and residents during capital projects—see page 24.)

And, finally, outstanding financial planning and oversight?Check. (The department completes each fiscal year at or under budget.)

THE BOTTOM LINE

In addition to providing the department and its employees with sharply defined, measurable goals that tie into a unifying vision, the process of constantly evaluating its work has paid off in unexpected ways.

Although his department's efforts have been encouraged by city leaders who have historically provided stellar support and fiscal management, Zurn says the benchmarking requirements of a quality improvement process—that of comparing your systems to those of similar organizations—“help us tell our council a very real story about where we are and what we need.”

For example, the department uses repair-cost-per-mile and per-capita cost comparisons from surrounding city, county, state, and national agencies to put repair costs into perspective for city officials.

“It's been very effective,” says Zurn. “We have council members who are devotees of public infrastructure.”

And that, perhaps, is the best possible outcome a public works manager could hope for.

— Stephanie Johnston

Honorable Mention: Groton, Conn.

Services: Administration, engineering, facility management, roads and streets, solid waste, water pollution control, and fleet
Budget: $16,883,896
Population: 40,600