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.”