In 2011, Janet Coit was nominated to be Director of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). She immediately began to hear anecdotal stories of dysfunction, poor service, and a demoralized workforce. The agency was seen as a barrier to economic growth and not for protecting Rhode Island’s beautiful natural assets. In response, Director Coit tasked the leadership team with developing a strategic initiative to improve customer service.
The agenda for improving customer service had three major action items: a department-wide effort to update the customer service skills of employees through a new training program, a management dialogue to ensure full alignment throughout the department on strategic priorities and implementation, and a full systematic implementation of lean government to provide clear, predictable, and reliable processes.
DEM partnered with Amica Insurance Company to develop the training program, beginning with a two-day senior staff session in January 2012. It was followed by several “train the trainer” sessions to enable DEM employees to implement the program in-house for the entire workforce. These trainers educated 392 employees over the next 13 months.
A professional facilitator and management consultant organized two management dialogues on communications styles, leadership skills, and team building. Two sessions were held with senior management with emphasis on full organizational alignment on the customer service priority.
The Lean Government Initiative focused on reviewing the permitting processes that are closely linked to economic development activities in the state. The initiative comprehensively maps regulatory processes to define and understand what is really happening. The goal was to identify “waste” in those processes and to formulate plans to eliminate it, making sure the process results in compliance in a timely, predictable manner. DEM has conducted lean reviews of five major processes: site remediation, wetlands preliminary determination, air preconstruction minor source permit, marine fisheries management, and the underground storage tank fund.
Feedback from both the customer service training and the lean government process reviews led to a comprehensive reorganization and reconstruction of the department’s front desk. In May 2014, the Permit Application Center (PAC) opened. The PAC is a portal for customers doing business with DEM. It provides immediate confirmation of receipt for customers, conducts an administrative review of every application before it is forwarded to the appropriate program for technical review, and will provide quick feedback to customers if an application is incomplete.
Results to Date:
The effort has been effective. Customers now feel that the agency is fully committed to continuous improvement and that DEM employees recognize and respect the customers’ perspectives on issues. Internally, employees are empowered to make changes through the lean process and feel valued as a result of the investment in developing better customer service skills. Staff service days have helped break down silos and promoted understanding of roles and responsibilities across the department. Permit processing times have decreased in many programs and, perhaps more importantly, systems have been implemented to screen applications for administrative issues. The systems immediately notify customers if there are problems that can be addressed before the start of technical reviews, and key performance indicators have been developed for each program subject to lean review.
DEM is recognized as an innovator in customer service in Rhode Island state government. The state, with strong DEM support, has now created a broader master contract for lean process review, and other agencies are taking advantage of this tool and the experience of agency personnel to transfer these successes.
Terrence Gray, P.E.
Associate Director for Environmental Protection
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
(401) 222-4700 extension 7100