Ste. Michelle Winery -- Photo By Ron Zimmerman

Ste. Michelle Winery -- Photo By Ron Zimmerman

I’m not yet satisfied with the performance of the systems that matter most to me.

For example, I’m always working to improve the performance of my small business.  Incorporated in February, 1996, Common Sense Systems has supported my family as well as many other individuals and their families.  I have learned a lot on this journey and am content with the choices I have made.

I’m also often working to become a better husband, father and son.  This is usually hard work.  Perhaps because it’s always easier to see the mistakes that someone else is making than to recognize our own.

For the past few years I have been interested in local government.  Recently, I have been writing about the City of Woodinville.  This article — a first post on hidden waste in local government — is also about the City of Woodinville.

About four months ago I had a meeting with Tom Hansen.  Tom is the Director of Public Works for the City.  We discussed project management.

One of the things Tom helped me to begin to understand was the reality of doing public-sector projects.  He pointed out that one of the biggest sources of delay in doing projects was the various review cycles that often need to be done.  This is where the City has to request some kind of review by an external agency, such as the Washington State Department of Transportation, or the Department of Ecology, or some other external agency.

Tom indicated that these kinds of reviews were problematic because there really was no guarantee as to how long they might take — and they often did take a relatively long time.

I am grateful for the help Tom gave me.  I had originally asked for only about 30 minutes of his time, but we wound up talking for about 90 minutes.  I think it’s safe to say that we saw eye-to-eye on many or most issues.  I believe Tom is an excellent manager and the City is indeed fortunate to have the benefit of his services.

As I continued to think about the puzzle of how to improve the flow of projects through the City I realized that I was looking at only a partial picture of the situation.  I had a nagging sense that something else was an even bigger contributor to the time it takes the City to complete its projects.

I asked one of my colleagues, Michelle, to check on this.  Michelle contacted the City and via a public records request (2008-157) obtained the meeting minutes for all City Council meetings back to the year 2000.  Michelle then sat down and analyzed these meeting minutes, constructing an informal time line for each significant project that the City had discussed during that time.

This research confirmed what we suspected.  Most projects, until they reach the stage where they are actually under construction, are standing still much of the time.  That is, they are essentially idle and waiting for someone to work on them.  A specific project may stand idle for weeks or months with no one doing any significant work to move it forward.  The project is, for all intents and purposes, stalled.

I suspect that all of us have been in the following situation at one time or another in our lives.  We sign up for more work than we can complete in a timely manner and so most of the projects we have promised to do for others are usually standing idle, waiting for us to finally have the capacity to work on them.  What we found is that it’s no different in the City of Woodinville.

What is different, however, is the magnitude of the problem and the waste it creates.  It’s one thing to have a home construction project that takes a year to finish, when a professional contractor could have knocked it out in three weeks.  It’s another thing when the delivery of millions of dollars of value to the citizens of Woodinville is significantly delayed.

It’s important to understand that we are talking about delays in the delivery of value to citizens.  It’s not that the projects never get done, it’s that the most important projects share certain critical resources with other, much less important projects.  This sharing of critical resources causes the most important projects to have to wait, often for weeks or months.  Since a project (usually) does not deliver value until it is completed some of the opportunity for that project to deliver value to citizens is lost when a project is delayed.  This loss can never be made up.  Once it is a lost, it is lost forever.

Now, the City of Woodinville is just one small city.  But if it can make errors that delays the delivery of millions of dollars of value to citizens, then how much value is being similarly delayed when we consider the tens of thousands of similar cities across the United States?  And would we be surprised to find that the same situation is occurring at the state and federal levels of government?

Allow me to close with the following.

The errors I have alluded to in this article are not the result of bad or incompetent people.  Instead, they are the result of diligent, capable people acting on widely-held but nevertheless wrong assumptions.

These wrong assumptions lead these good people to take actions that genuinely appear to be correct, prudent and “the best that can be done under the circumstances,” but which actually cause the massive waste mentioned previously.

I do not expect anyone to believe my claims of massive waste based on this article alone.  Understanding how this waste is created and how it can be avoided is something that has taken me many years of work.  I do hope that this article will spark some interest and discussion within Woodinville.  If nothing else, I will have had a chance to say (or write) my piece.

Finally, I will explain how this waste occurs in more detail in future articles.  If there is interest, I may even hold a workshop to demonstrate the mechanism and to outline how it can be resolved.