In this podcast, I interview Pete Iengo and Jamie Gaskill from the City of Fort Collins (Colorado, USA). The City of Fort Collins in Colorado (USA) has been on a continuous improvement journey since 2010. They made great progress on their Income-Qualified Assistance Program (IQAP) to help residents pay their utility bills, and were recognized as the 2020 winners of the IISE Excellence in Sustainable Development Award.
Starting with a baseline of 10% participation in the utility payment assistance program, they wanted to increase participation to 75%. Rework related to the application process was 40%, which created at least one hour of effort to correct.
You can also watch the video of the slides below
- City of Fort Collins
- IISE Excellence in Sustainable Development Award
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Jamie Gaskill is a people-focused program manager, supervisor and educator who creates innovative ways to tackle challenging issues that affect people’s everyday lives. In her current role as a Senior Supervisor and Program Manager with the City of Fort Collins Utilities Department, Gaskill leads the team that develops, implements, and evaluates the Utilities Affordability Programs (UAP). Additionally, she supervises a group of Program Specialists that implement programs that help residential and business customers reduce their utility costs and impacts by conserving energy and water. In addition to benefitting customers, these programs help the City meet organizational objectives and climate action goals. Gaskill also has worked in other industries such as transportation, public health and outdoor retail, implementing behavior change and education programs. Gaskill holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Colorado State University and has over 16 years of experience teaching, managing staff and volunteers and implementing programs.
Pete Iengo is the Senior Community Engagement Specialist for Fort Collins Utilities. He manages Utilities’ team that is responsible for ensuring the organization’s public engagement and workforce culture strategy implementation meets or exceeds leadership and community expectations. This work includes advising project managers and leadership on effective stakeholder engagement planning, activity process design and facilitation, feedback collection, plan execution and evaluation. Additionally, Pete is responsible for managing several key stakeholder relationships, Utilities’ Community Sponsorship Program, event and volunteer coordination processes, and provides facilitation services. He contributes to the leadership of several citywide efforts including climate action and employee engagement strategy development and execution.
Brion (B): Hello everybody. This is Brion Hurley. I’m the Sustainable Development Division President this year with IISE, and we have the pleasure to talk with Jamie and Peter from the city of Fort Collins. They were the 2020 Excellence in Sustainable Development Award winners this year, and so I asked them to present some of the work they’ve been doing around process improvement, especially in the utilities department. I’ll hand it over to Pete and Jamie. Thanks for joining us.
Jamie (J): Thanks for having us.
Pete (P): Great. Thanks, Brion. Good afternoon, all. My name is Pete Iengo. I’m a Senior Community Engagement Specialist with the city of Fort Collins. More specifically, my position’s nested in Fort Collins Utilities. We’re a community-owned utility and we provide water, wastewater, stormwater, and electric utility services. I’m joined by my talented colleague, Jamie Gaskill. She’s a Senior Supervisor of Project Management and she’s been managing utilities programming for over a year now, and along with her team, is responsible for several programs direction, evaluation, and continuous improvement processes.
First off, before I start getting into it too much further, I’d just like to thank IISE for extending its 2020 Excellence in Sustainable Development Award to the city of Fort Collins. We’re really excited for this hard work of so many to be recognized, and also for the opportunity to share out. We hope anybody watching can learn from our successes and challenges and you’re able to share back with your organization and encourage continuous improvement with your organization and programs.
With that, a little bit about what we’re going to do today. We’ll be sharing our experiences with what we call the Income Qualified Assistance Program and the journey we’re on. You’ll hear us call it I-Cap or IQAP as we move through their presentation. We’ll be sharing about how we’ve taken this program, from when it was a tiny little pilot of 25 customers, when it was time-consuming and clunky for customers and staff to administer admittedly, to the program it is today where it’s much more streamlined for everybody involved, and we’ve been able to help hundreds of customers save resources through this program.
What I need to do before we get into specific improvements and processes related to this program, I need to talk a little bit about what led us to receiving this award and backing up to some more foundational information about our organization. We certainly didn’t do the work in a vacuum. Years of focus on process improvement at the highest level of our organization is actually what created the environment for us to be successful in these process improvements you’re going to hear about. I’ll touch base about our organizational environment, some specifics about the program, some early process improvements, and then I’ll pass it to Jamie, really who’s been managing this and really focused on making improvements throughout the implementation and management and regular assessment of the programming.
With that, let’s dig in. Given this is an international audience, I wanted to spend just a few minutes grounding folks in the community of Fort Collins. We’re a midsized city, of about 170,000 people, located on the front range of northern Colorado, USA, right where the mountains meet the plains. We’re home to Colorado State University, and there’s certainly no shortage of things to do here in Fort Collins. We’re known for our outdoor activities and recreational opportunities, several thriving industries, great beer, friendly people, so much more. It’s home for me; I love it here. It’s a great place to live, work, and play, and also visit, so I encourage you to come visit sometime. We’re about an hour from Rocky Mountain National Park.
This is an exceptional community and it has high expectations from its city government and, as the city government, we expect to deliver on those expectations. Continuous improvement has certainly been an important tool for us to do just that. In 2010, we chose to take a close look at ourselves by pursuing the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. It’s the United States government’s highest Presidential honor for performance excellence and the assessment framework used is recognized internationally as one of the best out there. What happens is when you apply and are assessed for the award, regardless of if you win or lose, you receive this detailed feedback report. After three rounds of assessments and use of this report to develop continuous improvement, we were recognized in 2017 as an award recipient. Receiving these awards is fun, but in the end, it’s all about the journey and what we can learn. What we learned is continuing to guide us through today.
For example, something that stemmed from the Baldrige feedback was the establishment of a structured process improvement department that we call FC Lean. It’s housed within our organization. FC Lean’s constantly training folks across our whole organization on how to take a close look at and improve its processes. FC Lean’s actually loaded with resources and has some really talented professionals managing it and providing coaching across our organization.
You can see here a little bit of a closer look at that suite of services. It’s notable that the resources are designed to help you solve problems of all magnitudes. For example, you see Just Do It down there on the bottom of the pyramid. These are typically quick wins that usually fall within your normal workflow. You see all the way up top, we’ve got FC Lean projects, and those are long-term, in-depth process examinations, and improvements.
What I’m going to talk about today is my journey using the Lean Leaders process. I used that for the Income Qualified Assistance Program improvements and it’s somewhere in between. It’s thorough, it’s in-depth, but it’s definitely a commitment outside your normal duties and tasks.
This slide shows some specific processes I went through with the various components. There are several classroom sessions to teach and practice the techniques you’d end up using for your specific improvement. The sessions are spread out enough where you can simultaneously convene your process improvement team and work on the project in real-time. You see it’s about a three-month spread.
There are other benefits, too, to the Lean Leaders process. There’s one-on-one coaching with a process improvement professional, and there’s lots of camaraderie, and there’s an opportunity to have a sounding board with a cohort of coworkers that are also doing process improvement projects from their respective areas. It was actually a great experience and I’ve got some relationships that have really stemmed from that experience and are with me today.
Let’s talk about the need a little bit. The city of Fort Collins has about 70,000 customers. About 8,000 of them are what we consider to be low income in our community, that is earning less than 165% of federal poverty level. Really, the number is even greater when you factor in all of the students that we have in town that we don’t always factor into that below poverty level number.
As a utility, we believe that we have a particular and specific role in supporting our customers that fits within our charter and our mandate and our organization. Really, that role is to focus on and provide resources related to administration, funding, rates, and efficiency, and conservation programming. Our strategy within that scope, to the right there, has been to facilitate opportunities for people with payment assistance and efficiency upgrades. Both of these things help people reduce costs and efficiency work also helps us achieve our carbon reduction goals, so we definitely focus on both.
We built out programming that puts that strategy into practice, and here it is. Here’s our suite of programs. You can see we focused on payment assistance and efficiency in different types of ways. There’s two kinds of discounted rates that you see there in the light blue. We also offer emergency, one-time payment systems in dark blue. Because we have different types of customers with varying needs, we try to keep our overall offerings wide-ranging. We also have two types of efficiency opportunities, basic and deep retrofit opportunities.
There it is, IQAP. Today, it’s a discount rate that’s truly the cornerstone of our whole strategy, but back in 2018 when this process improvement journey began and I went through this Lean Leaders process I’ve been sharing with you, it was hardly a program at all. City Council had just codified it and we had done a small-scale pilot, so we had a little bit of information and understanding to go by, but that was it. We had little experience on how to reach a broad demographic of people and to incorporate income qualifying components into programming, and so we had a lot to learn there.
Now you’ve heard about how we got to the point where we were ready to make improvements, this environment that was created in organization. A little bit about the need in our community and a little bit about our strategy to meet that need so far. Now let’s talk about when we ran IQAP through this Lean Leaders process.
The first thing that I needed to do to get things moving was to select and recruit a team of people to support this process improvement. I don’t think I could emphasize enough how critical this step really is. You want the team to be the right size and you want it to be the right makeup. Fortunately, I already had a little bit of information to go by. I had the problem statement started, which was nice, but we definitely needed to land on an improvement that was better for both the customer and better for staff administering the program.
I decided to bring in people from the community to represent the community or a customer perspective, some folks from our partner organizations who had a stake in the process and delivering the process and product to people, some people from utilities, so internal, who were responsible for a lot of the work and the processes themselves, and also some colleagues from outside of utilities but within the city in their Social Sustainabilities Department, who will certainly bring their own unique perspective when it comes to how to help folks that are lower income.
Here’s a look at some of the reps that we had on our team and the different groups that they came from. At this point in the process, the initial pieces were in place and, really, it was time to start to get down to it and do some of the good work.
This slide is a reference to the problem statement that we started it with before I engaged the team. The team helped build this out further. Keep it in mind. We’re going to get back to this in just a minute and you could see how it was built upon.
Next, it was time to engage this group in a pretty specific process that I was learning through Lean Leaders. First things first, we identified our scope so we knew what to map out for current state, then we actually mapped out the current state of the process together. Once it was mapped, we took a critical eye to it and completed what we call a value stream analysis, and that’s where you see all the pink stickies and colored dots really coming into play. This value stream analysis was quite revealing. It allowed us to identify all kinds of waste, and it really allowed us to hone in on where we thought the problem areas were, and it allowed us to come up with a more thorough problem statement, and also to develop measurable metrics for the improvement. The red circles there are where we really decided to focus because without that’s where most of the time was being lost to the inefficiencies by the customer and by staff. By really honing in here, we figured out that the application itself was a problem and a good candidate for process improvements.
Here’s the problem statement that we developed with the team. You can see it’s more specific now. This bolded section is what we added after doing the value stream analysis, but you see the premise doesn’t change with the problem statement, so we were on the right track to start.
Also through the analysis, we came up with our metrics. In the pilot, we only received applications back from about 10% of the potential applicant pool, and of those 10%, 40% were not complete or they required some sort of rework. Our goal was to have at least 75% of applications come back and for those to come back complete while also reducing the overall rework of staff in the background by 10%. Admittedly, we thought these were ambitious goals, but we thought we might be able to do it, and if we didn’t do it and we came close or maybe we did do it, it really would represent a pretty significant process improvement, so we were going for it a little bit.
Moving further along in this process, this very prescribed specific process I’m sharing with you, you could see we keep drilling down further and further. This very specific part of the process was to now analyze the problem that we thought existed. We came up with a problem related to the value stream work we did, and we dove in to really dissect and come up with what root causes were to that problem. We thought deeply about what was getting in the way for customers in submitting a complete application and we used the Five Whys process. For each and every cause that we came up with, we asked why. Why is that a cause? We kept asking why until we got to what we thought was the root cause, and then we documented that into this fishbone diagram. You can see all the causes are represented in black and the root causes we landed on were represented in blue.
We then used those root causes as the basis for some how-might-we statements. You can see these how-might-we statements with the ideas that were generated on the right-hand side of the slide. It’s worth noting that before we did this as a group, we actually educated ourselves, using the Behavioral Insights EAST framework. This is a human-centered design framework, EAST, standing for Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely, and it was based on this framework. We used this question to guide us: How can we make the application process easy, attractive, social, and timely? really simple, but really hyper-focused on the customer.
I think it’s also notable, at this point in the process, we left things wide open so that ideas can fly. Any idea was welcome no matter how wild and crazy. Everybody agreed to defer judgment on ideas and this was really to promote creativity and to come up with a really great range of ideas at this point in the process.
Once we moved to the next step, which was to prioritize solutions, that’s when we really start to scrutinize ideas for feasibility. And so left it wide open to generate solutions, wild and crazy is good, and then we honed in a little further. We used an impact effort matrix to do this, putting ideas in the quadrant we felt most appropriate for each one. What we noticed as we went through this process is that many of the ideas ended up on the left-hand side, either in the Just Do It lower left, or upper left in the Easy Wins. There was a bunch that ended up on the upper right, which are more time-consuming projects, and so we had this nice spread of ideas and different efforts and impacts represented.
The document ended up being something that we actually continued to reference for quite some time. We’ve been able to focus on other improvement opportunities that emerged from this Lean Leaders process I was going through for years to come.
We were at the point where, based on the impact effort matrix and what we were identifying in there, we were ready to actually take some action. We had lots of ideas how to improve the application and it became clear that one of the best ways for us to get at the down and dirty how to make changes to the application was to do a form fest. That’s where everybody takes a section of the application in a room and rewrites it completely using what was learned in the prioritization as well as the EAST framework.
What you’re looking at now is our before application. It was three pages long, it asked for lots of information, and even had a section that was to be completed by the landlord if the customer was a renter, which no surprise, turned out to be a barrier. We realized some of the information, as we went through this process, really wasn’t necessary for us to even ask for. We weren’t using it or it was a big barrier for people and we decided to make changes based on that.
This is what we ended up with. You’re looking at our after application, the one that we launched. We were able to boil it down from three pages to one-third page, which is represented within the orange circle there. Because we had so much space now, so much space to work with, we were able to include the application in Spanish as part of the same document and also provide a detachable education piece that had important dates and information on conservation that people could put on their fridge or hang onto and reference as they needed to. The document was perforated, it had a glue edge and a prepaid stamp so people, all they had to do was, cut it, fill it out, glue it together, and pop it in the mail.
These applications really were like night and day. They were so different from one another and the results showed it. We saw our application submittal jump from 10% to over 64%, and saw our rework on incomplete applications go from 40% to just 5% and so we accomplished our goal, which was to make this thing more accessible to the customer and also to reduce the backend time needed to process these applications. It was a huge win for us and we celebrated it.
With that, I just want to say thanks for allowing me to share. If there’s more specific information that you’d like, I know that I blew through this in a way, or questions on any of the slides, you’re welcome to reach me. Contact information is going to be at the end of the presentation. With that, I’m going to pass along to my colleague, Jamie, who’s going to share more about how things have gone with the program since then, since 2018, and the continuous implementation improvements that she’s putting in place. Jamie?
J: Awesome. Thanks so much, Pete. As Pete mentioned at the beginning, I have been in my role with utilities for about a year now. I started in September 2019. I want to thank Pete and the team and also the organization in general for this commitment to continuous improvement because it’s allowed us to continue to evaluate our utilities affordability programs and make sure that they truly are customer-focused on helping us meet our goals.
I’m going to talk about a number of the things that we’ve done since Pete and the team improve the application process for customers, and I’ll talk about how the IQAP program and those improvements fit into the overall picture, and just some other things that have happened in the last year that have been impacted our offerings.
When I came onto the utilities team about a year ago, I established a Utilities Affordability Advisory team, kind of similar to the team that Pete had established early in the process of looking at improving the IQAP or developing the IQAP to begin with. This is really a cross-departmental and cross-city team to really try to make sure that we have the right people at the table to continuously look at what is it that we’re doing with these offerings and how are we making sure that they meet customer expectations. Then I’m going to talk a little bit about how we do pre- and post-program surveys with IQAP specifically, a billing analysis that we conducted just a few months ago, and some in-depth surveys that we have in development right now.
I also want to note one other thing that happened simultaneous to me coming on board. The city, in general, as you can see, is committed to continuous improvement. One of the things that the city decided to look at in 2019 was how our low-income programs across the city, how well they were reaching the intended audience and serving the low-income portion of our community. The results from that in-depth analysis have influenced our utilities affordability programs and will continue to influence them into the future. I’m going to talk about how that has impacted our policies and things moving forward here in the coming slides.
As Pete talked about, they made the application process for IQAP easier and, in addition to that, we also implemented continuous enrollment. There is a concentrated application period for participants in IQAP and they can apply any time of the year so long as they’re a participant in LEAP, which is the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program that’s run by the state of Colorado. So long as they’re a participant in LEAP, then they can qualify for our reduced rate program. With continuous enrollment and making that application process as simple as possible, we exceeded our enrollment forecast for 2019 and reached almost 70% of eligible customers that ended up on our reduced rate. What that materialized into is an average of about 700 customers a month who were on that program, and they saved about $196 a year. That means about 23% savings on their bills for the year, which is definitely significant.
How did we reach all of these people besides making it easier to apply? In 2018 and ’19, we did extensive outreach to try to tell people about this offering and to connect them to LEAP as well because, since LEAP is the qualifier for our income-qualified program, we wanted to make sure that people knew about both. You can see this whole list of things that we did, but the thing that I want to point out here that was new in 2019 that we tried, again thinking about continuous improvement and really listening to what people needed, we heard that your application is easy, but the LEAP application is kind of hard. We actually offered application assistance for our customers to help them get enrolled in LEAP in the first place. We went to events where we could expect to see participants who might qualify for LEAP and we worked with neighborhoods that had members that would be interested in also signing up for LEAP and taking advantage of those programs, and we actually helped people fill out those applications. This is something that we’re continuing into 2020.
Pete was talking early on about our overall strategy for reducing what we call the utility burden. The utility burden is the percentage of someone’s income that they have to spend to keep their utilities going. For low-income people, that percentage is higher. What we’re trying to do with these offerings is to reduce utility burden. We do that by through offering reduced rates, and we do it through offering conservation programs, the ones that Pete was talking about where we have them get retrofits in their homes to make their homes more efficient, and we do it through behavior change by trying to educate people on ways to use less to begin with. As part of the IQAP program, we connected people to these resources through online tools and leveraging our existing programs, like the conversation programs that we have, and we connected people to these through a monthly newsletter. It used to be called IQAP Insights; now it’s called Utilities Insights. We changed the name of it to make it more broad-reaching so that it can go to all of our income-qualified customers.
We saw huge success with this. We have a 45% open rate on the email version of this newsletter. That’s compared to an industry average of 21%. We have a 10.4% click rate, again compared to 8.5% click rate for industry average. We’ve seen success with the Insights newsletter, which continues to be a great tool for us to connect with our low-income customers.
Part of IQAP is also asking the customers how is this program working for them. Right from the beginning, we instituted pre- and post-program surveys. When somebody signs up with IQAP, they receive a pre-program survey where they’re asked a number of questions related to utility use and their utility burden, and then afterwards, they receive a follow-up survey. I’m going to dig into the actual data here in just a second, but what we found, in general, is that people are seeing positive benefits from this. They’re feeling less utility-related stress, and they’re starting to change their behaviors around utility use.
One of the questions that we ask our customers is, “How much do you worry about your utility bill?” You can see, in the first year of the program, that there was a significant decrease in the number of people reporting that they worry about their bill every month or more often than not, so 12.5% fewer respondents said I don’t worry about it or I don’t worry about it as much, and a 9% increase in those saying I don’t worry about it at all. What we’re seeing is that people aren’t having to think about it quite as much by being on our reduced rate.
Another question that we ask people is, “How much effort do you put into saving energy and water?” From the pre-program to post-program, we saw a 10% increase in those folks who were saying, “I do a lot to try to save energy and water,” and we like to think that this is potentially because of connecting folks to those simple tips and tricks that they can do by our newsletter and all of our other programming.
Some of the things that we mention in our newsletter are listed here. We ask people, we say, “Which of these things did you actually try?” You can see there’s a whole slew of things, everything from closing your windows and blinds to doing what you see on the left-hand side of this screen, which is significant. There were about 35% of the people, a little over 35% of the people who took our post-program survey said that they actually did a home efficiency assessment with the Larimer County Conservation Corps. That’s one of our basic retrofit programs that we have available to our customers. A significant portion of our customers actually went through the time and energy to have those folks come in and do an assessment of their home and then do some of those basic retrofits to help them use less and make their homes more comfortable.
We also did a much more in-depth analysis, too, that relies simply on the data. The IQAP program was designed to not only give people reduced rates, but to make sure that they were trying to use less energy and water to begin with. We hired a company to do an actual billing analysis, and we did this in April of this year. What we did is we looked at people who were on the IQAP program before and after they went on the rate, and then we looked at how did their use change over the first year of the program. What we found was that their water use stayed about the same, but their energy use actually increased a little bit. You can see from this chart here that it’s about a 5% increase on average for people who are on IQAP.
Now, the data don’t always tell us exactly what we want to hear, but in this case, we’re starting to ask ourselves the question of why. Why is it that people who are on this reduced rate actually ended up using a little bit more energy than before? We’re in the process of working with the same consulting group to formulate an in-depth survey that will help us really get at those answers. We want to know what it is with this reduced rate that has encouraged people to use more. Of course, if something costs less, you’re likely to use more of it, but are there other reasons? is it that maybe now their homes are actually more comfortable than before and they were living in uncomfortable conditions before or what other reasons are there. We don’t know yet. We’re in the process of forming an in-depth survey that we’re actually going to pay people to take, and we’re going to try to use what we learn from that in-depth survey to help form the future of the program’s design. At the end of the day, what we want is it to be a human-focused design, so we’re going to make sure that what we learn in the survey can help inform the future.
I want to zoom out just a little bit and talk about how this IQAP program and all of this continuous improvement fits into the big picture. In 2019, as Pete mentioned before, we were reaching about 2,000 of the 8,000 potential households who could be part of our utilities affordability programs. This gap has really been our focus moving forward into 2020. Using our continuous improvement thinking, we set a goal to increase our reach by about 25%, and we used a three-pronged approach to reach that goal. I want to put a big asterisk on all of this and note that all of this was formed before COVID, and I will be talking a little bit about how COVID has impacted this in just a couple of slides.
There are three things that we decided to do. One was we created a roadshow presentation that we would take to agencies who are most likely to work with community members who are low income. The second approach was to do more of that direct customer engagement so we could figure out what it is that we need to do to make sure that our programs are meeting customers’ needs. The third thing was looking at policy changes. I want to spend just a second talking about this because it definitely relates to continuous improvement.
Pete and the team did an amazing job of making the application for IQAP just as easy as it could ever be. However, it’s still an application and it’s still a barrier for people to get involved and engaged with our IQAP program. Before COVID hit, we were actually on the City Council agenda ready to propose an auto-enroll option for all people who were enrolled in the LEAP and a Fort Collins Utilities customer. We were going to propose that, COVID hit, we had to pull it off the agenda, but it is something we’re still considering proposing to the Council in 2021.
Those UAP roadshows that I mentioned, we set a goal, before COVID, long before COVID, to reach about 20 agencies. The idea behind reaching out to the agencies that work directly with the low-income population is that we could establish a partnership where we could learn what is it that we need to do to make sure there we’re meeting the needs of the customers and the community, and also, we can educate the folks who are working most with the low-income population on how to connect them with our current offerings. This has been a really key step in creating a longer-term partnership approach to our continuous improvement so that we constantly have a poll from the community in how well we’re doing at reaching their needs. This has also allowed us to provide some key resources to the agencies that can then connect the folks, customers, to our programs.
I couldn’t do this presentation without mentioning how COVID has impacted our utilities affordability programs. I think it’s important to note that, because of the work that has been done to create programs that could be agile and respond to the needs of the community, we’ve been able to respond pretty well to our low-income community that is in need more than ever before because of COVID. Here’s a few things that did happen and how we responded.
When COVID hit, we did have to suspend our in-home conservation programs, those ones where we were going in and doing the retrofits, because we couldn’t send contractors into the homes. We’re now looking at ways that we can continue those, continue doing some of those in-home things. We are still doing emergency in-home stuff. For example, if somebody’s furnace goes out, that can be fixed, but the rest of them, we’ve had to put on hold and are figuring out how to get that going again.
We also suspended shutoffs. The Utility suspended shutoffs since March, which will likely continue, at least through the first of the year. This is, again, to help make sure that our community members have the essential services they need at a time that they need them more than ever.
This also allowed us an opportunity to do something that we hadn’t done quite the same way before. We assembled a committee of staff across the city and trying to look at how do we make sure that our most vulnerable community members have access to the information they needed to weather the COVID storm. We used the data to help us decide who and how to reach out, and what we ended up doing was whittling it down to 13 neighborhoods in our community that we hand-delivered flyers with critical information related to COVID and help for COVID to 1,300 households. We hand-delivered those flyers in printed form because we didn’t want anybody who didn’t have internet or phone or something like that to not have access to that information. We plan to replicate that effort into that future.
We also did a few things like extend our payment plans so that anyone who’s late on paying bills could have some extra time to pay those bills. And then LEAP, our state-level program, extended their enrollment period and gave additional benefits to folks. That’s resulted in a 7.5 increase in enrollment over the last year, which we think is going to translate into increased enrollment into IQAP this year. We are currently in our IQAP application enrollment push right now, and we’re expecting to see more participants than ever before.
I also want to note that our emergency assistance or our payment assistance that’s part of our utilities affordability programs, the need for that is higher than ever. This is really important because it is influencing how we’re moving forward with utilities affordability programs into the future. We’ve seen a 300% increase in the amount of dollars that are going out the door helping people with payment assistance, and a 162% increase in the number of households that are receiving that assistance.
You can see, on this payment assistance distributed chart, that it’s just gone up over this year and, in August alone, the $68,000 that went out the door is more than half of the most we’ve ever given out in a single year. That just gives you a scale for the need in our community and it’s definitely influencing how we move forward with UAP in the future.
When we’re looking forward, we’re thinking about not only about COVID and the increased need in our community, but we’re also thinking about the fact that Fort Collins is an awesome place to live, like Pete talked about before, we have thousands of people moving here every single year, affordable housing is harder than ever for folks and the current economic situation is really tough on people. We’re considering all of those factors in our plan to move forward and how are we responding to that. We are continuing our ongoing evaluation of our utilities affordability program offerings. We’re fostering those partnerships that I talked about. We have long-term partnerships with different agencies and we have new partnerships with agencies that we have developed through those roadshows that we’ve been offering. And then any program changes that we do really have that human-centered design focus to them, so we’re to be the customer and the end user of those programs at the heart of anything that we’re doing.
Then I mentioned that we did that citywide evaluation of our low-income offerings, and I’m excited to tell you that, from that, came a recommendation to hire a person to help coordinate our programs across the city. We have a current offer on the table for City Council to consider to actually fund that position. Fingers crossed that that ends up going through, but either way, it’s really helped us to have a more citywide focus on how we’re serving our low-income population.
Last, and probably the most important, is the focus on equity. Everything that we do in our utilities affordability programs, and largely as a city, has equity at the heart of it. We’re really looking at is everything that we’re doing with our program offering making sure that people have an equal opportunity to truly live their best lives.
With that, I want to say thank you again to IISE for the recognition of the city of Fort Collins and the city of Fort Collins utilities programs, and I wanted to echo what Pete said about if you would like to connect with either of us about our offerings or about our improvement processes, we’d encourage you to reach out and get in touch. Just wanted to say thanks so much for joining us here today.
B: Thanks, Jamie. This is great. Really good work. I do have a couple of questions. I was curious about what started the Malcolm Baldrige Award effort in you said, in 2010? how did that get started, because I think a lot of agencies might be thinking about that initial effort? It looks like that got the ball rolling a little bit.
P: Brion, to your question of how did we get started on the path towards achieving the Malcolm Baldrige Award, I think it starts with our city leadership’s desire and interest and commitment to continuous improvement. I think it was in 2005 when we established our current mission, vision, values, and the word innovation actually lives in our mission statement. That type of creative thinking and continuous improvement are at the heart of who we are at the city of Fort Collins and how we think we can be responsive to our community and provide the best services possible to our community.
B: The second question I had related to the Lean Leaders program. When you did your event, were you the main facilitator or did you have someone helping you through that effort? How did that first event work through that program? Did someone help walk you through that I guess?
P: When I was engaging with my team and conducting the various process improvement related exercises?
B: Yeah, the actual Lean event that you showed some photos from. Were you the primary facilitator or did you have a coach or someone you were co-facilitating? can you explain maybe, going through that program, how the facilitation was done, and your role?
P: Part of the teachings was related to managing a team and facilitating these processes, and so yes, I was the primary facilitator. It was up to me to have people in the room that could assist with process, if I felt it necessary, and so I did. I had people that were focused on helping with documentation and people that could help translate documents afterwards as well. It’s all part of the Lean Leaders process and ritual, if you will, that you go through in order to be successful.
But what I wasn’t clear with my presentation probably, based on your question, is that that was a series of meetings. We probably met for a total of 10 or 12 hours with the team. That first one that you saw some pictures from, with the white butcher block paper, that was a couple of hours, and then I processed data, we came back, and we moved through and we focused on the various pieces all the way through till we came up with those solutions and conducted the form fest and got our application over to our marketing department to format and finalize. It was definitely not just one meeting. For me, it was probably I’d say a 20 to 25-hour commitment, and for the team, it was probably a 12-hour in-person meeting commitment.
B: That does help. That makes more sense that it’s not one big, three or five-day event all at once. I had a question, too, about are you connected with any of the other activities going on at the state or city levels with Lean efforts, like Denver’s Peak Academy or I think there’s some state of Colorado activity happening or there’s a Colorado Lean network that I went through some of the presentations recently that they had. Are you connected in with any of those efforts or partnered with them or share back and forth with any of those efforts?
P: Denver Peak Academy was an influence on us as we developed FC Lean. I actually went through the Denver Peak Academy Green Belt training, which is an eight-hour training. Since then, we’ve had an FC Lean program internally, so I’ve been doing our own trainings. But that was right around when we hired two people to develop it internally, and so those two process improvement professionals certainly are a part of state, national, I’m not sure international communities of practice to make sure that they’re providing the best services possible to the city of Fort Collins organization.
B: Great. The only thing I had for Jamie was just I made a comment, but I like that you talked about some of the negative data or the opposite effect that you were hoping for where maybe the energy is going up now and talking about how looking at investigating that and trying to figure out why that’s happening. I think that’s really a mature approach and mindset that organizations that are really getting to this level of maturity in their improvement are okay with bringing up this isn’t what we were hoping for and what’s going on and let’s not panic. We’ll just study and find out what’s happening. Thanks for sharing that.
J: Absolutely. It’s definitely not what we were hoping to hear or learn, but I think it’s important to note and also important to just make us ask the questions why and then really looking at is this the right avenue for what we were trying to achieve in our conservation efforts. At the end of the day, hopefully, whatever answers we find out from asking the program participants will help inform the future direction of all of our programming.
B: I think that, tying it back to the sustainability piece, if it actually creates better comfort for people, isn’t that good for people? lose a little energy here, but we gain comfort and security. I think the big picture is really important to look at and those are tough to look at on individual metrics. You have to balance all the metrics together. It’s tricky.
J: I also think that you’re right, it’s about comfort and it might also be about health. If we’re looking at the really big picture, being able to use utilities in a way that helps promote your best health is probably the most important and better for everyone, and so we need to consider the health impacts as well. We’re trying to, by digging a little deeper, figure out what is the whole story and then we can, hopefully, put them together in a way that really helps us to figure out our funding streams and all of the things that we need to do to make sure that we’re giving people the essential services that they need to be healthy and truly live their best lives as well as meeting our conservation goals at the same time.
B: The cost of an emergency room visit or having a medical condition because of this, but maybe that extra $5 or $10 a month might combat that or prevent that. That’s the right thing and that’s the type of investment you want to make then.
B: Great. Thank you so much. Very informative. Great work, keep it up, and again, congratulations on the award. We’ll get this published and shared around and, hopefully, people will be free to reach out and follow-up and ask additional questions.
P: All right. Thank you so much.
J: Thanks, Brion.
B: Really appreciate it. Have a good day. Bye.