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Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E105: Improving Government Services to Protect Children and Elections with Kerry L. Bass

28 min read

In this podcast, I interview Kerry Lewis Bass, who has many years of experience improving processes in the corporate world and within government agencies. He has recently launched his consulting business to assist leaders in an organization to “develop, and successfully implement, assess and improve operational strategy and initiatives.”

We discuss his work in government with the Georgia Technology Authority, and specifically at the Georgia Department of Human Resources where he shared process improvements made to save children from harm and neglect while maintaining family stability. He also shares insights he has gained from the corporate world while working at IBM and Unisys. We discussed how change management is similar in government and the corporate world.

He is also the Chairman for the Center for Electoral Quality and Integrity, which is part of ASQ’s Government Division, where they are working on standards and guidelines for evaluating the quality of government operations and services. One of the hot topics is the integrity of elections, despite the different rules being set in each of the 50 states.

You can watch the video below, or go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CgbEIah3JM

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Transcript

Brion (B): Really appreciate Kerry joining me today, and if you could start off and just give everyone a little background on yourself, that’d be great.

Kerry (K): I am the CEO and founder of Potential To Reality Consulting, and that is a boutique management consulting area that I started after retiring from doing government consulting for other firms. But also, I have a really great and active interest in applying the art and technology and the tools of quality to be able to help societies be able to achieve excellence.

B: Great. I saw that you had gone through a lot of Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma training. How did that get started? What introduced you to some of those topics and getting into some of the training?

K: It started with my journey in managing and leading quality for organizations. I started out with, probably like a lot of us, experiencing a really tough process that had a really dramatic impact on my life. There was a job that I had when I went from the field to staff working with IBM, and it was a process where we had to manually rewrite letters to introduce a service opportunity or a service request across the southeastern region. That was a process that was never-ending and it just got me buried. It was, literally, those cartoon pictures where you have stacks of paper. I’d work day and night and weekends and I never got ahead, and so I realized, in order for me to survive, I had to fix this process or else it was going to kill me or I had to quit, one or the other.

So that’s how I got involved in fixing processes and modernizing and making it more efficient. Developed through that and ended up being the Head of Service Quality, Customer Loyalty, and Skills Vitality for IBM Field Services, the global leader, around the 2000s, and then continued to do that and work in government and other areas, and then consulting with government, being able to help the business processes, and being able to get efficiency and effectiveness and help implement new tools to be able to deliver better government services.

B: It sounds like there’s probably a lot of work that was service based where it’s looking at paperwork and processes and not necessarily making things. How do you help people understand or translate some of those principles into service where it’s not quite as obvious or textbook examples that are in training materials?

K: The language of it really translates across in anything. When you’re looking at Lean and Six Sigma, you’re looking at reducing waste and being able to produce a repeatable expectation, and managing the expectations and satisfying or exceeding the expectations of your clients and customers. That happens regardless of whether it’s a product or a service, and it also happens regardless if it’s done for profit or for other means that your stakeholders are applying you to like government services or not-for-profit organizations. You’re producing value for your stakeholders, and so therefore, the best way to produce value is to eliminate the waste that’s getting in your way, and then streamline so that all of your energy and resources are applied to producing the most value that you can in the time that you have available to deliver.

B: I think the other aspect of that that can be challenging when we start looking at government would be the number of customers or stakeholders that you have to consider and think about. Can you talk to that a little bit, about how do you try to capture and understand all those different stakeholders?

K: That is probably one of the most interesting things that I came. Actually, government service is significantly more complex than for-profit business. For-profit business, you get to be able to have a really great indicator of your success, and that is the profitability of your organization and the profitability of your service. But in government, you have a myriad of stakeholders and they have lots of different interests.

First of all, you have this citizen that’s the client of your services, and they have a value expectation for the benefit or the service that you’re trying to deliver. The second is the political leaders that are enabling or are desiring and funding the service that you’re providing. In addition to their meeting the needs of their clients, they also have their political needs and expectations about the delivery of those services, whether that is making a difference for people or delivering efficiency and effectiveness and cost-effectiveness in the way that you go about it.

And then finally, you have the stakeholders of the deliverers of that service itself. Government service folks, a lot of times they get a lot of bad press, so to speak, but by and large, most of the people that I have met over the years that I’ve been involved working with government and government leaders, they are a very dedicated, fully engaged group of individuals that are really trying to go out and produce good. Matter of fact, that was one of the ways that I look at quality overall. My Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt trainer, Dr. Gregory Watson, defines quality as being the persistent pursuit of goodness tightly coupled with the relentless avoidance of badness. That’s what you find government workers really trying to do is that they’re really trying to do good and avoid badness.

B: They’re kind of the heart of those processes because a lot of them are probably been there a while and have worked decades perhaps in those roles. Working in government, really has to be a commitment to that and that passion to say I want to work in a process not where the profit is the driven motive there, but it’s really about making things easier for the people and their neighbors and family and friends in the local community there or nationally if they’re working on something much larger than that, or at the state level.

K: Absolutely. A great example of that is the military. We have an all-volunteer military in the United States, so people are deciding, there may be some other motivations that they have secondary to it, but bottom line is that they’re putting their life on the line to be able to produce the value of protection for this country.

B: I think trying to define what you said earlier, the value that you’re providing there so that then you can identify the waste in that process. But it really starts with understanding the value, and that starts with knowing who you’re trying to serve, understanding their voice of what do they actually want. So yeah, definitely a lot of challenges with that processing, but the more important need to have some of these tools and skills to be able to do that.

K: Absolutely, and I’ve found that government leaders understand that and make significant investments in trying to ensure that their processes and systems are the best that they can provide.

B: You spent some time with the Georgia Department of Human Resources. Can you talk a little bit about what the value was for that organization, what they were trying to provide if people aren’t familiar with that, and then any projects or big efforts you worked on to help improve those processes?

K: That was another fundamental mind shift change for me and that also helped cement to me the value of government. The Department of Human Services, as it’s called now, it was the Department of Human Resources at that point in time, incorporates a lot of the programs and services that provide direct benefit to the most vulnerable citizens in the state, children that are at risk, elderly folks, the poor, the disabled, those that have health challenges. In particular, the area that I was introduced to was the Department of Family and Children Services, and it was a dramatic transformation that was required there.

One of the things that I learned early at that time was that there is the process of child welfare, in which case you have dedicated caseworkers that engage with families that are in trouble and in crisis and have their children, minor children that are at risk. These professional caseworkers, social workers, have to make determinations of how to intervene and at the appropriate time to be able to save those children and protect them from harm and abuse and neglect, and also try to maintain family stability. In the days that

I was working with them and getting introduced, I was transferred over from the Georgia Technology Authority because there was a major effort underway to modernize their information technology system. Their system at that time was paper-based, and so caseworkers had to literally go around and write case information and keep it in massive files all around the areas of where they were working. The casework and the child welfare job is so dramatic that it often burned caseworkers out, and they would often transfer or quit in dramatic fashions. What I found out was that there were children that were literally dying because the information that a caseworker had put in paper was sitting in a file on a supervisor’s desk that couldn’t be gotten to in order to intervene because the caseworker needed some extra help or just couldn’t go on anymore, and so there were children that were dying about it.

At that time, they put in automated information technology software to make that work, but in order to do that, you can imagine how do you transfer a process and a system that’s paper-based into one that’s information technology and computer-based? What we did in Georgia, and we were actually the national leaders at that time, that was back in the early 2000s, we took off-the-shelf hardware, they were convertible laptops, at that time, they were really unique, that could use handwriting recognition. We automated the forms that those caseworkers used and gave them tablets and printers so they were able to continue to do the work that they knew how to do with minimal disruption, but added information technology so that that information was readily available for the supervisors and others to be able to intervene whenever there was a special case. That was a dramatic turnaround for me about the real value of the work that I did, of how technology systems and process improvement can literally save lives.

B: You’re saying that they would actually continue to handwrite on the laptops or on the tablets that they were getting, and then that would convert into the system?

K: Absolutely, yeah. That was the process at that point in time. The idea was when one child dies, it’s too much, but we realized that there was such a significant risk that we could not take a year to teach the caseworkers how to convert from doing their handwritten forms into typing, so we basically used technology to make that transition. Today, they use systems that allow them to– they’re much better at using information technology tools, but that was a way that we used technology to minimize the time of adjustment and continue to save lives.

B: There’s always the trying to figure out what to do, and then there’s can people embrace and accept the changes in that process when it’s– especially the more dramatic of a difference it is, the more resistance there’s going to be. Even if they know, yes, this is probably better, yes, I know the old way is clunky and we need to change, but I’m used to it and I’ve figured out my little system, and now you want me to do something different.

B: Absolutely. A case in point was there was a director for one of the counties, and in that process, I visited all 159 counties in Georgia and met their directors and talked with their staff about the change. I met one of the counties that had a significant workload in the child welfare areas, and the director was one of those dedicated servants that had dedicated her life to helping the needy and working with the government to be able to do that. But she was an expert in the old way, and so in her office, the director’s office, she had rows and rows of shelves that had all of the individual forms that the processes for child welfare and the assistance. She knew every form and knew what it was and knew how to fill it out and everything. I was talking to her about getting her people to use this new tool, and she was receptive to it but it was just a struggle for her to think about how that you were going to change from filling out these forms to actually using a tool to be able to get the work done, and that was an interesting opportunity.

B: Yeah, and trying to identify some key people, just like that woman, that would be really critical to helping them be on board with these changes because if she was really resistant, then others that trust her and work with her will also say maybe I should be more resistant too. So it almost creates a more difficult challenge of implementing these changes when you’ve got these key people who are pushing back or resistant to it. So then spending the time with her and really trying to get her comfortable with that, you cannot only get her on board, but others who are looking to her as a leader or an unofficial leader in an organization so that if she’s not on board, I don’t know if I should be on boarding either.

K: Absolutely. That brings of a key aspect of change management is that you really have to get a significant amount of those leaders, formal and informal, to be able to understand where you’re going and embrace the change because if you can’t do that, then your change has very little success of succeeding.

B: A great improvement there. Any others that come to mind in your time there that you can share?

K: That opportunity, again, was the most dramatic and I learned a lot about government service and also introducing change in an organization that had a very static systems or processes. I did that and lead that in several other places as a consultant working with government organizations, but also, I had learned that prior to that working with IBM. They had to transform their processes from dealing with large systems and the way that computers worked in the early ’90s prior to the transition into the 21st century to the way that computers work now. That was a major transition and a mind shift change for people that were used to dealing with technology, to be embracing new technology. That’s one of the things that I learned is that change is difficult regardless of what your background is. There are some similar processes, but you have to understand where they are and be able to help them show them a path to get to where they want to go, where the future is.

B: I’ve worked with some other Lean practitioners, Six Sigma practitioners who are change agents in the organization. And then you’re talking to them about we have to change as consultants to adapt to our customers, and they don’t like that and they push back. It’s like you need to be the most open and willing to change and you’re very resistant to this change, and so you’re just doing what you complain about with your clients and the people that you’re practicing with, that you’re trying to change them and they’re resistant. You’re doing the same thing. So yeah, you’re right, everybody who’s affected, that’s the natural reaction is to push back or be hesitant and say I don’t know if we should do this is, so that’s a very important skill.

K: This profession also is facing another immediate transition in looking at that technological disruptor of artificial intelligence and machine learning. As you’re probably well aware, that so much of the work that we do has to deal with using statistics and being able to predict the output of a process or a system. Well, those new tools make that process significantly easier and faster. That’s what a lot of our people in our profession have spent their lifetimes developing those skills and those abilities, and so now we’re facing a dilemma of what is the real value that we get out of quality? Is it making things better, or is it being able to measure and demonstrate where things are in the process and predict where they’re going to go? And how do we leverage those tools and that thinking into tomorrow’s world where you may not have the visibility into some of these processes? You could imagine totally automated robotic systems and processes where an individual is not able to get in and inspect. They have sensors and tools that are gathering the information, and the computers can do the math to do the statistical process control and adjust those systems along the way, so where does a quality expert fit in there?

My contention is that that definition of quality, we have to go and look further and say what is the real value that this process or system or production line is providing? And while we may be able to do it with very, very minimal defect, a Six Sigma defect reduction area, we really need to look at the value stream from a Lean perspective and say maybe this is really not something that’s that valuable overall.

B: Trying to make sense of that information or data or know what data to study and look at or to help bring in the technology or AI into that system, but if that’s not an value added step and if that data is not very good, that system or technology isn’t going to help you because it’s either going to show you how to optimize a process you shouldn’t be doing at all or it’s going to give you misleading information because the data quality wasn’t studied or looked at, and so now it’s making bad choices or not optimal decisions about what to do in that process. So I think the surrounding part of what goes into the technology and tools is really important to make sure that they’re focusing in the right areas, I guess.

K: Exactly, and that point that you brought up is the key battle right now that is going on, is how do you avoid bias and error that is automated at the speed of computers because if you’ve got bad data, it just makes bad decisions really, really quickly.

B: Very true. Let’s talk about your work with ASQ. How did you get involved with them, working with them in the Government Division? What are some of the things that they’re looking at or you’re working on with them, to looking forward and where they want to end up at?

K: I’ve been a member of ASQ for several decades, but as I got more engaged in my work in helping government, then I got more focused in working with the Government Division and being able to help provide that value. ASQ, overall, is the largest quality professional support organization, educating both the skills and arts of quality management in the world. There’s about 40,000 members globally right now. It’s my honor right now to serve as the Treasurer on the Executive Council, and then also to work with the Government Division in a couple of different areas.

There’s two main areas and centers that are new constructs and efforts that are in the Government Division. The first is called the Center for a Quality Standards in Government. In 2021, prior to a lot of years of work and effort, the ASQ Government Division, working with the American National Standards Institute, ANSI, developed and published a new standard for measuring and reporting the maturity of government services and process delivery. We call it the Government 1, G1, Standard. I was involved in working it with that development team and then reviewing the final product. And then we have an initial cohort of what we call designated examiners that is to be able to understand the standard and be able to help organizations objectively look at the maturity of their services and systems and processes to be able to say what is the level of maturity, from an objective standpoint, using the simple G1 Standard as a yardstick.

I had an opportunity to work with the first two award winners, and that was the US Court of Appeals Federal District in Washington DC. I was one of their internal consultants, and they were the very first award level recognition under the G1 Standard. And then I also worked with the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, their national explosives training center and their field response unit that actually goes out and responds to explosives emergencies around the country, and that unit was certified as an award level winner and so I was their internal consultant.

Another thing, though, that I worked with parallel to that and utilizing those same internal processes and resources is that, in 2020, the ASQ put a position paper out in support of using an international standard, ISO 54001, to support the quality of electoral organizations and electoral processes delivery. ISO 54001 was developed by the Organization of American States and the International Standards Institute, but it was not adopted by organizations in the United States, and that was because of the way that our elections are so distributed, and the response and the organization and rules are so scattered. Every state basically manages its own laws around elections.

In regards to that position paper and the growing concern and dissatisfaction with our electoral process, I worked with a team of folks to create the ASQ Center for Electoral Quality and Integrity. The idea there was to take that same processes that we learned from the G1 Standard, the process maturity of looking at the operations and consistency of operations of those electoral organizations, coupled with the amount of work that those electoral organizations have with understanding what their voters in their precincts and their state feel is what does it mean to have a high-quality election in my state. And so we’re in the process of rolling that out, but I spent about three years helping to get it ready to go. We’re now getting registrants changed over, and so I’m moving over to the Advisory Committee. But we’re looking to look with other organizations to be able to put those arts and science of quality to be able to improve the acceptance of elections in the United States and other democracies around the world.

B: Just another example of a process that’s so critical. If people don’t trust the election process, then it starts to break down some of the really fundamental pieces of the government. I think that’s a very hot topic right now with people challenging the processes. Hopefully, this can help reassure people.

K: That’s really true, and just like we talked about government employees before, my experience and my research in looking at operations of government officials that run elections around the country, there are sporadic instances of where there may be failures, but by and large, the US elections, even though it’s so distributed, they perform their processes, relative to the laws that they have, very, very well. They deliver every election cycle and keep track of millions of users of that system and have very little fraud, waste, and abuse in the actual delivery of the processes.

One of the areas, though, that I think where it’s really fundamental that we change is that we really need to have the voice of the voter more reflective in those operations. There are open processes where people can come in and audit elections and you can participate in it. I think what’s going to make the difference is when the electoral systems and leaders begin to actually use those tools of quality to capture the voice of the customer and reflect it back on their performance against those in their elections. There are several states and several electoral organizations that are already doing that.

B: I want to go back to that G1 a little bit because you said that was part of this electoral process, and also just general government services. Is that something people can read more about or dig into and see what are the expectations or the key fundamentals that are expected for someone working in a government service? Is that something published or how would someone learn more customer

K: Yeah, it is. There is information available, and if you go to asq.org and search under government, you’ll be able to get information about what we’re doing with the ASQ ANSI G1 Standard and a value proposition of how state, local, and federal government organizations can use it to be able to help improve or assess their current operations, and then be able to set goals of how they want to continuously improve, which is another part of Lean is to continue to seek perfection. That is a concrete way to do it. We’re working with also, you can see how it fits in with other quality management systems and standards like ISO 9000 or your Baldridge type criteria. But the G1 Standard is meant to be very concise and easy to understand and implementable at a unit level all the way through the whole agency. They can find that information, again, at asq.org, or if you have some questions and you’d like to do it, just contact me at info@makingitreality.com, I’d be happy to refer anybody to that.

B: I’ll dig up the link. I’ll let you know if I can’t find it, but I’ll put that in the notes here for this podcast and I hope people can check that out. I’m sure, like a lot of things, it can be applicable for any kind of service, not just a government service, but service inside of a company as well.

K: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things. We did it for government service, but when you look at the criteria, you can see quite readily how easy it is to apply to any particular service or system of services to be able to deliver value. That would be a good yardstick to use, a simple yardstick to be able to allow you to understand where you are and make some adjustments and continue to improve as time goes on.

B: That sounds really cool. Definitely check that out. Tell me a little bit about your consulting. You retired, and then you didn’t want to stop working and still had a lot of value to provide, so when did you get this set up, and who are you trying to work with and help out with?

K: As I mentioned, it’s a boutique firm, and one of the great opportunities about being semi-retired is I don’t really have to worry about billable hours too awful much. I do intend to do well by doing good, but I don’t have to make sure that I keep my calendar filled up with engagements. What I’m looking to do is I really want to work with organizations in the government, commercial, and not-for-profit that are really trying to make a significant difference in their environment and the society, and the stakeholders that they perform not necessarily to maximize profitability, but to make a significant sustainable impact. If you’re interested in doing that, I’m really happy to try and help you out with doing that. I work with the medium, small, but also, I work with parts of large organizations to be able to do it.

My consulting firm is one of those new hybrid models where I have a lot of associates that we are similar in experience and capabilities and complementary in our focus, and so we group together to take on the engagement’s size and complexity that’s needed. Or we are individuals, so we can be like a long-term retaining relationship, and that’s what a lot of us like to do is to continue to be involved with our clients to help see them progress along their way from where they are so that they can achieve their reality. Matter of fact, that’s the name of the firm, Potential To Reality Consulting, because that’s what gives me my kicks is I like to see people in organizations go and bloom into what they can be.

B: I think that’s what I like about this work too, is that it’s helping organizations, processes, and people transition to something that’s better and easier or more enjoyable, and hopefully has a big impact, a meaningful impact in society as well. It’s not just the ability to make more profit. It didn’t really sink into me right away as I was doing this because is really focusing on the data and the process stuff, and then as I’ve done this over the years, you realize that it’s really that people side of it is the rewarding part of this, is seeing someone transition to a point where they’re like I get it. I understand this now. My work’s easier or I really understand these tools and principles now and I have a way of going from a problem and not feeling like there’s nothing I can do about it, to I have tools and skills now that I can work this process out of that difficulty into something better and I like coming to work now than what I used to. Or I’m not having to work hours and hours anymore and I can leave on time. Little things like that are really the powerful part of this that it didn’t really sink in until later as my step back and look and it’s like those are the great relationships and the development and transition you see in people, it’s the really cool part.

K: Absolutely. There’s another person that I ran across and I’d like to mention. His name is Tom Mosgaller, and he is in Wisconsin. He’s farming now, but during the early days, he got hooked in this quality profession and said how can we use it all kinds of different arenas? He was able to bring in some of the quality gurus and figure out how can we make quality useful in the everyday lives of people in all kind of different organizations. That work led him to lead ASQ at the time, and also one of the early founders of the Government Division because he worked in the government in Wisconsin, I believe it was in the city of Madison.

They formed a new organization and they’ve written a book that was just released called Bending Granite. That term really struck me when we talked about his book and his work. That really is appropriate for thinking about the things that quality arts and science does. It allows you to bend the undependable, take on those things that are monumental and make them useful and malleable to the people that are working with them to provide value. Their site, by the way, is called bendinggranite.org.

B: I’ll link to that as well so people can check that out. Anything else you wanted to share, Kerry, about some of your past work or what you’re working on now?

K: What I’m hoping to do, and again, I look forward, maybe in a future opportunity, to learning some more about the work that you’re doing and being able to apply the principles of Lean to our environment. That is one of the areas and that’s the thing that gets me energized is how do we use our tools and knowledge to make a significant impact on the world around us today? There’s no greater need, and this summer, and I’m sure people around the world have finally got the reality of climate change, regardless of the cause, climate change is real and it has a significant impact. We, as humans, need to figure out how are we going to adapt and be able to help our environment support us so that we can continue to exist in this one place that we’ve got right now. We may not be able to make it to Mars fast enough, so we may have to figure out how to make where we live right now better. So I think that was one area that I’m looking forward to.

The other area that I’m looking forward to again and I’m doing work on, is looking at that artificial intelligence and machine learning. It is a tremendous opportunity for a major disruptive technology for good or ill. My focus is how do we maximize the goodness and minimize the badness of this new technology for all of society.

B: That’s great. I just, last week, talked with David Saunders, who was also part of ASQ, and he’s really focusing on quality and tying it to climate change. And so I think there is that momentum starting where we’re going to see more people saying how can we bring these skills to every aspect of life, especially things that have impact on us directly or indirectly. But the goal is not to help the earth, it’s going to be fine, it’s us living on earth that are going to suffer through these heat waves and these major storms and sea level rise and damage to our homes. It’s really a people problem. It’s how can we better handle what’s coming down the line, and can we slow that down a bit. It’s starting to become very evident, even this quickly, and I don’t think people thought it would be noticeable as quickly as it has been, so that’s a little scary.

K: Now is the time to make that change. We have to go forward or else suffer the consequences of staying there and letting reality happen to us.

B: Very cool. I’ve got your website, makingitreality.com, and info@makingitreality.com is the way to get a hold of you. I saw you’re on LinkedIn, so I’ll have a link to your LinkedIn profile so they can check out your background. Anything else? Any other ways they can connect with you?

K: Feel free to connect on any of those, and also, if you’re interested in looking at asq.org and getting engaged in this profession, I’d be happy to connect you with a myriad of professionals that we have. There’s lots of people that know a lot of great things that are available to you there.

B: Also one more thing, is ASQ Government Services Division, does that also span internationally or is it primarily US-based?

K: ASQ started out to be the American Society of Quality, and then we’ve started doing things internationally, but the Government Division does have international members, as do most of the technical divisions have international members. And then we have also geographic sections, some that are located in areas around the world, so you can get engaged locally or regionally with your section. Or if you have a particular topic area, like environment, government, automotives, health, medical devices, then you can find a particular interest or technical division to be able to get aligned with.

B: I think I’m in the Energy and Environment Division, and then also the Six Sigma Division.

K: I’m in Six Sigma, but I’m not in the Energy. But one of the things that we’re beginning to have some connections between the Government Division and the Energy and Environment Division. Stay tuned for some work that will be working. There are some folks in the leadership of both divisions that are beginning to collaborate and see how can we look at governance and environment to be able to produce good.

B: That’s pretty exciting. Awesome. We’ll wrap it up here, but really appreciate your time, Kerry, for joining us, and congrats on all the past work you’ve done. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of great work coming ahead for you as well, so hope people reach out and connect with you and take advantage of some of your experience and we can improve a lot of these government services and make our world a better place to live.

K: Thanks, Brion. I really appreciate the opportunity to chat with you today. Looking forward to connecting more in the future.

B: All right, great. Thanks.

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