A city of continuous improvement

Tom Kelly instructs a classroom of socially distanced city employeesWhat can help you reorganize mechanic stations, better track winter salt usage and make the absentee ballot counting process efficient and seamless? For the City of Portage, the answer is WMU’s Lean Six Sigma program, offered through the Center for Integrated Supply Management. 

“When City Manager Joseph La Margo started in 2019, he had a goal of introducing Lean Six Sigma to the city staff,” says Adam Herringa, deputy city manager. “La Margo and other city administration officials were looking to develop a culture that would increase efficiency, eliminate waste and focus on the needs and concerns of Portage residents. Lean Six Sigma seemed the perfect way to reinforce and operationalize these concepts and benefit the taxpayers through continuous improvement.”

When city staff began researching Lean Six Sigma training opportunities, they discovered that WMU offered this resource, and partnering with a hometown institution with a customizable program was an easy decision to make.

Tom Kelly, instructor of management and Lean Six Sigma black belt, is the lead instructor who has been working with the first cohort of 12 city staff members who have been going through the training. Representing different areas of the city government from parks and facilities, to utilities, to road projects, each department is identifying a project where it can apply Lean Six Sigma lessons.

“I plan to work with each group and visit them at the city to help review their project and give them input as they apply the Lean Six Sigma methodology to their area,” says Kelly. “One of the things that is really nice about the WMU Lean Six Sigma offerings is the ability to tailor the program, unlike many others that are available. In this case, we were able to use examples from municipal government and work on these departmental projects with customized onsite feedback.” 

One of these lean projects centers on something that is near and dear to the hearts of all Michiganders—safe roads during the winter months. During the last two winters, the city determined that better tracking of the amount of salt loaded on each plow unit as well as the amount of salt dispersed on the roadways would help in planning for true operating costs, which impacts the annual salt budget as well as the amount of salt purchased each year. This year, the city will be looking at a tracking procedure that helps with better forecasting in this area.

“I have heard of Lean Six Sigma in the past, prior to my training from WMU,” says Rod Russell, director of public works for the City of Portage. “Many may think that Lean Six Sigma is more suited for component manufacturers, but that is not the case.  It is beneficial for addressing various challenges despite the work setting.  It’s all about finding useful tools, suitable solutions and a way of tracking your improvements. This project will definitely help us gain a better understanding of the amount of salt we use and may have an environmental impact by reducing the amount of salt needed based upon road conditions and other factors.

Though it’s early, already the seeds of Lean Six Sigma sessions are taking root. “Like any workplace, complacency and a desire to simply solve the problems of the day are not uncommon,” says Herringa. “This process helps bring about a change in mindset—that addressing long-term problems and implementing efficiencies can make the day-to-day much more rewarding.”

And what began as a course in Lean Six Sigma has blossomed into a partnership that is symbiotic in nature. 

“In the spring, we will match WMU integrated supply management students with real-life opportunities at the City of Portage,” says Herringa. “The students will help staff to address real-world problems. Students will benefit from hands-on application, while we will benefit from the ideas and suggestions of WMU students with a fresh perspective.”

With plans to send more city employees through the WMU program, city officials would support other organizations taking advantage of this hometown opportunity with world-class expertise. 

“The course offering and instruction is relevant, top-notch and applicable to a variety of fields outside of manufacturing, where Lean Six Sigma has its origins,” says Herringa. “Any enterprise will benefit from implementing these principles into its work culture.” 

Learn more about WMU’s Lean Six Sigma program