Top managers using miniature wooden catapults to fling ping pong balls at a six-by-twelve inch rectangle taped off on tables might, at first glance, raise some questions about the waste of taxpayer dollars.
But the County of Kern is betting that adopting Lean Six Sigma, a popular business-improvement system designed to identify waste, eliminate it and deliver better service for less money, will pay the investment back in spades.
That’s why Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt Scott Thor spent Friday introducing a small group of county doctors, library staff, groundwater gurus and top planners to the Lean Six Sigma philosophy.
He’s been contracted by the county to make Lean Six happen across Kern County.
And yes, there were ping pong catapults.
The county is struggling with a $41 million structural deficit in its budget that has cut deep into the operational stability of nearly every department that relies on money from the general fund.
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood has claimed the safety of the public is at risk because he can’t hire and retain deputies.
Most county libraries are open only a few days a week.
Management of the county parks has been absorbed into the General Services Division.
The list goes on.
And there are three more years of cuts planned as the county tries to dig itself out of the fiscal hole drilled into its tax revenues by the drop in oil and gas properties in Kern County.
So saving money is a big deal.
And that’s what Lean Six Sigma is supposed to help the county do.
Jason Wiebe is coordinating the Lean Six Sigma training for the County Administrative Office, an effort that’s being funded by the county’s Behavioral Health Department.
Currently, in groups like the one that met Friday, the county’s top managers are being introduced to the process improvement system.
The two days of training, Thor said, are a little like taking a teaspoon of a new food.
Some people are going to love it and want more.
Others are going to say, that was nice but I’m fine with just the one taste.
And some might actually spit it out.
Wiebe said the county’s department heads will identify the people that “want more” and assign them to in-depth training to develop them as “green belts.”
Lean Six Sigma's ranks are modeled on martial arts belt systems and green belts are the leaders who lead changes in an organization.
It is those people, Wiebe said, that will bring the system into their departments and begin the practical job of finding and executing projects that will streamline operations, remove waste and save money.
By the fall, he said, the county hopes to be launching improvement projects across its many departments.
If just half of the people in the eight groups he’s training come up with a way to save $10,000 because of the Lean Six training, Thor told participants, the county could save $1.9 million.
Lean Six Sigma is actually a combination of two business improvement systems; Lean - which focuses on streamlining processes - and Six Sigma which focuses on producing better results or “adding value,” Thor said.
They were developed by Toyota and Motorola and have been growing in popularity in the business world for more than a decade.
County implementation of Lean Six Sigma hasn’t been considered without some debate here.
Some have questioned how a system designed to help manufacturers produce better widgets at a faster pace has anything to do with the work done by county prosecutors, Sheriff’s deputies and other services which aren’t supposed to general funding for the county.
From the outside, the system’s terminology, hierarchy and the passion of its adherants can be off-putting.
But at its core, Thor said, the program is simple.
It teaches people to identify eight kinds of waste - from downtime, to overproduction, to defects and wasted effort.
He’s been doing Lean Six so long, he said, he sees waste everywhere he goes.
If he can train county officials to see that way then they won’t be able to stop improving things.
And it will work in government, Thor said.
Lean Six Sigma isn’t a tool that solves every problem, he said.
But it can create dramatic improvements.
And that brings us to the ping pong catapults.
Thor breaks the group up into four teams of six. Everybody has a job.
One person takes ping pong balls and put a blue sticker on them.
The next person fires the balls with the catapult.
Someone calls out the hits and misses.
Another person collects the balls and pulls off the stickers - putting the hits in one container and the misses in another then records the results.
Another person takes the hit containers and gives them to the last person, the customer, who records how fast they collect 20 “hits” in groups of five balls.
The first time around the team has 20 minutes to finish.
Once that is done the group talks about how to make things work faster - making them “Lean.”
Then they start shooting ping pong balls again.
But this time they have only 10 minutes to land 20 hits.
The exercise is done one last time. But the focus will be on optimizing each catapult launch to make sure that 20 balls land in the rectangle with the fewest number of misses.
That is Lean Six Sigma in a nutshell, Thor said.
There are systems and spreadsheets and evaluation tools and high level skills that Lean Six leaders use to create and sustain an organization’s commitment to use and succeed with the tool.
But, at its most basic, the program is about eliminating waste, improving the process and delivering better products to customers.
For the county that means giving taxpayers more even as county departments operate with less.