Follow Donald Trump’s Lead – Use Disruptive Innovation

Reminiscent of the 1828 presidential election (John Quincy Adams vs Andrew Jackson), this year’s presidential campaign is reality television at its best while disruptive to our “established” electoral sensibilities. Mr. Trump’s “unpresidential,” theatrical demeanor aside, he has demonstrated a very valuable and worthy lesson for public administrators at all levels of government – disruptive innovation.

Christened by Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen, the business term describes how a small company with limited resources (David) successfully challenges larger, established businesses (Goliath). The process is to focus on overlooked “products” (in Trump’s case immigration and name calling) that customers desire and gain a foothold. When mainstream customers (the other candidates) start using these products, then disruption has occurred and innovation has taken place with the introduction of a new product.

Mr. Trump has further disrupted the political process by being blunt versus politically correct, conducting mass rallies versus town hall meetings and holding press conferences versus victory parties. It is clear his appeal resonates with frustrated voters by his impressive string of primary victories and delegate count. The Democrats are not immune from this disruption process. Who would have thought Bernie Sanders would win Michigan?

Donald Trump has used disruptive innovation for political gain. But the leadership team at the Department of Community Development (DCD) in Kitsap County, Washington used it to transform a loathsome, grueling permitting process into a state and national model of excellence. Here’s what we did.

First, disruption is a process. Begin small, get it right, then advance.

The permit processing times for single-family residences averaged 28.6 days. The real problem was variability. Some permits might take two weeks, others 90 days. Criticism abounded.

Hired to fix the process and improve department morale, I tackled small efforts to demonstrate success. A major complaint was no one would answer the phone. We implemented a citizen response system that stemmed citizen frustration. Over 208 “silo” fixes were implemented. Staff gained confidence and our major stakeholder acknowledged significant progress in the right direction. However, it was not enough.

Second, disruptors build business models different from incumbents.

In our case, we implemented Lean/Six Sigma process improvement. Taking the systems approach, we mapped out our processing steps, identified the waste in time and energy, developed and immediately implemented a new processing system. Instead of a permit traveling 3 miles as it moved about the department, it went 90 feet into a centralized pod. There, staff from various divisions meet daily to process the previous day’s intake.

The results were phenomenal. Our processing times had dropped from 28.6 calendar days to 10 or less. Our variability quotient became less than 2 percent. We gained capacity without increasing staff.

Citing our success, the Washington State auditor produced a video encouraging others to consider Lean/Six Sigma while the National Association of Counties gave its stamp of approval with its Certificate of Excellence. Finally, all permit types within DCD have been vetted through this new process resulting in reduced processing times while following the established codes and regulations.

Third, some disruptive innovations succeed, others don’t and some have a short life span.

Lean/Six Sigma demands visual control of the process. Initially, we used a handwritten chart to track individual permit processing steps. It looked good. Staff had satisfaction wiping off a completed permit. Over time, a better method was devised using the permit software system. As problems popped up, staff would test a fix and then implement. Some worked, others didn’t. The unsuccessful ones weren’t considered failures but lessons learned.

Based on our success, citizen and stakeholder attitudes changed from outright frustration to overwhelming approval. DCD became, and continues to be, the “premier, innovative” department in the county.

If you are looking for a dynamic, improvement tool, try disruptive innovation, you will be glad you did.


Submitted by Larry Keeton

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