Cuts to government budgets have resulted in leaner departments forced to find more efficient ways to get their work done. Whatcom County's department of Planning and Development Services will take the search for greater efficiency to the next level, participating in a training program with roots in Japanese manufacturing.
The staff that handles residential building permits will take part in an intensive five-day training next month to reduce the number of days it takes to process the permits.
The so-called Kaizen exercise, which became famous for improving the techniques on Toyota's assembly line, will teach employees in the permitting office how to eliminate unnecessary steps in their routine, Planning Director Sam Ryan said. Taken as a business philosophy, "Kaizen" means "continuous improvement."
"It's not changing any of the laws that we're required to enforce. It's the process," Ryan said.
Local planning departments have typically been among the hardest hit by government budget cuts since the real estate crash that started in 2008. That year, the planning department had the equivalent of more than 73 full-time employees. Now, the department has 43 employees.
Ryan said staff reductions didn't lead to significant slowdowns in responses to permit applications, but there is room for improvement. Typical residential building permits take four to six weeks to handle, she said.
"Any improvements in that arena would be beneficial," Ryan said.
The exercise will not lead to further staff cuts, the planning director said.
"Even if we get more efficient, it will not impact staffing levels because we're already short on that," Ryan said.
The State Auditor's Office has been providing "Lean Academy" training since Kitsap County tried the approach and reported huge gains in response time for permit applications. Kitsap's permit times went from 26 to five days, according to the Auditor's Office.
The Sheriffs Office has already benefited from similar Lean training, Sheriff Bill Elfo said. Paul Akers, who offers workplace efficiency ideas through his Bellingham company FastCap, worked with the Sheriffs Office at no cost to the county, Elfo said.
The office has been able to save time on bookings at the jail and deputy shift changes, and has become better at getting longer sentences for habitual criminals, Elfo said.
A lot of what we try to do is incorporate as much of that culture as we can with our people, Elfo said. Its actually worked very well.
Among elected officials who call for cutting the fat out of government, the Kaizen approach has its appeal.
"Every little thing you do, they evaluate to try and save time and be more efficient. I'm all for it," said council member Bill Knutzen, adding that it can be difficult to get a building permit in Whatcom County.
"It seems like we have so many times where a business will locate somewhere else," Knutzen said.
Whatcom is the fifth county in Washington to participate in the program. The Lean Academy training is offered at no cost to the county from April 15 to 19, with follow-ups over the next three months.
"Then we want to tackle something else. It's an ongoing process," Ryan said.