May 27, 2009 in City

City adds job to promote efficiency

Six Sigma overseer will cost $120,000
By The Spokesman-Review
 

As city leaders craft plans to lay off dozens of employees to meet an expected shortfall in next year’s budget, they decided Tuesday to create a new high-paying job responsible for overseeing ideas to save money.

The Spokane City Council approved the position – at a cost of about $120,000 a year in pay and benefits – that will promote government efficiency based on Lean Six Sigma, a business-efficiency program popularized by General Electric and other companies.

Supporters say the program helps organizations improve service and reduce costs.

The vote follows a City Council decision earlier this year to offer a no-bid contract to the Indiana-based Lasater Institute for up to $90,000 to train 16 city workers in Six Sigma.

Officials say the economic crisis highlights the need for a full-scale Six Sigma program, but it follows other cost-cutting attempts that have been abandoned.

Most recently, Mayor Mary Verner shelved a controversial efficiency report from a California consulting group that the city paid $260,000 to complete.

Spokane leaders say Six Sigma is likely to result in real savings because it empowers city employees to make changes.

“All the successful implementations of Six Sigma, be it federal, municipal or even in the private sector, they all have a central office where the program is administered,” City Administrator Ted Danek said.

Former City Council candidate Donna McKereghan has criticized the city’s use of a firm outside the Inland Northwest to train city employees in Six Sigma methods.

More recently, she questioned if leaders had done their homework.

“This approach has huge potential – for improvement but for destruction, as well,” McKereghan said in an e-mail to city officials last week.

“If the city of Spokane wanders into it without keen awareness and careful caution of that fact, it could spell disaster at one of the worst times in our economic history.”

The council voted 6-0 in support of the new job. Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin was absent.

Mayor Mary Verner appointed Dave Steele, the city’s real estate manager, to the new role, pending the council approval that came Tuesday. Steele’s old job will be filled.

City officials said the new job won’t add to the budget because they eliminated a position in the engineering office. Even so, the total compensation will be about $45,000 more than the eliminated job. The difference will come from money raised through utility bills.

“We’re hoping that the utility money will wind up bringing savings in the long run,” City Councilman Bob Apple said.

City Councilman Steve Corker said it often costs money to formulate concepts that will save money.

“Sometimes you lose the battle to win the war,” Corker said.

Danek said Six Sigma has already made the city more efficient, leading the city to streamline its approval process for contracts that don’t require City Council support from an average of 29 days to 10 days.

“These employees are now left to do more important things rather than walk a piece of paper through the bureaucracy at City Hall,” Danek said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.

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