Dollar Pinching

Spokane's new efficiency program has found quite a bit of fat — some $800,000 worth

It sounds like a TV commercial:Spokane’s police department just saved $12,000 by switching to Verizon. That’s not because of some Verizon superiority. Along with ditching unused desk phones and cell phones, the police department is switching from using five separate cell phone providers to just Verizon. One provider means better deals — a lower bulk rate — and free interdepartmental phone calls.

These decisions may seem like common sense. But they’re common sense decisions that Spokane has the new Employee Led Innovation program to thank for, City Administrator Ted Danek says.

After six months of the program, the deficit-plagued city now claims almost $800,000 in savings — most of that from only two departments.

In February, Spokane spent $90,000 to train 17 Spokane city employees in the ways of a business efficiency program called “Lean Six Sigma.” Lean Six Sigma, the city promised, would help identify and quantify costs, delays and frustrations — and then figure out how to fix them.

The city soon hired Dave Steele to a new $120,000 position to head the program. Along with the Six Sigma-trained employees, like police Capt. Glenn Winkey and Solid Waste’s Russ Menke, Steele promised to help Spokane save money, time and jobs.

At first, people were skeptical.

Say you’re going to save money, Steele says, and people assume you’re there to cut jobs.

Danek says, “When you make a change like we did, such a wholesale change, you’re bound to have reluctance and people that aren’t so willing to accept it.”

But now, the city has results to brandish. Back in April, the police department anticipated budget problems. Winkey suggested passing out note cards for officers to brainstorm cash-saving ideas on. Hundreds of ideas came back.

It quickly became an efficiency project. Six Sigma-trained police planner Carly Cortwright researched use of overtime hours — a consistently under-budgeted expense — and returned with suggestions: Conduct training during regular business hours rather than pay overtime and require accountability by giving each department a limited bank of overtime hours.

Follow those steps, and save $485,000 in overtime alone.

“Has it decreased some people’s paychecks? Probably,” Winkey says. “[But most] realize that by not

spending the overtime, it saved jobs.” About six police jobs have been saved, he estimates.

Meanwhile, similar budgetary magic was crackling at the solid waste department. For years, trash transfer stations ran longer summer hours. There were two problems, Menke says: 1) The change in hours confused people; and 2) Hardly anyone showed during the later hours.

Make hours consistent, Menke says, and suddenly you save $250,000 a year. (Enough to pay for two Dave Steeles.)

Steele hopes Spokane will start using more detailed quantiied performance measures. The more detailed the data, the more inefficiency can be eliminated.

More savings are coming, the city promises. Danek points to the desktop printer in his ofice. Per page, desktop printers are drop-dead expensive compared to network printers. (The Six Sigma process, Danek says, would calculate the advantages and consequences of, say, doing away with desktop printers entirely.)

Four floors down, building services is being flooded with calls from real estate agents, each asking if such-and-such a home has a sewer connection. Each call takes around 15 to 20 minutes for building services employees to look up the answer in a database. The solution: A searchable database online. (It should be up in January.)

“How long were the employees frustrated?” Danek asks. “They knew they weren’t providing the best service to customers.”

But it took Employee Led Innovation, Danek says, to go from complaint to solution.

In just two departments, here’s how much money the city says the following changes will save:


Reducing need for police overtime: $355,000

Conducting police training during regular shift hours, rather than during overtime: $130,000

Switching from live police cell phone carriers to one: $12,000

Solid Waste

Eliminating late summer hours at garbage transfer stations: $250,000 Eliminating overlapping security shifts at solid waste sites: $28,000

Selling recycled freon, instead of disposing of it: $4,000

Using local recycled crushed glass in road projects: $15,000