Simplifying Municipal Development Processes: Our Learnings from Two Big Projects.

Recently, we helped two municipalities simplify their Development and Building Permit processes. Here are some things we learned.

Few topics these days are as contentious as Development Permitting Processes at the municipal level. As you might guess, being key targets for various political and other interests operating in the housing sector, municipalities are attracting a lot of heat and light. Fortunately, we’ve had the opportunity to be invited in by two municipalities to help them streamline their processes using our Continuous Improvement methodology.

Based on over 25 years of experience delivering Continuous Improvement services in a variety of sectors, Berlineaton’s approach features high levels of engagement with staff and interest holders. To get the best results fast, we focus primarily on facilitating a cross functional staff Design Team. Working closely with this team of skilled staff from key departments, we help them map out their current processes, identify opportunities for improvement, and then redesign to meet the goals established by the senior management level Steering Committee.

Although we can’t, of course, claim credit for all the improvements realized during these complex assignments, the results have been excellent, and our clients have been pleased with the results. Comments from recent reference letters include the following:

“Key achievements so far include: implementing a redesigned development process; developing a cross-organizational tracking system to better manage files, increase staff accountability, and meet deadlines, establishing a pre-approval process for developers to address key development issues early and reduce rework, and; training staff on new software to improve the review process and timelines”

As well as, most generously:

“I highly recommend Berlineaton to any organization looking for effective and empowering process improvement support. Their expertise has significantly improved our operational efficiency and teamwork.”

We’re endlessly grateful for our clients’ foresight, trust, leadership and full engagement throughout these ‘full on’ process reviews. Below we’ve shared what we noticed about Continuous Improvement projects in municipalities that is similar to other organizations we have worked with, as well as what we think is a bit different or unique. Following, we provide some secrets of simplification success for you to ponder and, as you choose, try out with your own process simplification initiatives.

What’s Similar?

Since 1996 we have successfully delivered hundreds of Continuous Improvement projects, with a wide variety of client organizations. Some of the things we’ve noticed that are similar to other projects include the following:

Senior Level Leadership is Important

Similar to any project striving for significant improvements, senior level leadership and guidance is of critical importance. At the municipal level this leadership is provided by City Council, which helps to establish the overall policy and improvement environment, and the City Managers who align the staff’s activities to policy directives.

Where there is alignment in the principles and values between these two groups, things go well. We were fortunate, during our projects, to benefit from councils, and management and staff teams, that seemed to be strongly aligned, which made strategic and operational level direction setting easier.

As with any navigational challenge, a clear North Star is an important reference point for busy travelers.

Like Construction, It Pays to Start with a Good Foundation

Between the various departments it was easy to see certain divisions emerging as a result of strong organizational siloes. Again, this is a common feature of many of the organizations we work with. It was therefore important to work with people within, and across, these siloes using a team based, appreciative approach to understand their needs and help them work with their peers to develop a stronger, shared understanding.

This is a very ‘people focused’ approach that some process improvement efforts skip, at their peril, and taking the time to do this right helped build a strong foundation on which to progress to the tougher, deeper dive into detailed process improvement work.

Good Facilitation, and Post It Notes, Fuel Success

As always, we found that basic facilitation approaches and simple workshopping tools work the best.

Good facilitation engages with people from a strengths-based point of view, recognizing that everyone has something important to contribute to the overall goals of the project. Drawing out these strengths, and helping people feel safe enough to step forward and share great ideas, within a strong team culture, is the backbone of any successful Continuous Improvement project.

Simple and familiar tools like sticky notes, flip chart wall maps and hand drawn prototypes helped release a wide range of pent-up team creativity resulting in some impressive process ‘breakthroughs’ that found their way into redesigned process maps and tools. We rarely used the computer or screens, which helped individuals share their knowledge quickly with others during a variety of (messy but illuminating) learning activities that left people tired, but more satisfied that they now knew how to make things better together.

Many Improvements are not Dependent on Information Technology

Like many other similar application processes, municipal development processes are run by people working together in offices every day. Often, helping those people work better together to agree on how they will deliver their business processes – without first upgrading their IT systems – can achieve big gains. Strengthening internal levels of clarity, certainty, communications, and collaboration can result in improved efficiency while helping to better inform future efforts to improve IT infrastructure. As Bill Gates said:

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

What’s Different?

However, we also noticed a few things that were different, or more unique, about delivering process improvement focused projects at the municipal level, such as:

Development Processes are Uniquely Complex in a Variety of Ways

Development work is all about making (mostly) permanent changes to the physical landscape of the municipality. On the one hand this is a big opportunity because housing capacity can be increased, infrastructure modernized, and accommodations can be made for a wide variety of users to better the lives of thousands of people. It’s also one of the most important tools in the municipal toolbox for realizing the strategic goals stated in their Official Community Plans.

On the other hand, development work can raise some important issues like potentially adverse impacts on green spaces, heritage conservation concerns and possible threats to the look and feel of long established neighbourhoods, as well as perceptions of bias related to economic versus social purpose interests. Development process details are also ‘next level tricky’, combining the need to balance more practical considerations like engineering requirements with more esthetic values such as tree preservation.

Everything, Even the Smallest Thing, is Under Public Scrutiny

Because just about everything a municipality does, from road works to fire fighting to flower planting, takes place in public the public immediately notices any changes. This can be a good thing. As noted by Pete Buttigieg:

“In local government, it’s very clear to your customers – your citizens – whether or not you’re delivering. Either that pothole gets filled in, or it doesn’t. The results are very much on display, and that creates a very healthy pressure to innovate.”

On the other hand, so much public scrutiny can slow things down and create a tendency to hold back out of a fear of criticism. Process wise, this can cause big delays as multiple layers of approval are sometimes added to processes to ensure that no mistakes are made.

It’s Possible to Make Executive Decisions Fairly Quickly

Our municipal clients might not agree with this one but, as opposed to how difficult it can be to enact changes in some big organizations, with municipalities, it’s relatively easier to make key decisions quickly. City councils are readily available and usually meet weekly, and City Managers are almost always available locally, on site, every day. All being well, Bylaws and other processes can therefore be developed and approved fast, resulting in significant changes being rolled out at what some might consider to be light speed.

In contrast, because city counselors are so close to the work, higher levels of ‘over supervision’, work arounds and second guessing might take place. Dave Weaver notes:

“Whenever the City Council intentionally or unintentionally steps over the line that separates the council from the city manager, the beginning of political control and micromanagement is commencing.”

As a result, where this occurs, staff can feel disempowered and be less willing to execute.

There are Many Different Types of Applicants, and their Role is Critical

There is a lot of variation in who engages with these processes and their relative capabilities.

Applicants for development permits range from individual homeowners wanting to add a back deck to their house, to multi-million-dollar international corporations redeveloping wide swaths of the urban and suburban landscape. As a result, processes designed specifically to meet the needs of the latter can overwhelm the former. Also, regardless of the size of an applicant’s organization, if their submission contains errors it can delay the process, in some cases for years.

We also learned that it pays to design more standardized, lower effort processes for 80% of those applicants with low to moderately complex files to free up staff time for high-complexity files, which generally make up about 20% of applications. The good old Pareto principle strikes again.

Secrets of Simplification Success

With these similarities and differences in mind, what are the secrets of success for designing a high quality, simplified Development and Building Permit Application processes? Here are some key takeaways:

Assemble the Right Team

Rather than using a small group ‘ivory tower’ approach or, even worse, hiring an outside consultant to do it all for you, invest in pulling together your skilled front line staff – from all departments – to map out a new process. Not only will they be able to get it right down the deepest levels of detail, they’ll own it to the point where they can lead the change for you in a way that it will stick.

Build a Strong Front End

Listen to the needs of your applicants, then design the intake stages to match those needs. More often than not you will find that they will do a better job at submitting a complete, high quality application first time if you offer them an opportunity to attend a short ‘pre-submission’ meeting to ensure that they are on the right track from the get go. It might be a good idea to offer similar information in an online environment for audiences with less complex application needs. Regardless, Continuous Improvement always works best when everyone knows what they have to do to get things right, before they have to do it.

Design the Process from the Applicant’s Perspective

Municipalities, like other organizations, often become entrenched in their processes simply because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done.’ We have observed that organizations can experience a significant mindset shift by wearing the applicant’s hat. This involves identifying pain points and opportunities for improvement from their viewpoint.

Common challenges for applicants include unclear communications and expectations up front, uncertainty about whom to contact for specific concerns, and a lack of transparency into the progress of their files. Engaging with your applicants before redesigning the process or, even better, involving them in the redesign experience, can reveal an amazing range of new possibilities.

Remember: Good Enough for Now, Safe Enough to Try

Because you’ve involved the right people, from applicants to senior leadership, in your redesign efforts your levels of concern before implementing your improvements should be just about nil.

Within the context of a longer-term implementation plan, if you and your team think that a new process is good enough for now, and safe enough to try out, go ahead and do it. It’s better to get something going as soon as possible, and learn and improve as you go, than wait far too long for all possible variables to be controlled before executing. As Sophocles said:

“One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it-you have no certainty, until you try.”

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