Change requires two important things. A significant event and a perceptive eye. Significant events are happening all around us all the time. The key is having the perceptive eye to know which ones are worthy of our actions.
~ Dr. George Box – Former University of Wisconsin globally
recognized professor of statistics
And another thing…remember not all change is improvement!
~ Tom Mosgaller
“Wanda, what happens when the new mayor takes office next month?” That was my question. I had been hired by the previous mayor less than two years before to embed his signature program Total Quality Management (TQM) into city government. He had just lost the election to a previous mayor who was returning into the mayor’s office after the usual campaign hoopla and series of contentious public debates.
I will never forget Wanda’s response:
“Well, if you mean what will happen to you, I don’t know for sure, but I have never seen a new mayor champion a previous mayor’s pet program. Doesn’t happen. I’d say you have a month during this transition to decide whether this quality stuff is worth the uphill battle you are going to have keeping it alive without the mayor’s support.”
Wanda was the front desk administrator for the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. She was a top-notch civil servant who had seen her fair share of mayors come and go.
She was someone I would not want to play poker with.
She was smart, politically savvy, discreet, and knew how to keep the day-to-day political buzz of a mayor’s office separate from her personal views. She was someone I would not want to play poker with.
I, on the other hand, was new to government. As a matter of fact, I was new to any work from the inside of an institution. For the previous fifteen years I had been a community organizer—working on the rough and tumble streets of large cities and in rural areas of Wisconsin trying to help small farmers survive.
In 1987, I had seen an ad in the Madison paper announcing a new city position of Quality and Productivity Administrator. I was ready to see what it would be like
to be a change agent working from the inside. I applied and after several interviews, the mayor called and asked if I would like the position. I accepted the offer. What an opportunity it would be if I could develop the perceptive eye Dr. Box described as necessary to seeing the significant events that were about to unfold.
Mayor Sensenbrenner had attended one of Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s very popular four-day workshops on quality. Dr. Deming was presenting to packed houses all around the world after he had worked with Japanese manufacturers helping them rebuild their economy after the devastation of WWII. American business leaders were losing ground to their Japanese competitors and were flocking to his workshops to learn about quality and what he had to say. Mayor Sensenbrenner had the foresight to see that Dr. Deming’s principles shouldn’t be limited to the private sector and, as mayor, he could introduce it to government. It became one of his signature programs. My job was to help make it happen. To show his commitment to what was trending under the header of Total Quality Management (TQM), he relocated the Q & P office to be located in his mayor’s office.
So here I was less than two years into the new role, just getting my feet wet, and the champion, Mayor Sensenbrenner, was handing the reins of government over to the re-elected previous mayor . I knew I had to figure out a strategy to maintain the momentum of the work we had started while at the same time prepare for the transition to a mayor who would more than likely not champion his predecessor’s agenda.
Why would you want a program in government that pointed out things that could be done better? It would only get you in trouble.
I also realized there were many administrators who didn’t see any need to embrace quality. Why would you want a program in government that pointed out things that could be done better? It would only get you in trouble, and if you were mayor, it really could get you in trouble! Besides, Madison was always ranked in the top ten on almost every scale of great cities to live. Let sleeping dogs lie.
On the day Paul Soglin took over again as mayor, I went into work knowing things were going to be different. I just didn’t know how different. I walked into the mayor’s office. Wanda intercepted me at the front desk to let me know I no longer had an office there and handed me a key with a little round tag with room 506 written on it. I said, “Where is room 506?” She said, “Fifth floor, room 506 which is in the hallway outside the Public Health Department and serves as the annex for the city Animal Control Unit.” She kept a straight face but we both knew this was the answer to my question a month earlier when I asked her what would happen when the new mayor came.
As I took the back stairs up to the 5th floor to avoid bumping into anyone during the hustle and bustle of the transition, I realized all the scenarios that had played out in my head were now playing out in real time. This was live, ready or not.
I found room 506, turned the key, turned on the overhead light on a windowless room with my boxes of books and papers stacked against the wall with a note on top from the janitorial staff asking me to verify that these were my boxes sitting between a well-worn, army green metal desk and a green metal file cabinet in a room with peeling olive drab paint.
It did have a telephone, so my first call was to my wife to tell her I had been relocated and to let her know my new phone number. When I told her my new office was in the animal control annex, she laughed, and said that as a farm boy I should feel right at home. And as someone who spent the past ten years organizing in inner city neighborhoods and working out of my car as my mobile office, I should feel right at home! She ended by saying, “It looks like the new mayor did you a favor. Being in the mayor’s office, you could use the clout of the mayor to get people to give lip service to quality and improvement, now you are going to have to earn it.”
She gave me the perceptive eye I needed to take on the challenge.
That conversation was a significant event. I sat there at my olive drab desk and realized now the real work begins from the bottom up for transforming an organization of 3000 employees, 32 different departments, fourteen labor unions, and an attitude that we were the best, why improve? Now I had to pick the significant events that were worthy of earning the new mayor’s respect for quality.
If the new mayor said stop, we would stop, but if he didn’t, we would keep working.
Our quality steering committee made up of top managers, mid-mangers and front-line employees decided we should keep working on improvement projects across the organization. If the new mayor said stop, we would stop, but if he didn’t, we would keep working. The police, public health, library, transportation, motor equipment, and a hand-full of other department heads continued to support employee teams using quality tools to speeding up the time for repairing city vehicles, keeping the peace, improving the restaurant inspection process, reducing the steps for hiring bus drivers, managing, our urban forest of 55,000 trees, and the list goes on.
I also realized that the more I learned about the new mayor, his priorities, and what he cared about, the more I recognized that, like Joe Sensenbrenner, he was genuinely dedicated to what was best for the city, and if the right opportunity came along, we would find common ground. We just needed to be patient and let our work of improving things speak for itself.
Given that I had not grown up in a bureaucracy, I did what comes naturally to an organizer, I continued my practice of spending a day a week working with front-line employees picking up trash, working alongside parks employees preparing the ice rinks, observing the process for citizens coming in to get building permits, walking the beat with our new community police officers, and spending time in different departments getting to know employees and finding out what was working and not working across the city. By the end of two years, I had met with over 500 employees and had a real appreciation for how city services were delivered.
Of all the city managers I will remember during that time that I called “Living in the catacombs” one stands out to me as the one who tipped the scale on keeping our quality work alive. He was an unlikely hero and his name was Lloyd Sarbacker. Lloyd had joined the Streets Division right out of high school and worked his way up from garbage collector, to brush crew to snowplow driver, leaf collection team and many other front-line jobs to supervisor, foreman, and eventually Superintendent of Madison Streets Division. Lloyd knew the business inside and out. He had done every job and worked alongside a majority of the folk who did the daily work of keeping our city clean and safe.
Everyone remembered Jane Burns, the mayor of Chicago, who lost her job because the snow wasn’t plowed. Lloyd was determined not to let that happen on his watch.
When I talked with the mayor, or alderpersons, they would always say there were two people who could make or break a mayor, the police chief and the superintendent of streets. If taxpayers felt the city wasn’t safe or clean, they took it out at the ballot box. If the police chief was the right tackle, the streets superintendent was the left tackle to the team’s quarterback: he covered the mayor’s blind side. If the snow wasn’t plowed, leaves weren’t picked up, and trash sat at the curb, the mayor’s office got the complaints. Everyone remembered Jane Burns, the mayor of Chicago, who lost her job because the snow wasn’t plowed. Lloyd was determined not to let that happen on his watch.
Lloyd was a hard smoking, plain spoken, down to earth guy who didn’t forget who he was and how he had come up through the ranks. I accepted his offer to ride with him when he went out to visit his crews and he had given me his blessing when I had asked to work on the garbage trucks. I built a trusting relationship with Lloyd primarily because I was a farm boy. I knew hard work. I wasn’t just another guy from “downtown” sent out with a new thing to distract him from what he considered “real work”. He asked me to start a team to look at how we could do a better job recruiting farm boys and girls who weren’t afraid of work and knew how to run the ever-growing fleet of bigger and bigger pieces of equipment.
I picked garbage so I could understand what it was like to make over 500 stops a day, getting in and out of the truck, pitching the garbage bags into the truck, and hustling to the next stop. I learned firsthand why so many pickers had back and shoulder injuries, and why we eventually improved the process by buying automatic side loader trucks that now pick up our recyclables and trash saving thousands of dollars in injuries and lost time. I rode with the snowplow drivers during storms so I could appreciate the athleticism of a veteran plow driver who maneuvered a ten-ton snowplow through traffic and ran a 12-foot blade along a curb like a master musician played a violin. I worked with the leaf crews figuring out better ways to collect the tons of leaves piled up at the curb every fall. It was backbreaking manual work getting the leaves off the terraces and loaded into the back of garbage trucks.
It was mid-October and the sleet and freezing rain turned the leaf piles into giant snow cones topped with an inch coating of impenetrable ice.
Lloyd was always looking for better ways to do things that reduced cost, improved safety, and got his employees engaged in doing things better. He personally knew the cost of twenty, thirty years of slinging garbage, picking leaves, hoisting large items like refrigerators, and stoves onto trucks and what it did to people’s bodies. He knew because he told me if he hadn’t been able to move up in management, he would have had to quit by the time he was forty and find something else to do. His back and shoulders were shot.
Six months after Mayor Soglin became mayor, in the fall of 1989, we had a surprise— an early fall sleet storm right in the middle of the leaf collection season. People all across the city had just completed the ritual of raking piles of leaves to the curb. It was mid-October and the sleet and freezing rain turned the leaf piles into giant snow cones topped with an inch coating of impenetrable ice.
The leaf collection slowed to a crawl as workers struggled to remove the tons of ice-covered leaves from taxpayer’s terraces. The phones were ringing off the hook in the mayor’s office and in the Streets Department demanding their leaves be picked up before the frozen messes smothered the grass underneath. Alderman were being confronted by angry citizens making it clear they better get this fixed or else. It was not a pretty picture and the temperatures were staying stubbornly low with forecasts of early snow.
Ghosts of Jane Burn’s fate were dancing in the city leaders’ heads! To mayor Soglin’s credit, he didn’t join the hysteria, although he knew his left guard, Lloyd Sarbacker was under enormous pressure to deliver. He worked to buffer the employees of the streets division while behind the curtain, he knew this was a significant event, and he had to have all the perceptive eyes he could muster to turn this around ASAP. To top it off, the forecasted snowstorm arrived right on time requiring all streets employees be on deck for emergency plowing.
I realized a significant event was unfolding. I stopped in Lloyd’s office to see how he was doing. He said in confidence that this was one of the toughest situations he had
experienced in his thirty years at streets. He knew what his men were facing, and he knew the equipment wasn’t up to the job. Rakes, gloves, and strong backs were no match for tons of soggy leaves, ice, and now a blizzard that Mother Nature had thrown at us for good measure.
Rakes, gloves, and strong backs were no match for tons of soggy leaves, ice, and now a blizzard that Mother Nature had thrown at us for good measure.
As we talked, I suggested he might want to get the mayor’s approval for putting a quick strike team on the problem and while it would add a few more hours to overtime, in the long run it would pay off for him and the mayor. Remember Jane Burns! We agreed the guys and gals who were out there working on the leaf crew had ideas. I had heard some of them when I had worked with them. We just had to tap into them and organize it. Lloyd looked at me, took a drag on his cigarette, and said, “Let’s do it!”
First thing the next morning as I came into the animal control unit annex, I got a call from Wanda. She asked me if I had seen the front page of the Madison newspaper. I said I hadn’t. She said get a paper, look at the picture, read the article, and then get down here. The mayor wants to see you.
Dr. Box’s theory of change danced in my head. I remembered the night he shared it with us at his Monday night’s Beer and Statistics gathering at his home. He knew we came for the beer but ended up learning statistics. He said there are two things required for change to happen, one is a significant event, and the other was the perceptive eye to see it. I knew the call from the mayor and Wanda’s tipping me off to what it was about offered such an event.
I found a newspaper and saw the headline that read something like, “Mayor Is This Your Commitment to Quality Service?” It didn’t take much of a perceptive eye to see that the picture of homeowners standing by frozen leaf piles wasn’t helping our image of being a great place to live!
I hadn’t talked to the mayor in his first six months other than our acknowledging each other with a nod whenever we saw each other in the hallway. As I came down the back stairs to the mayor’s office, I started honing my “perceptive eye” and developing a plan in anticipation of how the mayor wanted to get this leaf problem off the front page.
“Can you do something about this?” pointing to the newspaper headline.
Wanda greeted me, asked me how things were in animal control and ushered me back to the mayor’s conference room. I saw the newspaper was lying on the table. I greeted him, “Good morning Mr. Mayor” and he said,
”Can you do something about this?” pointing to the newspaper headline.
I said, “ Yes.”
He said, “do it.”
I said, “I need a couple things from you as mayor to help us get started.”
He said, “what?”
I said, “ I need you, mayor, and Lloyd Sarbacker to serve as the guidance team to clear barriers so I can get the right Streets Department staff on the strike team.”
He nodded in the affirmative.
I said, “Your and Mr. Sarbacker’s job is not to second guess the front-line workers on the team or to preempt their work by going around them to the press with solutions.”
He agreed. I told him we would try and pull the first meeting of the team together later that day and begin working on the problem. He nodded in the affirmative. That was how I met Mayor Soglin.
The team came together late that afternoon after a hard day of fighting the leaf piles and plowing snow. We walked through our mission as a team, got buy-in to get rolling, set a schedule and agreed that the first thing we would do the next morning was actually take an hour to observe the leaf collection process.
Some grumbled that they didn’t need to look at the process, that they had been doing it for years. I asked them to humor me by taking one hour to step back from doing it, to observing it and thinking about it. I reminded them of the quote from the hall of fame New York Yankee catcher and philosopher, Yogi Berra, “You can learn a lot from observing.” I could tell the next morning as they gathered to “observe” what they did every day that their brains were processing all the things they would like to change if they had the power to do it. They knew they had an opportunity to test whether we would really follow through on their recommendations.
Some grumbled that they didn’t need to look at the process, that they had been doing it for years. I asked them to humor me by taking one hour to step back from doing it, to observing it and thinking about it.
When the strike team got back to the hastily set up Leaf Collection War Room, they started sharing where they saw problems, what neighborhoods were particularly hard hit with the soggy leaf piles and complaint calls, what equipment worked and what the data showed on repetitive injuries among their colleagues—wrists, backs, shoulders, etc. They were thinking!
When we broke the first day, they each agreed to talk with their fellow leaf crew members to get their ideas, and several members agreed to call people they knew at other cities to find out how they handled leaf collection.
We knew there was no silver bullet or magic machine that would resolve the problem, but these were veterans of other improvement teams who knew the way—You ate an elephant was one bite at a time. We started chipping away at it.
Within a week, the welding shop was fabricating our first pusher pans to go on the back of our garbage trucks. Warp speed for any organization, let alone government.
Modifications were being made and pilot tested in real time as we worked out the kinks. We also mounted pusher blades on the front of city jeeps to push the wet, frozen leaves off the terraces and on to the push pans on the back of the garbage trucks.
The mayor and superintendent Sarbacker kept their part of the bargain, holding off the press and letting the team do its work. When we had the process working well enough to go public, the team met with Superintendent Sarbacker and the mayor at the work site to fill them in on the changes that we were recommending. Both Lloyd and the mayor thanked the team and we asked if we could meet with them after the leaf season to talk about the next improvement project the team wanted to work on, repetitive injuries among garbage collectors.
A significant event had happened, the perceptive eyes of many people focused on the problem and an unexpected weather event became an opportunity for improvement. Today many years later when I look out of my front window and see the leaves being collected and the garbage being picked up in our neighborhood, I can’t help but think of Lloyd Sarbacker and the members of that strike team who stepped up and had the courage to embrace change.
The real lesson beyond the immediate crisis around leaf collection was that we didn’t let a crisis go to waste! The combination of a practical mayor
committed to leading the city, a superintendent who wanted to get things done, a team of frontline workers who saw the opportunity to make a difference, and a set of readily available quality tools to solve problems came together.
Mayor Soglin stepped up to serve as chair of the city’s Quality and Productivity Steering Committee and, yes, my office was moved out of the animal control unit. The next year we opened up a new employee training and development office that supported building a great place to work focused on the themes of customer care, data-driven decision making and teamwork across the city. We weren’t just fixing problems; we were embedding a culture of improvement.
Members of the leaf strike team were invited to present their story to Dr. Box and his University of Wisconsin students at his Monday night Beer and Statistics gathering in his living room. I didn’t know who was prouder, the city leaf crew or the globally recognized statistician.
Significant events do happen. Do you have the perceptive eye to turn them into an opportunity for improvement?
Tom Mosgaller has led change in city government, business, and healthcare. He is past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) and the Madison Area Quality Improvement Network (MAQIN). His experience as a community organizer has shaped his approach to engaging people in creating positive change.
Photo by Jack Blueberry on Unsplash