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Nobles County begins program for lean government

WORTHINGTON — No one is perfect, no system is perfect and there’s always room for improvement.

That’s the premise behind a campaign in Nobles County as it moves forward with Lean 101, a project to eliminate redundancies and improve workflow in all facets of county government.

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On Thursday, four Nobles County employees — Human Resources Director Sue Luing, Adult Social Services Supervisor Darci Goedtke, Finance Director Jerry Vyskocil and Jail Sergeant Dan Bosman — attended a train-the-trainer event in Nicollet County to become facilitators and help the county move forward with the project. All four, including a couple of other individuals who couldn’t attend Thursday, volunteered to serve as facilitators.

Thursday’s training followed a pair of Lean 101 introductory meetings in Worthington in mid-March, during which more than 100 county employees attended.

“(We’re) trying to take waste out of the system,” said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson. “AMC (the Association of Minnesota Counties) has picked it up as a priority and they’ve trained a couple of their staff … as certified trainers and they’re starting to go all over Minnesota and train folks.”

Johnson said the introductory meetings generated “nothing but positive remarks” from both the facilitators and employees.

“I think the time was right,” he said. “I know there’s enough people that have shown interest that it will grow.”

The concept of creating leanness in operations is credited to William Edwards Deming, who developed it in the manufacturing sector and made “incredible improvements in processes” working with Japanese companies. The Japanese coined the word kaizen, meaning to improve or change for the best, in reference to the lean initiative.

A kaizen event could take two to three days, Johnson said, explaining that all of the processes of government are mapped out and people begin to look at how the system can be improved.

As an example, Johnson talked about the steps required to complete a purchase order while working in manufacturing. After mapping out every step in the process, it was realized there were about $80 in manpower costs just to get an order placed. The process was streamlined and savings realized as a result.

While savings may not be that significant in some departments within Nobles County government, Johnson said there is likely room for improvement. That’s why, when he learned the lean initiative was being implemented in government, “I asked when we could get on the schedule.

“To me, it’s intuitive,” he said. “You can always make improvements.”

There are several different processes available in using the lean initiative, from standardization to sorting, straightening and sustaining.

Johnson said one project he is eying is streamlining to reduce paperwork.

“We’ve got an awful lot of paperwork with a land record,” he said, adding that some of those papers visit the recorder’s office, the assessor’s office and the auditor-treasurer’s office. “I can’t say what we’ll do.

“The amount of paperwork it takes for community services to go through their processes — I think there’s a ton of opportunities for us,” he continued.

Some changes already have been implemented. In Community Services, the five interview rooms have been revamped to appear identical. All of the supplies are stocked in each room, in the same place in each desk. When an employee is in the room, he should have everything at their fingertips, instead of going from one room to another in search of what he needs.

Another change is that agendas for county commissioner meetings are now posted on the county’s website ( for public access. The county attorney’s office and public health have also implemented some changes.

Johnson is hopeful that as the new facilitators in Nobles County begin discussing processes — plans are to form a lean government committee — that departments will bring ideas forward.

“I don’t think you’ll ever get done,” he said. “You pick the low-hanging fruit. As you get to the things you can only improve a little bit, well, it’s still worth improving.”

Other counties and county agencies in Minnesota are in the process of developing lean processes, and Johnson said others are watching to see what good can come from the program.

Daily Globe Reporter

Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

(507) 376-7330