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Transforming West County Wastewater Invoicing: How Two Lean Leaders Slashed Payment Delays & Enhanced Relationships

Invoicing forms a critical pillar in the financial scaffolding of any organization, acting as the principal method for billing and payments. Yet, for all its importance, invoicing processes often get mired in inefficiencies that not only delay payments but also strain vital relationships with customers and suppliers. At West County Wastewater’s (WCW) Administrative Services Department, Financial Division, such bottlenecks had become all too common, manifesting as purchaser and vendor frustrations, inconsistent invoice submission methods, and frequent errors in documentation—all contributing to significant delays in payments.

Recognizing these challenges, Maria Bagley, Finance Manager, and Sarah Williamson, Records Program Manager, embarked on a transformative journey through Partners in Public Innovation’s Lean Leaders training in Fall 2023. Their mission was clear: streamline the invoicing process to expedite vendor payments and alleviate internal and external frustrations linked to payment delays and process confusion.

Rooted in a 'learn-by-doing' approach, the Lean Leaders program empowers participants like Maria and Sarah to directly apply new skills to real-life problems in their workplace. This hands-on training encourages trainees to dismantle old processes and engage with stakeholders to drive meaningful, measurable improvements.

Maria and Sarah tackled the chronic issue of delayed vendor payments head-on. By diving deep into the root causes—such as the multiplicity of invoice submission methods and recurring errors in invoice documentation—they set the stage for impactful organizational change.

PPI: How did you feel before starting the training? Were there any expectations, questions, or assumptions you had about Lean Leaders?

MB & SW: Before the training sessions we felt frustrated by the complexity of the problems we were facing as an organization. Since we were experienced in public sector leadership we thought we had all the tools necessary to improve our processes but we were stuck and unable to make measurable progress. The training gave us the tools and instructions needed to move our process improvement efforts forward in a meaningful, measurable, and ultimately reportable way.

PPI: Thinking about your project from start to finish, walk me through your experience of creating your process map, identifying bottlenecks, and creating solutions:

MB & SW: The project of mapping our process and identifying bottlenecks required us to move past former assumptions and really dig into the complex reality of the situation. Each of us had a preconceived notion of what the process should look like and what the problems were. PPI coaches encouraged us to examine the process very closely in real time and to put our assumptions aside. Once the key work of measuring the problem had occurred, evidence-based solutions fell into place without much effort on our part.


PPI: What advice do you have for others to get the most out of Lean Leaders?

MB & SW: Our advice is to trust the Lean Leaders process and to invest all the time and effort possible to implement the techniques being taught. Taking a step back, which can be hard at times especially since we are in get-things-done mode, is worth it!


PPI: How did Lean Leaders change the way you approach your work?

MB & SW: Lean Leaders has nudged us towards evidence-based problem-solving. When a new issue arises, instead of throwing out-of-the-box solutions at it, we ask ourselves: “what is really happening?” and “how can we measure this issue?”

PPI: What solutions have you implemented, or are currently working on, and what kind of improvements or changes have you seen as a result?

MB & SW: We chose two solutions that were low effort but would produce good impact. First, we eliminated all but one of the many ways that invoices were being transmitted to the Finance Division. Before our program, invoices could be sent to the invoice processor through their personal email inbox, physical mailbox, placing it on their desk, or even tracking down processing staff in the halls! Now, we only accept invoices that are submitted through a single shared accounting email inbox, which helps reduce the number of invoices being lost and also creates a record of when the invoice is submitted. Next, we developed and documented standard work for staff when checking the accounting email box. Staff are now individually responsible for specific vendors and types of email inquiries and there is a system to flag and file emails in the shared inbox to keep everything organized. These small changes also reduced time staff spend tracking and managing email inquiries and submittals. On average, we've reduced our invoicing processing time from 28 to 16 days!

PPI: What has been the overall impact of the Lean Leaders training on you and your work?

MB & SW: The Lean Leaders program gave us a set of tools and a road map to address complex and formerly intractable problems in our workplace. We can now break down our most important and complex business processes into smaller, more manageable parts and have a systematic way to choose solutions based on their impact and cost. The program also helped us to articulate and communicate our process improvement methodology to stakeholders at various levels of the organization. Our participation in Lean Leaders has already resulted in measurable improvements to our invoice processing that we can communicate to our leaders and the community.

PPI: What was the most valuable for you going through Lean Leaders?

MB & SW: PPI coaches are thoughtful and enthusiastic and embody the philosophy of continuous improvement that they teach. We were not just given examples of best practices; we participated in hands-on problem-solving activities to practice using the tools and the expertise provided by our coaches helped us to refine our approach. Working in teams with other public employee leaders was helpful for forging relationships and understanding that the problems we are facing are not unique but a shared experience, and we learned from our peers about solutions that worked in their projects, too.

In a 90-day check-in with Maria and Sarah on the progress of their improvement project, the Finance Division reported the average time to complete invoicing had shrunk to 13 days--shaving off an additional 3 days from their average time at the 30-days check-in point! Additionally, the team reported that they have received favorable qualitative feedback from staff across the agency: leaders and staff have praised the Finance Division for their increased responsiveness, efficiency, accuracy, and accountability! 

Whittling off another 3 days shows the power of continuous improvement. Where some people may have been satisfied with their already improved performance, not these Lean Leaders: Maria and Sarah kept refining their approach, and their persistence paid off!

Are you ready to level up your problem-solving skills and make a lasting impact in your organization? Join us for our next cohort of Lean Leaders - an immersive, multi-day experience where you'll learn practical problem-solving tools derived from Lean, Six Sigma, Design Thinking, and Agile methodologies.

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