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What a #2 pencil can teach us about improvement

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

How the San Francisco Controller's Office made impactful change through innovation ideas that were easy to execute and implement:

When they were with the San Francisco Controller's Office, PPI's Ryan Hunter and Jenessa Rozier supported the HR team to improve the administration of the civil service exam for all accountants in the City. We walked the HR team through a multi-day improvement event where we helped the team understand how obstacles in the process were adding extra time and the opportunity for error both in preparation for exam day and in proctoring the exam.

As part of the improvement event, the team heard from recent applicants through a Voice of the Customer session. A Voice of the Customer session is a structured approach for soliciting feedback from the customer on the services or goods provided to them. Applicants described long lines, difficulty with transportation, and extraneous materials. After hearing directly from examinees about confusion and frustration on exam day, the team improved signage and consolidated exam packets from seven components down to three. Always ensure you're gathering feedback from the users of the process -- without their insight, many of these changes wouldn't have happened!

As we walked the team through mapping their exam preparation process (with sticky notes on butcher paper), we discovered that one of the admin staff was spending a full day before each exam sharpening pencils to give to candidates! Not only was this pencil sharpening a waste of time, it was also disrespectful to a talented employee – and expensive! One of the HR team members suggested buying pre-sharpened pencils. Turns out that 500 pre-sharpened pencils cost $20 – far less than the cost of a day of staff time.

It’s this “aha” moment we go for – the moment when a front-line staff has an idea that makes life better for both staff and citizens and has been empowered by leadership to make a change.

What may seem like small change can make a big impact.

The team came out of the effort with many improvement ideas, most of which were small in size and fairly easy to implement. For example, in prior exams, some examinees, upon opening their personalized exam envelope, discovered a score sheet with a different person's name! The team's simple solution? Replace manila envelopes with transparent ones, so that the individual's name could be seen from the outside.

The envelope innovation is a form of Visual Management: a communication device used in the work environment that tells at a glance how work should be done and whether it is deviating from the standard. If you'd like to see how to use visual management on your project, take a look at our resource guide below!

PPI - Visual Management Reference Guide
Download PDF • 2.13MB

Overall, the team reduced their entire process time by 50%! That's huge! That time could now be spent on other roles and applicants, aiding other hiring processes for the Controller's Office and the City.

This improvement effort was the first major Lean project for the team, and challenged the way the HR team approached work moving forward. They learned to question their processes and challenge why things are done the way that they currently are.

When we tell our trainees about the #2 pencils, they laugh -- until we ask them about their own work. The truth is, if we looked under the hood in your agency, we'd find something just like the #2 pencils.

But it's a gift! Once you find that problem and correct it, you start earning back time, energy, and morale -- and you can start to snowball those wins into better services for your citizens.

If you'd like help looking under the hood of your organization, we're here for you. Just don't ask us to sharpen a pencil.


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