You can't make your department do more with less if you don't know how it's working to begin with.

That's the situation in which public works and utilities director Greg Meszaros found himself in 2000, when newly elected mayor Graham Richard challenged managers to make Fort Wayne, Ind., the first city in the country to implement “Six Sigma.” The quality-improvement program includes six steps designed to analyze and fine-tune processes to eliminate defects in products and services.

A 20-year department veteran, Meszaros knew the same principles that saved manufacturing giants like Motorola and General Electric millions of dollars could be used to remove more water from sludge. Speed up pothole repairs. Eliminate excess inventory. Get better service from contractors.

He was right. Seven years later, the department has saved taxpayers $10 million. Having proven they can avoid or eliminate expenses, managers earned the credibility they need to ask for—and receive—approval for initiatives that are improving the entire city's infrastructure system, including:

• A 66% stormwater utility rate increase to fund a $17 million flood-prevention program

• Aproposed $21 million bond to buy out the operations of a private drinking water and sewage treatment provider, which would leave just 15% of residents to be served by private utilities.

The department identified and tackled more than 30 processes—far more than any other city department—that were unnecessary, redundant, or inefficient.

People +Technology = Improvement

Anyone who's ever been involved in a quality management or benchmarking program knows the process lives or dies on the ability to gather and analyze data, and to foster open, honest communication among all parties.

The department addressed the first challenge by hiring a part-time quality consultant, sending managers to Six Sigma training, and installing Quality Companion 2 software by Minitab Inc., State College, Pa., on project team leaders' computers. The Windows-based software presents statistical analyses in very readable form. This was particularly helpful in projects involving complex mechanical systems, like analyzing how each of the 40-year-old wastewater treatment plant's eight operators ran its centrifuges.

“We finally convinced operators we could see what they were doing, and that what they were doing made a difference,” says Cheryl Cronin in Richard's book (see “Web extra” at upper right), which chronicles the department's journey. As water pollution control plant superintendent, she led a seven-employee team that focused on increasing waste-activated sludge processing.

In one year, operators stabilized sludge thickness and were removing 55% more volatile solids. Now the city is selling Class A sludge rather than paying to have it carted away and incinerated.