Performance Measurement: An improvement tool

Donald J. LaBelle
Director of Public Works
Alameda County, CA

Richard A. Ruiz
Deputy Director of Public Works
Maintenance & Operations Department
Alameda County, CA

Is your organization highly competitive by nature? Is your City Manager or County Administrator always looking for new and innovative tools to enhance services? Are you motivated to give the public the best value for their investment? Do you value your employees as one of your most important organizational resources and see them as stakeholders in your success? Then “performance measurement” is the answer for you and your organization!

The Alameda County Public Works Agency combined the accountability of our Infrastructure Management System and our commitment to teamwork to fuel individual employee pride to measure the overall efficacy of our performance. We involved our qualified union employees as full partners in our effort to compare our 10 highest priority and costly services with other jurisdictions. Our Board of Supervisors approved work teams to travel to selected state-of-the-art jurisdictions to compare work methods and conditions. The employee teams then worked with maintenance managers and the consultant to design improved practices.

The results were extremely gratifying and beneficial. Our employees became fully engaged in improving their service delivery. We became educated in ways that our performance measurement is different from our benchmarking partners. We are better equipped to ensure the best use of public dollars invested in services.

Here’s the story...Alameda County is the seventh most populous county in the State of California, with approximately 1.4 million individuals residing in its 813 square miles. There are over 200 employees employed in the Maintenance and Operations Department. Together we provide services on more than 500 road miles, over 300 flood control channel miles, and five estuary bridges connecting Oakland and Alameda. In addition, we maintain 22 pumping stations, which circulate excess surface water into the San Francisco Bay. (Alameda County is also home to the Oakland A’s, Oakland Raiders, and the Golden State Warriors.)

Beginning in July 1996, the Alameda County Public Works Agency implemented a computer-based Infrastructure Management System. This software program allows the Agency to plan, organize, direct, and measure work performed by the Agency. The database identifies activities performed by the Agency and the resources needed to perform those activities. Resources include the number and classification of staff, and the quantities of materials and equipment required to complete these activities. The database is used to generate performance data for budgeted and actual resource amounts and the variance between them. Currently, the system tracks a total of 122 work activities. Analysis of this data has focused primarily on determining if the activity guidelines established are realistic.

The Public Works Agency started to measure its performance through its Infrastructure Management System. By systematically evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of resources used and quantifying results, public organizations work better and cost less.

How do you determine what to measure and when? You can start off with five or six performance measurements that are most connected to your community. Start with the simple ones first. We started by identifying our inventory, understanding our unit of measurement, and cost to the public, for example.

Use performance measures to lead you to your goals and direction, vision, etc. Concentrate on your critical activities, not the insignificant few. (Remember, 20 percent of the critical activities accounts for 80 percent of the results.) Start with outcomes first: What does your community want? What inputs are necessary to get this accomplished?

One of the most effective methods of organizational introspection is to analyze its performance and competency against the performance practices of similar organizations. This methodology delineates areas of both strengths and areas of improvement, as well as opportunity for innovation in an organization.

In 1998, the Alameda County Public Works Agency underwent a scheduled performance audit performed by the consulting firms of KPMG Peat Marwick and Williams, Adley & Company. One of the audit recommendations was to perform a benchmarking study in the Maintenance and Operations Department.

By simple definition, benchmarking is a means of “helping you improve your current work methods.” In other words, benchmarking will help you determine if you are using your measurement criteria effectively. Are we doing the right things? Are we doing things right? Ultimately, are we doing the right things right?

The Alameda County Public Works Agency engaged the services of Lorick Associates Consulting (LAC) in early 1999, to conduct a pilot performance benchmarking program. LAC was asked to educate our staff in the process and to determine the effectiveness of a full benchmark effort. The pilot study demonstrated how an internal County committee consisting of rank and file maintenance staff, union representatives, and first-line supervisors could use this process to evaluate maintenance efficacy, highlight the County’s strengths, and reveal opportunities for improvement. The results of the pilot study proved to be successful, enlightening, and worthwhile. As a result, a “full scale” performance benchmarking study was launched. The comprehensive benchmarking evaluation was conducted with much positive support from the working committee. Furthermore, by supporting this study, the County demonstrated their commitment to use the public’s resources in the most cost-efficient manner.

Why is it important to maximize resources? Even though all government is expected to do more with less, it is crucial to maximize your resources. There are long-term benefits by using your resources efficiently and effectively, such as maintaining the health and survival of your public works organization and the public transportation infrastructure. Administration and the public will also be pleased with your organization as an astute and effective user of taxpayer investments.

The primary goal of the benchmarking study was to determine where Alameda County Public Works Agency ranks among the “best practices,” in comparison to other agencies. Additionally, we viewed it as an occasion to learn from other organizations that have the distinction of demonstrating exemplary “best practices.” We recognize that we could use performance benchmarking to further demonstrate that the public derives the ultimate benefit from all resources used by the Alameda County Public Works Agency.

The performance benchmarking effort consisted of an intensive and detailed study focusing on the documentation of current operations, performance criteria, data gathering, data analysis, performance improvement alternatives and recommendations. Our Agency concentrated on the following activities:

  • Street sweeping
  • Tree trimming
  • Fence repair
  • Double seal coat
  • Stockpile removal
  • Shoulder restoration
  • AC surface repair
  • AC dike construction
  • Vegetation removal
  • Pump station maintenance

In part, we selected these activities because performance data on accomplishment, productivity, and unit costs accounted for a very high percentage of our total work accomplishments. The activities selected for the study were defined by distinct guidelines that delineated information such as:

  • Reason for performing the activity
  • Description of the activity
  • Work scheduling criteria, including when it is expected to be completed
  • Optimal size and/or mix of crew
  • Equipment and materials required
  • Safety procedures and equipment used
  • Expected average daily production range

How can benchmarking be valuable to small cities? Small cities can use components from benchmarking data to measure their ability to improve and enhance their services. Small cities must rely on established organizations, such as counties, or large cities that have documented hands-on work method details which can provide them with the opportunity to improve.

If you are a smaller city, it is more difficult to take the macro level approach to benchmarking by itself; e.g., dollars spent per mile for shoulder repairs. Rather, smaller cities or municipalities must examine what types of equipment, labor classifications, and resource requirements are being used to accomplish these tasks. Individual work processes should be examined or evaluated. Small cities should focus on specific activities that may be unique to their operation, rather than those of larger cities and counties. Another option might be to benchmark by region, instead of city.

Sixty-five private businesses and public agencies representing 16 states, 29 counties, and 30 cities were nominated as potential candidates for the study. In addition, the initial 65 were identified by such professional organizations as the American Public Works Association and the International City and County Managers Association, in addition to literature research. Forty organizations were requested to participate. The initial candidates were recommended by a combination of management, line employees, and our facilitator/consultant because they could provide an opportunity to learn and improve.

A comprehensive search was conducted with 65 agencies screened using performance criteria (determined by committee and consultant). Many agencies were not considered, as they appeared to provide limited opportunity for improvement. From the initial 65 agencies, we reduced the number to 15. Our committee felt these 15 organizations performed similar activities, had data to compare, and appeared to provide opportunities to improve.

Staff was asked to participate in the direct observation of the activities being reviewed. Committee members (including the Agency’s field staff and union stewards) traveled throughout the United States with our consultants, meeting with fellow union members, and peers.

Comparisons among agencies did not focus on unit cost alone, but on productivity as well. Since other agencies have different labor and overhead costs, using just unit cost would not be an equivalent comparison. In addition, community and political interests were taken into consideration when reviewing productivity values.

The benchmarking project spanned six months and is now complete. The Agency is in the preliminary stages of analyzing the performance benchmarking results to identify opportunities for improvement to enhance their performance. The following ideas are under immediate consideration for implementation:

  • The Agency will monitor the street sweeping routes with a focus on optimizing the efficiency. Analysis of current sweeping procedures will be conducted to remove potential obstacles to productivity, such as disjointed routes and inaccessible dumpsites and/or water supply. Particular attention will be paid to establishing the most efficient routes to preclude the necessity of backtracking. Improvements will be continuously assessed, documented, and integrated into established work procedures.
  • Alameda County will also minimize costs associated with crew travel times by requiring that vendors applying for County contracts absorb these “up to this time” Agency expenses.
  • The Agency will analyze and consider the feasibility of expanding its double seal coat from its current three-year maintenance cycle to a six-year cycle exemplified by its performance benchmarking partners. Another consideration is reducing maintenance from double seal coat to single seal coat as conducted by other jurisdictions. The potential recurring savings from this alternative is $1 million in material cost alone. However, the Agency must first determine whether the minimized level of maintenance would significantly impact levels of pavement stability.

The Agency was pleased to learn that many of its performance measurements in place are well above the median when compared to other performance benchmarking partners utilized in this study.

The Agency anticipates that further valuable suggestions will result from this innovative and collaborative effort. Where logistically and economically feasible, the Agency is committed to pursuing enhancements and innovations for its operations. Benchmarking provides a viable tool for empowering an organization to work smarter, not harder. Organizations must continue to analyze their work methods. We cannot expect different results if we continue to work the same way.

Performance measurement should be one of the management tools on your radar screen. Take a proactive approach and consider the feasibility of pursuing a benchmarking study. This will ensure that your organization maintains a position on the cutting edge.

Alameda County will be presenting their benchmarking experience at the International Public Works Congress and Exposition, September 10, 2000, in Louisville, Kentucky.

For more information, contact Don LaBelle at 510-670-5455 or donald@acpwa.mail.co.alameda.ca.us, or Richard Ruiz at 510-670-5455 or rickr@acpwa.mail.co.alameda.ca.us.