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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Continuous Unimprovement

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Anyone who has visited a lot of federal buildings likely wasn't surprised at the news July 8 that investigators found haphazard security procedures at government facilities nationwide. There's long been a frustrating lack of uniformity at entrances to Uncle Sam's workplaces. Security guards sometimes ask for identification, sometimes they don't. They might let people go around unescorted, they might not. Screening equipment seems to be set at random sensitivity levels. Loose change in pants pockets might set off the alarms on a screener in one building while another makes no sound if forgotten keys remain in pockets. Federal building security guards themselves often seem unsure of the standard procedures. To a lay observer, there is no rhyme or reason to the wide discrepancies.

The Government Accountability Office's investigation into federal building security showed that, indeed, the agency in charge of facility safety has not had a strong management system to ensure standard operating procedures were in place and followed. It's a disappointing discovery because of the importance of protecting the people who work in and visit federal buildings. It's disturbing because setting up such a management system is not rocket science. Organizations with far less crucial missions do it all the time.

Just look at the countless restaurant chains with franchises sprinkled around the country. If you go into any of these stores you'll discover the same menu and the same basic operating procedures. The employees all have been taught scripts to follow, from the initial greeting to the questions they're supposed to ask in response to your order to repeating your order to make sure they got it right. Many restaurants' standard procedures get down to details such as specifying which way the artificial sweetener packets should be facing in the sugar caddies on tables and whether the ketchup or the mustard goes to the right.

Managers learn all those standards, teach their employees and then monitor employees' actions to make sure they apply those standards at every opportunity. Some chains employ secret shoppers to visit restaurants and make sure the standards are being followed. Regional managers stop by every so often to check up on them, and they review statistics from customer feedback forms and sales to identify trouble spots. Variation is the enemy, and the companies use continuous improvement methods to eliminate it and provide predictable service to customers.

All that just for lunch and dinner. Federal building security deserves that kind of continuous improvement approach even more.

Some differences are of course necessary. The methods of facility security for agencies with highly sensitive national security missions should naturally be different than the methods for agencies that have a regular flow of public visitors. But for agencies with similar security needs, standards should be relatively constant and variation limited. Managers should be using continuous improvement methods to get personnel and systems up to standard. If it can be done for a burger and fries, it can be done for public safety.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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