In a previous article I joked about how governments love to come up with catchy acronyms to help identify and market their latest, best practice or new committee. Well, I’ve got another one for you--S.O.S.--which stands for the mundane-sounding Service Order System.

But, don’t be lulled to sleep by this boring name. It’s actually an exciting component of what is often referred to as “system thinking”--a planning and decision-making process that works to break down problems and challenges into component pieces so we can look at the collection of interrelated, interdependent and interacting processes that must occur to deliver our product.

The Problem

In this particular case, the S.O.S. program was a by-product of a specific need of our Facilities Maintenance Service (F.M.S.), which needed to better manage our customers’ expectations and their requests for service against our department’s ability to deliver that service, especially considering our limited resources.

Prior to S.O.S., our facilities maintenance work-order system started with a phone call, which led to an exchange of paper between the administrative staff in our department and the administrative staff in the public works department, which, of course, was in a different location. In short, one phone call generated much needless paperwork and communication--the process created a one- or two-day lag between the time a service request was initiated and the time the work order was put into the hands of the man (or woman) doing the actual work.

Out of necessity (or panic), our customers (Facility Managers) usually tried to figure a way around the system. Typically, they employed one of three tactics:

1. Find the person doing the work (Facility Maintenance Tech) in the hall and re-direct the work.

2. Send e-mails and phone calls to the Facility Maintenance Supervisor and try to bug him into making their request his priority.

3. Contact someone higher up the organizational ladder and complain.

As you might imagine, this was a pretty marginal system.

The Talent

In my experience, the only way to effectively institute change is to first identify the need, which we had done, then work to build a consensus (i.e., convince those that need to be convinced that the change makes sense), then build and implement the solution.

In order to build consensus and convince those that need convincing, I’ve learned that you need to find and hire/authorize a talented staff member as the point person for the project, give the tools needed to succeed, and get out of the way. In this case, that person was Jeff, our Facilities Maintenance Supervisor.

Jeff came to the parks department from public works as part of a strategic planning effort. He was, in my estimation, a talented individual whose talents were untapped. He was not the typical manager with advanced degrees, a smooth edge and the ability to talk around issues. Instead, he was someone who earned his way up the ranks as a journeyman electrician, had (and still has) sharp edges and a tendency to call things the way he sees them.

When I first became his supervisor, he told me he didn’t have “management hair,” but he wanted to make his service area more professional. He agreed to take on the S.O.S. as a job goal, and initiated the work-order process by writing a “business case white paper “ to the city’s technology department, laying out a credible argument for why we should use the city’s Lotus Notes Platform to launch an electronic work-order system.

He emphasized that by using the city’s current platform, there would not be any need to purchase special software and pay for the additional licensing, training and support. Our technology department agreed, and the project began.

I was impressed that the department demanded a business case paper to convince it of the need to take on additional work. Those of us in parks and recreation could really learn something here. I don’t ever remember being asked if we wanted a new project, much less being able to tell someone to write a memo, and we would think about it. Maybe we should move in that direction.

The System

Jeff worked hand-in-hand with Mikki, the technology department’s programmer to develop the system that we have today:

Welcome to Service Order System (S.O.S.), your portal for requesting services from Facilities Maintenance Services (F.M.S.). The system is the result of a collaborative effort by F.M.S. customers, F.M.S. staff and E.T.S. The system fulfills the needs of three user roles or business functions:

1. Customer--Facility managers

2. Service provider—F.M.S. staff

3. Management

The F.M.S. customer requests service by submitting a Service Order. F.M.S. Maintenance staff fulfills the Service Order. F.M.S. Management monitors the process for improvement metrics and cost management.

The Process

Jeff and Mikki held regular check-ins with our leadership team to ensure our goals were being met. They developed a beta-test group of the major facility managers to get their functional needs understood, and to enlist their support for this major cultural change. Ultimately, they did a show-and-tell with the city manager and his team to create institutional credibility.

The new system went live this past month and is performing magically. It puts the work into the hands of the techs the same day and offers real-time response to emergency situations. The system tracks work-history and allows instant access to work-order status by the customer. It also manages redundancy issues by controlling access to the system by specified workgroup leaders.

We have now released the Public Works Admin Staff of its previous call-center responsibilities. The system has the capability to track labor and supply costs, and we seem to be on the way to implementing phase two, which is the project-costing component for budgeting purposes.

In closing, it is so rewarding to see the talents of our staff shine through when the members are given the support and encouragement to examine complex problems with sustainable solutions that further the purpose of our organizational value statements. I encourage you, the reader, to see if there are similar projects you might consider for your staff.

Don Bessler is the Director of Parks, Open Space & Public Facilities for Longmont, Colo. He can be reached via e-mail at don_bessler@ci.longmont.co.us