Innovate or…

How do you know when it’s time to make a change? The concept of innovation and continuous improvement doesn’t always emerge from having the right amount of time, the perfect team, the greatest idea, or all the support to go out and be great. Sometimes we are thrown into innovation, forced to ask for help, and discover there is no process for the work we do!

Let me introduce you to the Q & A unit in the Family and Adult Assistance Division at Denver Human Services. They are a team of five, brought together to create standard work for the Hearings Process at Denver Human Services. Supervisor Robyn Kelly, and Eligibility Specialists- Tricia Cordova, Angela Marant, Kayla Miller, and Paul Ruiz- are a dream team of four Green Belts and one Black Belt.

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L-R: Angie, Paul, Kayla, Robyn, Tricia

So What’s our Why?

Robyn: “When we came together, we were tasked with delivering standard work for the unit. We had one hearings person for the division, no standard work, and no process to support what we needed.”

Kayla: “I remember walking up to my new supervisor and saying I need some help”.

This is a process that very few people enjoy, because it can often mean something went wrong, forcing the customer, a team member from DHS, and a judge to review the case and argue for a resolution.

Never Forget Where You Came From

Less than a year ago, the agency had received feedback from the state stating they were not doing well.

Team: “They held us up as an example of what not to do when they were training other counties in the state. We didn’t know how deficient our process was, but we did know we would occasionally miss a scheduled hearing with a judge.

Less than six months ago, it was just Kayla on the Hearings Team, and the Hearings work was dispersed all over the department. Various people on multiple teams would do pieces of a hearing without any standard work. The process was spread out, inefficient, documents would get lost, and there were duplicate hearings documents and files.

Team: “People thought they were helping by gathering lots of documents and stockpiling them, but we would come back to our desks and there would be piles of work. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

Paul: “A lot of our process came from a complete and utter necessity. We had to innovate”.

After acknowledging that being understaffed was one gap in the process, they gained four Hearings Specialist, and tapped into specific skill sets. In Lean we teach that it is important for the people who do the work to also drive the change. We also show our respect by acknowledging the value that individuals bring to the work. This team embodies these principles. Everyone on the team was an internal hire from DHS and represents a knowledge base from multiple program areas. They decided to consolidate the work while having a backup for each individual.

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Being the Change You Want To See

They started by meeting weekly to address the work and bring all of their stakeholders to the table. They met with partners from the fraud team, Workforce, the Child Care Assistance Program, Long Term Care, their City Attorney, and Employment First. They also have a monthly meeting with their partners to make sure they are living up to what they said they would do, to enhance accountability, and foster communication.

With lines of communication open, they got to work…for three days locked in a meeting room with lots of candy.

Robyn: “No one knew the scope of our work, so we were constantly defining, and redefining what we could do. We discovered that customers were being referred to the hearings team for situations that could be resolved on the spot, which increased our work. Additionally, customers were upset and scared when handed a number and told they would have a hearing in court”.

The team decided to create educational documents and hold standups to talk about the hearings process. In the future, they will have people shadow the process so they can see the work in addition to having the training. The goal is to decrease the number of unnecessary referrals. blog 4

Innovate, Elevate, Repeat

That one statement of I need help, sparked an explosion of innovations for the hearings team. In the past seven months the team has created:

  • standard work documents and a training manual
  • templates for workers to reduce the time they spend typing their notices and evidence
  • standard communications and mailings for customers to help them understand the process
  • a glossary of terms related to hearings and the courts
  • a helpful guide on court etiquette for workers.

Did I mention this document is visual with examples and clear language? They’ve even created an internal assessment tool they call the Root Cause document to better analyze the “why” and important trends in their hearings.

Robyn: “It takes time to change perception, but the judges and court clerks trust our team now.”

Previously there was no communication with the courts at all, so they opened a phone line and an email for the courts. With these open, they can call the hearings line directly if they have questions or issues. Clients can also contact them directly, and today the team is speaking with one voice.

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Team motto for enhancing customer service and calmly addressing hearings


Tricia: “Something as small as being responsive to our emails lets them know we are paying attention to what communications we receive and what we send back to them. We are just on the same page now.”

The team has had no “failures to appear” and nothing has fallen through the cracks since implementing their new process. It’s no wonder that when the state returned to DHS this spring, the team was recognized in the Management Evaluation Review for their notable progress and innovation.

Team: “They came with the intention of putting us on an action plan, but when the state saw the progress made in Denver they told us they were proud and are now using this standard work as an example of what’s going well.”

Robyn: “I know this team won’t be here forever. They will get promoted or move on, so we want a sustainable process and to create smooth transitions moving forward.”

Tricia: “We can’t ever let it fall on one person again.”

The team communicates so well with one another, they rarely talk about how to fairly distribute their work. They just do the work but continue to think about how to make sure no one is overworked in the future. Paul took this as an opportunity to innovate further. He created an assignment tracker in excel so at a glance they can see where they are as a team.

Paul: “We know what dates we are assigned and who is covering what.”

January 2019 will mark a full year for this team, and along the way they are keeping score with the number of hearings that are favorable; the number of hearings that are attended by staff; and the number of hearings overall.

Little Tokens

Angie: “The hardest part was stepping outside of my comfort zone to stand before the courts. I’m an introvert. This entire process and being on this team has helped me grow professionally and personally.”

Paul: “My favorite part was how quickly we made changes. You never see in government where you can just change something the next day.”

Kayla: “I have loved this whole thing. I was doing it by myself prior to the team. It has been amazing to see a team form, and now we are a well-oiled machine. It just goes, and it makes me think, what else can we fix!”

Tricia: “The most difficult part was beginning. I had to just dive in. It is nice being recognized for making these changes.

Robyn: “It has been invaluable to me as a supervisor to see the personal and professional growth, and I’m proud to work with this team. I think we met a huge need that has been there a long time.”

They told me you need to be able to get some things right, before moving on to the next project, and that is exactly what they are doing.

Team: “We have our process now, we have our standard work, and we’re building relationships along the way”.

When I asked them what’s next, the team said they all want to be Black Belts. As you get ready to join us for CPE this Thursday, I hope you are inspired by this group to dive in to your innovations. Come network with the many people in our city who are making us better than we were the day before. Introduce yourself to one of the many Green Belts who are also innovating in the city. Have Fun, and let’s celebrate innovation in the Mile High.

Co-authors: Tricia Cordova, Robyn Kelly, Angela Marant, Kayla Miller, and Paul Ruiz

Patrice Hawkins

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