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The (Real) Lean Firefighter: Bringing Lean to the Grand Rapids Fire Department

by Brad Brown
November 7, 2017

The (Real) Lean Firefighter: Bringing Lean to the Grand Rapids Fire Department

by Brad Brown
November 7, 2017 | Comments (0)

Photo courtesy of http://grandrapidsfd.com

Brad Brown had no lean experience when he joined the Grand Rapids Fire Department (GRFD) in 2003. But as the Great Recession went into full swing and budgets were slashed, he discovered lean – and realized it was just what the GRFD needed to weather the recession. This is his story:

What was the current state of the Grand Rapids Fire Department when you started implementing lean?

I arrived at the GRFD in 2003, and before that I worked in the Greensboro Fire Department of North Carolina. The GFD was ranked in the top one percent of fire departments in the country, and when I came to Grand Rapids I found that they were doing things in a more “traditional” manner, if you will. It was at that moment that I realized that we had a lot of work to do.

So fast-forward several years – the city was really being pinched economically by the Great Recession, and our city reached out to local businesses and asked them, “Our requests are outstripping our resources, we can’t keep up with our budget, and our infrastructure is going through some serious issues – what should we do?” The fire department was no exception – our average fire station was 53 years old, our trucks were rusting out, our reserve fleet was holding on by a thread, and we were taking units in and out of service on a daily basis due to the inability to staff in a consistent manner.

So one of the local businesses referred you to lean?

That’s right. They told the city to consider pursuing it as a way of operations, the city considered the feedback and made a decision to bring in a consultant to do some value stream mapping in one division of the fire department. They saw some good results, and told the rest of the organization about it, and that’s what piqued my interest. A few years later the city brought in A3 thinking, and that’s when I got involved. I remember looking at my A3 (about stabilizing our response performance to the community) and thinking, “This is it. You can take any problem of any depth or magnitude, work it through this process and break it down until it’s easily understood and you have some strong qualitative and quantitative data to back it up.”

How did your colleagues react when you started introducing lean in the fire department?

It was to the tune of, “Oh this is just a Flavor-of-the-Month thing.” And they basically sheltered-in-place and waited for it to go away. The thing is, back then our approach was about doing lean TO people, rather than doing lean FOR people, and that sparked resistance. The city of Grand Rapids and the fire department were in a crisis state, and with our time constraints we had to make systemic changes in a rapid manner. That’s doing lean TO people, and it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. We didn’t take the time to educate people on WHY we were doing this and garner their input, which is a cornerstone of successful lean transformation. My job as a Lean Champion was to take these manufacturing principles and relate them back to an emergency services industry. It took some time, but we pulled eventually pulled it off.

What was one of your favorite lean improvements at the fire department?

It was a 30-year plan for managing our vehicle fleet. After we got our response times stabilized, the next thing we needed was fully functional apparatus [editor's note: an industry term for any vehicle customized for firefighting purposes]. We need trucks that we can actually drive down the road to help you, without us worrying that they’ll fall apart on us. And we were at a point where our fleet was literally crumbling and we were running out of apparatus on a daily basis. We formed an Apparatus Committee and brought in Labor along with myself who served as the lean coach. We went through the A3 process together, trying to figure out an economical way to solve our apparatus problem.

Over several months we went back and forth with the city and the Chief Financial Officer to problem solve and gain others’ input.  Finally, after about 25 revisions, we approached the City Commission with our final A3, in which we asked for $4.3 million. Now that’s a huge ask for a city facing a budget crunch – BUT we had included all the data to show the Commission that our proposed countermeasures would save over $23 million over the next 20 years. And they approved it on the spot.

Those are some serious savings! What did those countermeasures involve?

Well, with that initial investment of $4.3 million we were going to buy new apparatus up front. We used to “bond out” our apparatus, which is basically the same as a car loan – you finance it and make a monthly payment plus interest. But the interest on that method adds up fast when the trucks you’re financing cost millions of dollars and take 10 to 15 years to pay off. So we switched to buying the apparatus in cash and we refurbished several of our older apparatus, essentially doing a frame off restoration at about half the cost of buying new.

How has it worked out so far?

Terrific! We’re on Year 4 of the plan, we've received several new and several refurbished apparatus, and at this point we’re just actively managing the plan. Labor is happy because they have working rigs to do their job and they also had a say in the types of trucks we were buying. It was just a really great process for bringing everyone together. Up until his recent retirement our CFO had our 30-year apparatus plan hanging in his office – he said it was one of the best strategic financial pieces of work the city has done.

Overall, what cost savings are you seeing?

Our economy in western Michigan is booming thanks to the work of many people in this city. We’re no longer in cost-cutting mode; we’re in a strategic-investment mode at this point. Lean has already helped us save millions of dollars over several years; now we’re looking into how we can use it to help improve the system and make smart investments. 

Another one of my favorite improvements I can’t put a dollar value on, but the intangibles are just through the roof. We call it a Managing for Daily Improvement (MDI) system – it’s like hoshin kanri, but we take it to the next level with our daily management systems and structure. The fire department has daily huddles within work groups, daily Skype meetings with the entire fire department, and weekly management walks where we walk along a hallway filled with metrics on whiteboards to discuss our performance, what we have learned and/or adjusted, and ask for help. This has resulted in greater employee engagement, increased transparency between administration and suppression (management and shop floor), and greater strategic alignment through communicating in a clear and explicit manner our focus for the day/week/month/quarter, and adjusting our resource allocation to support goal attainment.

The city is adopting some of these practices as well, with numerous city departments attending our huddles to learn the methods to take back to their own division. In addition, we have outside groups on a frequent basis touring our facilities and participating in the huddles. It’s pretty cool to think that a government agency can positively influence the management practices of multiple industries in the Grand Rapids area. Aligning everyone on our strategic direction and objectives is even more important to the fire service than saving $20 million on fire trucks.

What are you most looking forward to sharing at the 2018 Lean Transformation Summit?

I’m most excited to share the work of this great city and the positive impact that adopting lean has had on our operations and most importantly our people. We had a new fire chief come into our organization approximately 18 months ago, where the chief had very little lean or continuous improvement experience in his previous place of employment. After six months of him assessing our current state he called me into his office and said, “I’m not changing a thing. I believe in lean and I want you to take it to the next level.” To have a fire chief several levels above me come in and within a few months choose to adopt a strategy that he knew nothing about just speaks volumes about the power of what we have going on here. I’m humbled to lead this effort because at our fire department, lean truly does impact the citizens we serve on a daily basis. 

Editor's Note: Learn more about the GRFD's lean journey in Brad Brown's Learning Session at the 2018 Lean Transformation Summit, to be held March 26-27 in Nashville. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  A3,  government,  problem solving
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