In Washington state’s King County, it used to take a taxi driver two months to get a license renewal.

Now it takes five days.

An employee reclassification process was also whittled down recently from four years to four months.

The process is called “Lean,” a Japanese management concept also adopted by American companies like Boeing that essentially puts workers in charge of designing workflow to increase efficiency.

It became a reality in King County after a tight primary election in 2009 that pitted a liberal Democrat, Dow Constantine, against a retired Boeing executive, Fred Jarrett, who is a Republican turned Democrat.

When Constantine won the general election for the County CEO job, he brought on Jarrett to institute Lean.

It is a step that some in government and labor circles say is bold and others say is drastic. Constantine and Jarrett call it a necessary re-engineering of government based on stark budget realities that aren’t going away.

“The real issue is we have to change how we do government. And if we don’t, well, continue to shrink,” Jarrett said.

The King County leaders say that so far Lean is working in their bureaucracy and that union members, who showed great skepticism at first, have embraced the program.

So could something like this work in Orange County, which has been one of the hot spots in the nationwide war between Republicans and public sector unions?

At first blush, such a concept doesn’t look like an easy sell in a place where battles over executive pay in county government and outsourcing in Costa Mesa made national headlines this year.

But Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, figures it’s worth a closer look — especially given that 2012 will be the Super Bowl of labor negotiations in Orange County. Contracts for all three major unions in county government — OCEA, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs and the Orange County Managers Association— are up for renewal.

“It may be a way for us to bridge what has come down to all-out war,” Berardino said. “With concepts like Lean, we flourish, as well as the government and taxpayers.”

So earlier this month, Berardino led a delegation of county leaders to Kings County to spend the day with leaders there and see firsthand how labor and management are working together in new ways.

County government CEO Tom Mauk said he’s interested in exploring the Lean program despite the occasional fireworks in recent years with Orange County labor leaders.

“All the feedback is positive,” Mauk said. “I liked what I read, and although the Lean concept was designed for a manufacturing system, King County is showing us that it can be adapted to government.”

How Lean Works in King County

In the simplest terms, Jarrett explains Lean as a way to turn management over to the workers. “The people who do the work are the people that know how to do the work,” he said.

Jarrett has teams of workers take a week to actually stop and ask themselves what is the product being delivered to customers, whether it’s jails, bus service or immunizations.

They chart on large poster boards exactly how those products — taxi licenses, for example — are produced, then examine ways of making them more efficient. After developing implementation plans over the next 90 days, the new “product” is unveiled.

“We want to focus on what we’re delivering to the customer,” Jarrett said. County government departments are now working on business plans for every line of government service delivery, he said.

“The power of seeing it is really transformational,” said Michael Jacobson, deputy director of the King County Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget.

Yet, Jacobson said, the process isn’t easy. Labor groups were initially skeptical, fearing that they were being set up for layoffs.

“This kind of project connotes fear,” he said. “It taps into people’s greatest fears about who they are, what they do … at least initially.”

Lorraine Patterson, who heads the King County Records and Licensing Division and oversaw the change in taxi licenses, told the Orange County delegation that the Lean process brought the best out in rank-and-file employees that have seen the tough side of lean budgets in the recent past.

“They’ve watched layoffs and friends walk out. … There’s not a lot of engagement with this group,” Patterson said.

Yet engaging employees about how to improve their workflows brought out the best in them, she said. “They’re really excited to make changes themselves.”

Paul Yung, a worker who was laid off in 2009 but brought back to the licensing department the same year, said the process was cathartic because it “wasn’t about eliminating positions, it was about streamlining work.”

Can It Work in Orange County?

Whether such a catharsis could happen in Orange County, depends on who you talk to.

Both Berardino and Mauk say they are interested in exploring the concept further, even though it is fraught with risks. Others, such as the Republican leaders in Costa Mesa, are far less optimistic.

“With the Lean program, the unions have to move so far from what they traditionally have done,” Berardino said. “It’s never been done before in California. … It’s a corporate business model.”

Mauk and Berardino have already gone where few CEOs and labor leaders have ventured. They have worked on deals to reduce $1 billion in retiree medical benefits as well as introducing new pension tiers.

But something like Lean would take them into entirely new territory.

“It’s piqued enough interest,” Mauk said. “We might pick a couple of pilot areas to go to the board. We still need to try new things to keep the organization energized, so we’ll take a look at this and see.”

But trust between Berardino and Mauk — the kind that would allow them to take such a risk together — doesn’t exist in other corners of Orange County.

When Supervisor Janet Nguyen returned from the trip, she highly recommended the approach to her colleagues at the next county supervisors meeting.

Yet when she was in Washington, Nguyen also noted that the way the board of supervisors is constituted in Orange County doesn’t exactly call for universal support for government programs.

She notes that some supervisors like herself represent districts with high needs for human services. Other areas don’t, and they don’t often care to become involved with the specifics of service delivery, she said.

She also noted that much of local government is geared toward one goal. “A balanced budget is what the public wants,” she said.

And in Costa Mesa, the City Council’s Republican majority views organized labor and the very process of collective bargaining as the main menaces to a balanced budget.

“The clear path now doesn’t involve working with Nick [Berardino],” said Costa Mesa Councilman Steven Mensinger.

Instead of getting more efficiency out of public employees, council members like Jim Righeimer want to explore replacing them with private-sector contracts because they offer more direct control to elected leaders.

“My ideal city is a city that has great service with the lowest amount of people,” Mensinger said.

“I don’t appreciate all the tactics the union uses against electeds, but I applaud any effort to deliver better services at a competitive price. … None of us need the acrimony.”

And despite the acrimony of the past year, Mensinger said he too likes the idea of Lean at the local level. “That’s natural. Why wouldn’t you do that from the beginning.”

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.