In the second article, Adrien, a planning case manager, talks us through his experience of building on his lean training and the success of the first Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs) in his council to improve the end to end processes within the Planning department.

I recently completed the training programme on whole council transformation with Janet, which is run by RedQuadrant, and found that it inspired a lot of thoughts around how we could use this knowledge in our everyday work.

I was actually working on a project for the applications processing team at the same time, so I learnt about the theory of a RIE at the same time as I got to see one. I really liked getting everyone involved in the project into the room at the same time, although because it was such a broad area, it included ten teams, which felt a bit bulky. Retrospectively, I think the scope may have been too large, which is definitely a point to consider in future.

On the back of this, I’ve been given responsibility for reviewing the entire end to end process of how we deal with planning applications and identifying key improvements that will save time and/or money – a massive undertaking, and one that, after discussion with the RedQuadrant consultant supporting our learning, I’ve decided to tackle with a series of five RIEs so we don’t have the same problem as last time. To scope it out in advance of the RIEs, I’ve had individual meetings with service managers to allow them to come up with the sticking points they’re aware of within the process.

The first RIE focused on the consultation process. In the past, we’ve had a standard ‘consult with everyone’ policy, so notices of planning applications have gone out to conservation officers, highways officers, trees officers, environmental protection officers, sustainability officers and access officers, almost irrespective of whether or not they need to be consulted. Delays have then built up in the process as everyone’s opinions need to be collated and analysed by our planning officers; although staff consulted as part of the process are supposed to respond within 21 days, because they’ve had so many to address, our planning officers have been waiting for up to six weeks in some cases.

In the first instance, I’ve made the decision to only talk to the planning officers about the process, as the other teams that are notified of applications are often set in their ways and averse to change and I don’t want that to side-track the aim of the project. We also work with a partner organisation to deliver part of the service and I’m keen to ensure they are included and have input into the process.

Our planning officers saw that the teams that are regularly notified were becoming overloaded with applications that really didn’t affect them, but that, because there is no effective filtering process, they felt the need to respond to everything. The RIE achieved the aim of base-lining criteria lists as to when, why and to whom planning applications should go out for wider consultation – this might sound insignificant, but believe me, it’s not. We’ve never bottomed this out within Planning before and having such clear guidelines based on evidenced research is still relatively rare within the council.

The next stage was to present these back to the other teams that are regularly notified through their managers and encourage their feedback – and here we hit a snag, as some managers were on leave or couldn’t attend the initial sessions, so we have inadvertently made these teams feel unimportant to the process and pretty alienated.  It takes nearly two months to go through these new lists and encourage feedback. It’s taught me a really valuable lesson – we need to build in regular bulletins to both managers AND frontline staff throughout the RIE process, even though it takes extra time, so everyone knows what’s happening and feels able to contribute to the process.

Over the next five months, we continued rolling out the rest of the RIEs relating to the other areas of the process we planned to look at including validation, pre-applications and sign off/delegations. Doing them in this way, almost iteratively, proves to be really valuable to me in terms of my learning and by the end of the project, the whole RIE process feels much smoother as we’ve ironed out hitches earlier in the project.

The final area we look at in this project is an interesting one as it deals with the community infrastructure levy, which relates to a new piece of legislation that will affect certain planning applications and incur an additional levy. It’s unusual because there is no previous process to consider during the RIE – it’s less improvement of and more creation of a process that slots in seamlessly and efficiently to our existing processes. We operate on the same basis of getting everyone into a room and co-design the new guidelines around this legislation to determine how we will identify an application to which it applies and what we will do if the application does incur the levy.

Altogether, we spent about a week on this process, having broken out after the first day into smaller, more focused sessions. The approach is very new to the council – previously in this circumstance, it would have been more likely that a manager would have been informed about the legislation, would have designed a ‘bolt-on’ to the existing process and then emailed the notification around to the team who would have to get to grips with the new bolt-on individually.

As a council, this is still how we tend to operate, and the inevitable glitches aren’t picked up on until the frontline staff start to operate in the new way; we haven’t got the feedback mechanisms built into our processes to allow them to be consulted in the design stage. After the initial surprise at this new method, the staff took to the RIE style with gusto – we have a really good representative bunch and they feed back that they find it incredibly useful to be able to raise issues they can foresee early on in the process, before it’s implemented.

The participation, and the attitude towards this, is fantastic, but, unfortunately, the success of the RIE approach can’t quite make up for the short timeframes in this instance. Despite the council knowing this legislation was coming for the last two years, no planning took place as to how this would be dealt with until my appointment to this project, only four months prior to the legislation being enforced. To my knowledge, the only consideration of the levy in the past two years has been confined to lots of high-level briefings and strategy think-pieces – with little thought given to the practicalities of implementation, so there is no lead-in time to develop the necessary ICT that will support and embed the new process.

It’s a frustrating setback to a positive piece of work, but our initial training emphasised that the tools can only be as effective as the mindset of our organisation, and I think this has definitely been proved in this instance. It’s hard not to feel put off by these mindset challenges, but a colleague of mine has been working on a new project with the first group I completed an RIE with on consultations six months ago. She’s fed back to me that the group of officers and managers from the teams that used to receive blanket notifications of applications have moved from throwing up issues with no thought to solutions to now coming up with ideas and solutions in the same breath as issues and barriers to the project.

I’m fascinated by this apparent change, and when I sit in on one of her RIEs, I can see the difference in their attitude – whilst I wouldn’t go as far as saying they’re actively happy with the notion of their work changing, they seem to have realised that change is inevitable and it’s better to feed into the process and shape it rather than raise issues and let someone else work out the detail. I find this incredibly heartening – fingers crossed that this is a real step change that can be replicated across our organisation.