3 Steps to Redesign Your System When Layoffs Loom

“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose your own.” – Harry S. Truman

This quote from the thirty-third president of the United States, some 70 years ago, is never more relevant than today. While we’re not in a depression, there’s certainly enough downsizing of departments and positions left vacant in municipal offices across the country to indicate that we’re facing a recession.

Just look around. And, if it’s not already happening in your organization, things will get worse before they get better. Remember the definition of an economic recession from our last CitySpeak episode?

So, how do we deal with this? When serious layoffs start in your department, you could fight it or you could plan for it. This is the time when we have to be excited. Consider why you come to work each day and who your customer is. Think of your municipal office as a business and plan to work smarter – not just harder. These are the very times that we have to be on our toes! When you’re in a position of leadership, it’s important to take control and work together with other leaders across the organization. Step up and lead by example and you’ll inspire leadership qualities in others.

Whether you’re a director, manager or executive in City government, you’ve got to have a plan for layoffs. There’s no way when 50, 60, 70 or 80 percent of our budgets are devoted to personnel and personnel costs, that some positions aren’t going to be cut. Understand that your department is going to face downsizing, so be proactive and put a plan in place. The first question you should ask yourself is: Who are my customers? Realize that you have both internal and external clients. For example, if you’re in a City Manager’s office, don’t forget that your customers are not just citizens in the community. They’re all the employees in every municipal department as well.

The next question is: What are my customer’s needs? Keep in mind that your customer is also being affected by the economic downturn. It’s important here to consider what your customer’s wants are and make a clear distinction between needs and wants. With fewer staff, you must focus first on meeting the needs of your customers and then address their wants, if you have sufficient staff time. For instance, the City Manager may have a City Council that doesn’t understand that after the budget is adopted, they cannot be adding pet projects, or addressing every concern of constituents. The City Manager has the tough job of educating the City Council on the budget and staff constraints once the new year’s budget is approved. This is especially difficult during a recession when spending has to be reduced.

It’s critical that your department supports the City Manager to do their job by adapting to budget changes. While everyone needs time to take in what’s coming, complaining is counterproductive. Instead, take a confident and positive approach by reimagining and reengineering your department. Build synergy and come up with the best ideas by involving your whole team in the decision making. You can do this! Being proactive is the best way to weather the crisis. No matter if you’re a City Manager or engineer, or a director of finance, H.R., community development, housing, public works or the library, whatever you do, keep it together and generate excitement for the task to lead your staff forward. Your employees are depending on you to guide them. Showing confidence that you can deliver on what’s expected of you as a team is crucial.

The key to reengineering your department is developing and implementing a system to do more with less and still deliver an acceptable level of customer service. There are three distinct steps to achieve this ─ create the system you need, sell it to get buy in and teach it to others so that they’re well trained. Read on to find out how to: Create it! Sell It! Teach it!

Create the system
Let’s start by looking at what a system is. Basically, it’s a network of procedures that are integrated and designed to carry out an activity or service. Would it surprise you to know that 80% (or more) of what you do in your department is repetitive and performed out of habit? That means that 20% of what you do requires thinking and a level of judgement. This is where your team really shines!

A streamlined system will permit you to continue with an appropriate level of service to all customers during this crisis and help your department navigate its way through the recession. Be mindful that customer service is what you’re here to do. Each customer, whether an internal staff member from another department or an external community resident, business or another stakeholder, deserves your full attention.

Therefore, identify your customer and learn both their needs and wants. Take a look at the org chart for your municipality and remember that the real City boss is actually the constituents. Appreciate that it’s the citizens who elect the mayor and City council. In turn, the council usually hires only two employees ─ the City Attorney and City Manager. Everybody else is hired by the City Manager.

To create the system that you need to continue to deliver necessary services during a recession, spend a day or two with your department staff. Inventory your existing system. Review your policies. Look at your procedures, forms, checklists, diagrams and flowcharts. Then, make a list of the services your department delivers to its customers. Examine the system you have to remind you of who, what, when, where, why, and how you deliver every single customer service item you provide. Eliminate any tasks, procedures and processes that add zero value and aren’t required by government regulations and professional standards. This covers activities your department is doing that aren’t part of your core responsibility and may, in fact, be the mandate of another department. If needed, you could bring a consultant on board.

With this analysis, you can proceed to design a system that allows you to effectively carry out department business and do more with less. By creating a solid well-functioning system for everything you do, you can be much less concerned about the impact of staff turnover and new hires learning their roles. It’s a fact of life that employees come and go, so you want a systems-dependent department, not a people-dependent one. Lastly, recording videos and podcasts of everything your department does will assist to answer customer questions and save your staff even more precious time.

Sell the system
Now you’re ready for the second step ─ selling the system! Hopefully, your team is already committed to the new system, especially if they’ve had a hand in developing it. Before you begin to sell in to anyone outside your department, be sure that you have the full support of your department staff. You don’t want anyone to undermine what you’re doing and risk the project you’ve put so much work and effort into going off the rails. Make sure there’s no internal conflict that you need to be aware of, like jealousy if one staff had a starring role in the department video and others didn’t. Although it’s your decision in the end as department head, do all you can to address any lingering concerns up front with your employees and bring everyone on board with the plan to implement the new system. Frank and open discussions are helpful and every person needs to have a chance to air their opinions. Some people just adjust more readily to change than others.

With your team onboard, you can proceed to get buy-in from your boss, governing body and other stakeholders. Write out your COVID-19 Recession Reorganization Plan, or call it whatever catchy name you want, but be proactive and develop a detailed plan for your City Manager or other superior whose approval you require. After the City Manager approves, take the plan next to the department head group, then to the City council and other interested parties.

Your system should rely on whatever ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system or database software your department is already using. Why is this so essential? This is not the time to be asking to spend money on new software. Even if your current database is not easy to work with, clean it up by purging old records and starting over again, if you have to. This is a strategic decision that you need to initially discuss with your staff so that you have their understanding and readiness for the work involved before you present it to your supervisor. Plus, get rid of any Excel or Word spreadsheets that have been used to capture data. The goal is to use whatever ERP and database application you have and automate and systematize.

Don’t forget to keep communicating with your staff and engaging with them along the way. Let them know where you are in the process of earning support from your supervisor and others. This is all part of change management ─ the most important leadership skill that you can use to create and implement the new system. It takes a champion with leadership and determination to bring about change. This is your role as the department head. You can do this! Your customers, staff and stakeholders are counting on you.

Teach the system
Clear and comprehensive training about the system will help ensure its success. This is the third step in the process. Your employees and other departments require training on the standard operating procedures. Your policies need to be transparent and you must be accountable to them. This is what you need to commit to when you’re audited, therefore no matter what level of training your staff have had in the past, you must be sure that they are trained well in the new system.

You may find that some departments might try to get around your new policies and procedures. This could be a way of doing business that they’re not ready to accept or don’t fully comprehend. This is where good training is invaluable. Display the benefits of the system, like how quickly it will allow your team to produce reports that other departments my rely on or how quickly invoices can be processed. Make your examples relevant to the collaborative relationship you have with other departments. In addition, you should be doing training and retraining on an ongoing basis, just to achieve compliance with your existing procedures.

Launching a new system is an opportunity for you to reacquaint yourself with your customers and a reminder that they are both external citizens and stakeholders and internal municipal staff in other departments. Positive customer relations are what you want to achieve and sustain, so take the time to orient them properly to your new way of doing business and answer any questions they have. The customer is not always right, but it is your job to make them feel they are!

Remember those videos and podcasts you made? They’re not just for training your staff and orienting new employees. Make use of them for everyone who can benefit from understanding your system better by putting them on the City website, for example.

Your City Manager and other supervisors will be focused on solutions. This is where you can impress with your ability to be forward-thinking and develop a system that will allow you to continue to provide an acceptable level of customer service, despite downsizing. Do your best to sell your system to your boss, customers and all stakeholders by appealing to their concerns and showing how you can meet their requirements.

A redesigned system will permit your department to survive and thrive during the COVID-19 recession while maintaining customer service standards. You and your team will be better equipped to navigate through this crisis, taking pride in their work. That’s what public service is all about ─ providing solutions to meet community needs!

To listen to the CitySpeak audio podcast or video blog related to this article, click here: CitySpeak

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