Len Davis, who left the Army in 1969 after his second tour of duty in Vietnam, had never had much luck with the old Veterans Administration.
Over the years, he lived in different parts of the country, but his experiences varied little. Whether buying a house, seeking medical care, or just awaiting his benefit check, he never dealt with the same person twice. Each time he called, or each time his call was transferred among VA employees, he had to tell his story again.
Employees of what's now the Veterans Affairs Department were no happier. In trying to help veterans, each toiled in anonymity, performing a task in classic assembly-line fashion, little different from how each worker toiled in Henry Ford's car factory of the 1920s. One opened the mail; another distributed it; another took applications from veterans. What nobody did was ensure that veterans received start-to-finish satisfaction.
Then Davis moved to New York City, where the VA's regional office of 360 employees had launched a major effort to focus on its customers--1.2 million veterans in 31 New York State counties -- and revamp its operations accordingly. It was an eye-opening experience for managers and employees alike.
"We started looking at what we were doing in the regional office with the intention of trying to make things better," Joe Thompson, the office director, told Vice President Gore in March. "We stepped back away from what we were doing and said, you know, what are the difficulties that we have, and we narrowed it down to two things: The results of our efforts frequently frustrated if not angered our customers, and the processes that we used in the office to do business sucked the life out of our own employees.
"Other than that," he added with a smile, "everything was going pretty good."
Employees visited VA hospitals and held focus groups with veterans who described their problems in dealing with the office. The employees also visited such well-regarded businesses as AT&T, IBM, and Metropolitan Life to learn how they satisfy their customers. They then met in small groups to design a new process from scratch.
In that process, small teams of employees each work with a small number of veterans from start to finish. One person serves as a contact point for a veteran, who no longer must tell his or her story again and again. Overall, the New York office has greatly streamlined its operations, giving veterans better service in less time. It has reduced its backlog of pending cases by well over a third, cut the steps in claims processing from 25 to eight, shrunk the time veterans must wait to see a counselor from 30 minutes to three, and cut processing costs.
Veterans are happier. Reflecting on his first experience in New York, Davis said,
I got on the phone, they transferred me. . . to a lady who turned out to be very helpful to me . . . Therese Aprile. Therese told me that she'd be my contact person, I could get back in touch with her, that any questions I had, I could get to her, and I thought, "Something strange and different's going on here," "cause I'd never had that experience with the VA.
The employees also are happier. As Gail Noble, a case technician, put it, "The satisfaction is [in] greeting the veterans, actually seeing first-hand these men and women who served this country so that we all would be here. . . . Now, I actually can talk to them, make them laugh, give them a friendly gesture, and they leave very happy."
Not surprisingly, Vice President Gore traveled to the VA in March to give its New York employees the first of his "hammer awards"--$6 hammers wrapped in ribbons and mounted on plaques that read, "Thanks for building a government that works better and costs less." In the best spirit of the National Performance Review's report, From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government that Works Better and Costs Less, the New York office put its customers first, empowered employees, cut red tape, and reduced costs.
Return to Table of