The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced the creation of an Office of Continuous Improvement to implement a lean management system. It’s part of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s effort to make the EPA—a government agency known for its expansive reach—work more efficiently on behalf of American taxpayers.
EPA Chief of Operations Henry Darwin spoke exclusively to The Daily Signal about the new office and the work that its director, Serena McIlwain, would be doing. A lightly edited transcript of the interview is below.
Rob Bluey: Administrator Scott Pruitt recently announced a new Office of Continuous Improvement at the EPA. Can you tell us what it’s going to do and why it matters?
Henry Darwin: The Office of Continuous Improvement is a group of EPA staff that will be helping me, as the chief of operations, deploy a new management system based upon lean principles. Initially, the vast majority of their time will be spent on deploying the new system, but over time, their time will be spent more so on performing problem solving and process improvements as we identify opportunities under the new management system.
Bluey: Let’s take a step back. What is lean management and how exactly are you applying it at EPA?
Darwin: Lean management is a system that is specifically designed to help identify opportunities for improvement and then to monitor performance to see whether or not there are additional opportunities for improvement. And also to make sure that, as we make improvements, that they’re sustained over time.
Typically what happens with most lean organizations, or organizations who say they’re lean, is they do a series of projects that result in theoretical process improvements. Without a system that is specifically designed to make sure that those processes do in fact improve and that there’s measurement in place to make sure that those processes improve, it’s often the case that those projects are not as successful as they would have otherwise been, had there been a system in place to support them.
Bluey: So how would you say that this is making the EPA operate more efficiently?
Darwin: EPA has a long history of using lean to improve processes. What it was lacking, and what we’re trying to implement for the first time, is a system that helps us identify strategic opportunities for us to use lean to improve our processes.
So whereas the previous administration merely asked or required the programs to perform lean events, we’re actually setting very strategic goals and objectives with high targets and we’re asking the programs and regional offices to meet those targets using lean. And then through the management system, we’re monitoring whether or not those improvements are actually occurring.
If they’re not, then we have the group of people now, the Office of Continuous Improvement, that can come in and analyze as to why those improvements aren’t happening or if there’s additional process improvements using lean that are needed in order to get them to where we want them to be as the administrator that sets forth goals and objectives for the agency.
Bluey: Under the Trump administration, you’ve made it a priority to track permitting, meeting legal deadlines, and correcting environmental violations. What did you find when you first took the job and how have things changed since then?
Darwin: The EPA has a history of measuring very long-term outcomes—outcomes that aren’t measurable on a regular basis. And what they had failed to do and what we’re starting to do is to measure those things that we can measure on a more frequent basis, those things that are important to our customers.
“Just like businesses have investors, we have investors. And our investors expect a return on their investment, which is clean air, clean land, clean water, and safe chemicals.”
Now, there are a lot of people out there that suggest we shouldn’t be calling those who we regulate our customers, but I’m not one of them. I believe that we do and should recognize our regulated community as our customers so we can apply business-related principles to our work.
With that said, we always have to remember that we have investors. Just like businesses have investors, we have investors. And our investors expect a return on their investment, which is clean air, clean land, clean water, and safe chemicals.
We always have to be mindful of the fact that even though we want to be paying attention to our customers’ needs as they get permits or licenses, or we’re working with them to achieve compliance, we also have to remember that our taxpayer investors expect a return on our investment. So we also have to be measuring those outcomes, those mission-related outcome measures, related to clean air, clean land, and safe chemicals.
Bluey: Let’s take permitting, for example. I know it’s something that Administrator Pruitt has talked about. He says that he wants to get permitting down to a certain period of time because in past administrations there was an indefinite period where people just didn’t get an answer, a yes or a no. He wants you to be able to say yes or no. What are some of the goals that you’re trying to do with regard to permitting specifically?
Darwin: When we arrived here in this administration, what we found was that we had heard anecdotally, from our customers, that the permitting process was simply taking too long.
What we also found was that the EPA did not have a system for tracking the amount of time it took to issue permits. So we simply went to the programs that issue permits and asked them for the last six months, how long was it taking for us to issue permits? And what we found was fairly surprising, that in some areas they were as long as three years to issue permits, which is simply unacceptable.
In having conversations with the administrator and talking about what a reasonable target or goal would be initially we agreed, he set the standard, or the goal, for issuing permits within six months. So that’s our goal.
Our goal is to, for every permit that’s directly issued by EPA, our goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes from whatever it is right now, which could be upwards of three years, down to six months.
Bluey: In an interview with The Daily Signal, Administrator Pruitt spoke about what you’re doing as the Darwin Effect, named after you. How did you come to embrace these management principles in your line of work?
Darwin: I’m a lifelong environmental professional. I have 18 years of experience working for a state environmental agency. I became the director of that state environmental agency in Arizona about seven years ago and was the director there for five years. Over the course of my experience there, I found an appreciation for lean and a system that could support lean efforts.
We were able to, in my agency, reduce permitting timeframes on the order of 70 percent, 80 percent, and in some instances, 90 percent using lean principles and as supported by a lean management system. I, after that experience, was asked by the governor of Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, to do the same lean management system deployment for the entire state.
Over the course of two years, I was in the process of deploying a lean management system in 35 state agencies with 35,000 employees and we were seeing the same types of results. They continue to see those same types of results in Arizona using the same business processes and principles.
Bluey: Like Administrator Pruitt, who was prior to his appointment the attorney general of Oklahoma, you come from state government as well. How would you say that experience, both working in the environmental field and then working as Arizona’s chief of operations, prepared you for the job that you’re doing today?
Darwin: I hope that it did prepare me. But there are some significant differences between state government and the federal government. The federal government, rightly or wrongly so, is a much bigger bureaucracy. So the efforts that we had been undertaking at the state level, although not impossible, is actually more difficult now that we’re here doing this work at the federal level. But with that said, it’s more rewarding.
The zone of influence, or the impact that we are making here, it’s to the benefit of not just a single state but the entire country. So even though it may be more difficult, it’s more rewarding. And I can’t think of a better place to be right now.
Bluey: Can you talk about the reaction to the Office of Continuous Improvement within the agency? And also the lean management system.
Darwin: I’m very fortunate in the fact that before I arrived there was a pretty strong appreciation for what lean could be. With that said, EPA had not found a way of making lean all it could be.
I received a lot of support internally for this idea of bringing a system to EPA that could be used to realize, and bring to life, a lot of those improvement ideas that had been identified under previous administrations.
This is as much about carrying forward the work that had been done previously and bringing discipline to actually executing on the plans and the improvements that had been identified but not necessarily followed through on from previous administrations. It has received a lot of positive feedback, a lot of energy and positive energy around the work that we’re here to do.
Bluey: Who are you going to have directing the new office?
Darwin: The director of the Office of Continuous Improvement is a woman named Serena McIlwain. She comes most recently from a region in San Francisco, Region 9. She has a lot of experience, not only at EPA but also in the federal government. So she can help me navigate some of those bureaucracies.
She was the person at EPA who was probably the biggest proponent of lean. She was actually teaching lean tools and principles from Region 9 to the entire agency. She’s been a fantastic fit so far and I know that she’s going to do a great job.
Bluey: As a conservative, I have to ask this because any time government is creating a new office, you might have Americans out there who are skeptical and believe in smaller government. What’s your message to those who say, “How is this going to improve performance and not create more bureaucracy?”
Darwin: As a conservative myself, I would share those concerns or sentiments. What I will say is that even though this is a new office, this is not new employees.
We have not grown the size of the EPA. Those who are performing this work were already EPA employees. We have pulled these staff members and managers from within the agency, so we’re just redirecting them to what I believe to be higher value or more value-added work.
Instead of focusing their efforts on performing lean projects that had questionable or limited results, we’re focusing them on areas where we actually will see results. So they’re actually providing higher value, not only to the EPA but our taxpayer investors.
Bluey: And finally—I’ve posed this question to Administrator Pruitt as well—how do you ensure that the changes you’re making at EPA today last many, many years into the future?
Darwin: A lot of it is institutionalizing the work that I’m doing. And not to get too technical, but there are methods and means by which we can institutionalize the work.
It’s really connected back to your question about pulling people from within the agency. We’re not bringing in a bunch of new people, we’re not bringing in a bunch of consultants to do this work. We’re trying to learn from within EPA. We’re trying to use career staff that have a lot of experience at EPA and have a lot of influence at EPA in order to manage the office, in order to lead the office, but also to staff the office.
Because we want them to believe in the new system, we want them to carry this forward beyond our existence here.
Bluey: Henry, thanks so much for taking the time to speak to The Daily Signal.
Darwin: Thank you.