"You have to keep challenging yourself"

A LeanOhio interview with Tom Melfo
Assistant Deputy Director, Division of Disability • Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities

Tom has been with OOD (formerly the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission) since 1992. He oversees Medical Operations, Case Control, the Customer Service Unit, Clerical Support, and the Mail Room. An experienced Black Belt who completed his training in July 2012, Tom works with process improvement initiatives and helps coach the agency’s many Yellow Belts, Camo Belts, and Green Belts.

How and why did you get involved in Lean Six Sigma?
I was in a Kaizen event as a fresh perspective – it was one of the earlier Kaizen events in state government in Ohio. I found out that there were seats still available in the first Black Belt training class, and I was invited to be in it. It was initially a bit intimidating.

What was your Black Belt project?
My project focused on the payment process for our medical contractors. There was a paper time slip reporting process that had 28 potential failure points on each slip. It took 6 ½ to 8 hours for the department secretary to enter the data each pay period. It was a very error-prone process and required a great deal of internal audits and rework. We designed an electronic reporting system and poka-yoked it extensively. In the end we devised an elegant, simple, and straightforward process. The daily process now takes about 6 minutes to complete with very little opportunity for error!

Aside from your Black Belt project, what one Lean Six Sigma project or application are you most proud of?
What I think is more important is that we use our Lean Six Sigma tools on a regular basis to maintain a good caseload distribution. We use data to project resource allocation, and we serve customers faster and better. Also, we’re taking advantage of some open space in our building to create an “improvement room” at OOD. It’s a physical space that will support us in using the tools and becoming more adept at using the methodology.

What has been your biggest challenge when it comes to Lean?
Much of the agency has embraced “thinking differently about things,” but there continue to be pockets of skepticism. The Yellow belt training Meghan Altier helped develop for us, and the support she gave us to train ourselves, is helping people to understand the methodology and the language. The language of Lean Six Sigma can initially be challenging, so this helps take the mystery out of it and create a common understanding.

What has been the most important lesson you‘ve learned about implementing Lean Six Sigma in your organization?
You can’t be too quick to determine where the most valuable contribution will come from. You have to maintain your objectivity and self-awareness of your own biases, which might cause you to miss things. Challenging a group to think differently is important, but you have to keep challenging yourself as well. Introducing change is not the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Like most new habits, embedding sound methodical measurements are necessary to keep it going. People need to understand that the initial changes – from a Kaizen event, for example, or a Belt project – are just the beginning of continuous improvement. Having good measures in place and using those measures to constantly evaluate the process and identify opportunities to improve are even more important.

If you were the Czar of Lean in Ohio state government, what one thing would you do?
I really believe Lean is on the right track. I like the Connectors approach, and your website is one of the most helpful out there. You’ve made DAS popular again.

What advice do you have for newly minted Green Belts and Black Belts?
We all need to continue to learn. If you aren’t learning constantly, you’re probably getting rusty. Tap into your potential. It’s one of the reasons I like to help teach the new classes -- it keeps me fresh.

What’s one interesting thing about you that your Lean colleagues don’t know?
I’m a huge history buff – world history, American history, Civil War history. It sounds corny, but understanding why things happened in the past gives you a pretty good idea about why things are happening now.”

Interviewed by Racquel Graham • September 2015

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