EPA Tweaks Internal Management System That Caused Worker Gripes

Dec. 8, 2021, 4:55 PM

The EPA is taking steps to loosen the strictures of its internal management system, making it more workable and practical, according to an email from Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe.

The changes could appease Environmental Protection Agency employees who have called the EPA Lean Management System a burdensome process that’s far better suited to a production environment than policy work.

The new guidance aims to “increase flexibilities” to ensure the system can be used by agency offices “when and how it meets their needs,” McCabe said in Tuesday’s internal email, which was reviewed by Bloomberg Law. The EPA remains committed to the concept of continuous improvement process, she wrote.

The lean management system is a set of activities across more than 800 metrics designed to find and fix workflow problems, based on management principles used in the private sector. The EPA has had a continuous improvement system in place since 2001, but the Trump administration heavily championed the use of ELMS.

The changes are the result of a review process that unfolded over roughly the past six months, McCabe said in her email.

No Set Percentage

“We think ELMS is a waste of time designed to take EPA employees’ time away from the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” Nicole Cantello, an EPA attorney in Region 5 and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, told Bloomberg Law in 2020.

Under the new guidance, senior leaders no longer will have to strive to improve the performance of a given project by a set percentage. Instead they’ll be asked to aim for “a reasonable, measurable improvement appropriate to the project,” according to a three-page summary of the changes on an internal EPA website.

Groups that don’t find value in tracking employees’ ideas, and would rather track engagement between management and staff in a different way, may be allowed to do so, according to the guidance.

The EPA is also taking aim at processes that some employees have disdained.

Teams will now be encouraged to gather “at the cadence appropriate for the process or project,” and business reviews should happen monthly or at least quarterly. The Trump administration urged weekly huddles for employees to discuss problems and possible solutions, according to agency staffers.

Work groups must still use visual tools to identify issues and increase transparency with stakeholders, but “are encouraged to determine what tools works best for them.” Several EPA employees have said the use of wall-mounted boards to measure their team’s progress toward a goal doesn’t help the agency reach its goals of protecting human health and the environment.

Improvements Cited

Henry Darwin—the EPA’s then-assistant deputy administrator and the chief champion of lean management—told Bloomberg Law in March 2020 that the system had led to many improvements.

He pointed to a drop in the funding time of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants program from 34 days to 14, a streamlining of the Superfund cost recovery process from 30 days to five, and a reduction in the number of bad links on the agency’s website from some13,000 to fewer than 2,000.

“My reason for being here is to make EPA a better-run organization, regardless of policies of the administration in charge,” said Darwin, who rolled out a similar system when he was Arizona’s chief of operations.

Darwin also said criticisms from employees may have stemmed from teams focusing on the wrong goals.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com

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