16_Ken Miller

Release Your Hostages

“We didn’t have customers, we had hostages,” says Ken Miller. “They didn’t choose us.” In two and a half years, Missouri’s Department of Revenue issued refunds 80% faster, cut wait times in DMV lines by 50%, and won the Missouri Quality Award.


Ken Miller
Director of performance improvement, State of Missouri
Jefferson City, Missouri


What needed an overhaul?
TURNING HOSTAGES INTO CUSTOMERS! When you think of the worst organizations in the world for customer satisfaction, what immediately comes to mind? I’ve asked hundreds of audiences that question and they always come up with the same two answers: the IRS and the DMV. So it was ironic that on the same day I joked about these organizations in a speech to a high-tech giant, I received a call from an old friend who had just been appointed Director of the Missouri Department of Revenue–the IRS and the DMV all rolled into one. He asked me, a Gen X change agent, to come on as his Deputy and transform this historically bureaucratic agency into a leader in customer satisfaction. His pitch to me was “it’s time to practice what you preach…if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”

What was the single biggest obstacle?
Besides the obvious obstacles to creating change in a large government bureaucracy: low paid employees, stifling laws and regulations, political agendas, and conflicting special interest groups, the greatest obstacle was getting people to believe that customer satisfaction mattered. We didn’t have customers, we had hostages. They didn’t choose us, they didn’t want to see us, and given the choice, they’d never come back. Like most non-competitive businesses, we had created a producer-centered culture focused on budgets, internal efficiencies, policies and procedures. The customers were at best a nuisance. The greatest challenge was to create a customer-centered culture where our language, measures, values and rewards were aligned with the voice of the customer.

How did you overcome it?
With a shared vision to “Simplify” our agency, and some unique customer satisfaction tools, we mobilized empowered teams to radically improve our key processes/systems (tax refunds, drivers licenses, car registrations, etc.) for the benefit of the customer. The teams spent extensive time being with, talking with and observing customers. For example we had a team observe a room full of taxpayers trying to complete their taxes. (The simulation was stopped after 30 minutes for fear of the staff’s safety). Senior management worked a day a month in DMV offices to learn the jobs, feel the customers’ experience, and pick the employees’ brains. Customers set our performance goals (tax refunds in less than a week, in and out of DMV offices in less than 15 minutes, etc.) and we used the ideas of teams, managers and every employee to meet them. Employee suggestions jumped from an average of 12 total ideas per year to over 1200. Extensive measurement was put in place to capture the cost of the burden placed on citizens. We knew how much time and money citizens were spending doing their taxes, standing in lines, accompanying their child to drivers’ license exams, etc. and we successfully implemented plans to cut those costs in half.

How have you seen results?
In just two and a half years, we:–got tax refunds to citizens 80% faster with little to no automation, at reduced cost. Other states spent between 25 and 75 million to automate their processes and are still weeks behind in performance;–Cut wait times in motor vehicle offices in half, getting everyone in and out in less than 15 minutes;–Cut the lifetime cost of citizens to get drivers licenses and motor vehicle registrations in half;–Moved 50% of tax filers off the difficult one-size-fits-all tax form to simpler, shorter, customized forms by market segment, and was one of the first states in the nation to introduce internet tax filing;–Became the only government organization to win the prestigious Missouri Quality Award, the state award for performance excellence modeled after the Malcolm Baldrige. Only three other government agencies in the country have won such an award. Our highest scores were in customer satisfaction;– Received countless letters from citizens about how friendly our employees were (not because we trained them to smile, but because we removed the impediments that prevented them from satisfying their customers.)