EPA's Scott Pruitt at podium Copyright Aaron P. Bernstein, Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

Pruitt's EPA Turns to 'Lean Manufacturing' to Speed Up Reviews

The agency is in discussions about entering into a contract with Toyota Motor's management spinoff to help it accomplish its goals.

President Donald Trump’s bid to speed up regulatory approvals is relying on a "lean manufacturing" approach inspired by Toyota Motor Corp.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of operations has a long history of implementing Toyota’s concept, which focuses on labor-management dialogue to curb defects and cut delays. The agency is in discussions about entering into a contract with Toyota’s management spinoff to help it accomplish its goals.

"It’s not about policy. It’s not about specific decisions," Henry Darwin, the EPA operations chief, said in an interview. It’s "about the process that we use in order to basically eliminate waste and maximize customer value."

Before joining the EPA, Darwin had a 20-year career in Arizona where he served as director of the Department of Environmental Quality and then as chief of operations. He led development of the state’s management strategy for Governor Doug Ducey before leaving at the end of June.

Still, overhauling how the agency works may face difficulties at the EPA where many members of the 15,000 workforce have bristled under the leadership of Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt. This year EPA ranked 22nd out of 23 midsize federal agencies in how its employees rate the effectiveness of its senior leaders, according to a survey by the Partnership for Public Service.

EPA is a sprawling organization, offering everything from advice on eradicating bedbugs to state-by-state data showing the first frost of autumn comes later than it ever has historically. Pruitt, who sued the agency a number of times while attorney general of Oklahoma, came into the agency pledging to scale-back its reach, leave more rulemaking and enforcement to states and get "back to basics." Critics, including Democrats in Congress, have said he’s too cozy with the industries he’s supposed to regulate and wondered about the need for a $25,000 soundproof " privacy booth."

Pruitt dropped Darwin’s name this month at a congressional oversight hearing when explaining that the agency is "actually partnering with Toyota to begin a ‘lean’ process at the agency to evaluate management practices."

“The agency for many years ― and this is something I found surprising ― has not measured outcomes consistently,” he added.

Toyota introduced lean manufacturing into the U.S. in the 1980s when it began building factories outside Japan for the first time. For a quarter century, Toyota has also had a non-profit affiliate, called the Toyota Production System Support Center, that consults with Toyota suppliers and outside manufacturers, and provides advice to organizations, such as hospitals, food banks and governments.

The EPA and several other agencies are in talks with the TSSC about a contract on how they could redesign the way they conduct environmental reviews and permit "high-priority" infrastructure projects -- pipelines, ports, bridges and the electricity grid.

Pruitt’s name check of Toyota raised some initial concerns that EPA was partnering with a company that it also regulated. Since the contract under discussion would be with a non-profit affiliate, the risks aren’t as great, said George Wyeth, a career EPA attorney who retired this year.

"There is a potential ethics issue here, but not a big one," Wyeth said in an interview.

Still, longtime staff members are skeptical. It’s not the first time the agency has tapped a management trend, according to John O’Grady, a 31-year EPA veteran who spoke in his capacity as president of Council 238 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"I’ve been through too many flavors-of-the-month, of-the-year, whatever it is. They do it intensely for a while -- and then it just goes away," he said. "I’m very skeptical."

O’Grady said he’s concerned that, because the agency hasn’t conducted a true workforce analysis in 20 years, any decisions about the organization won’t have sufficient data. And that could lead to staff cuts when more staff may be necessary to work on the EPA’s growing portfolio, he said.

Darwin said that "lean" is in some ways a misnomer, and the goal of the process at EPA isn’t to cut staff.

"It’s not about creating the ability to reduce the size of an organization," Darwin said. "What it can do is allow it to become more effective and more efficient so that if we do create a capacity to do more with less."

By Eric Roston and John Lippert

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