October – It Takes Too Long To Get A Building Permit

Employee Responsibilities
Supervisor Responsibilities

In our studies throughout the country we are frequently confronted with the statement from supervisors that “we hold our employees accountable to meet our established turnaround times”. This typically refers to a jurisdiction’s commitment to complete a process review within a specified number of days after submittal. This information is important to individuals and corporations seeking to develop a property because this review period is a component of the critical path to completing a project on time and under budget. In nearly all of our studies we recommend reducing these turnaround times in order for the jurisdiction to be competitive with other jurisdictions throughout the nation and also reduce the cost of construction. We frequently recommend a jurisdiction adopt a turnaround time target of approximately 7 days for a residential building permit review and 21 days for new commercial reviews. It is important to note that the actual time an individual plans examiner dedicates to completing a review typically ranges from a few hours to a few days. The ability to meet the overall turnaround times is primarily a function of the volume of applications that have been submitted during any period of time. However, also important is the training of staff, clear processes, and providing the right tools for staff.

With turnaround times being such a significant component in determining a jurisdictions perceived effectiveness, it is surprising to see the level of confusion that exists about how to achieve competitive turnaround times. We believe there is a basic flaw in many Supervisors’ statements that the employee must be held accountable to meet the established turnaround times. It must be noted that the ability to meet the public’s expectation of established turnaround times is based primarily on the total volume of permit activity to be reviewed. The individual employee has no control over this variable. To suggest otherwise would imply that the employee should arbitrarily modify the length of time necessary to complete a plan review based on the overall volume of work to be performed by the entire staff. This leads to a system that encourages staff to lengthen review time for individual applications during slow periods and only do cursory reviews during periods of high volume. Either approach is a disservice to the public.

Addressing this problem requires a clarification of the roles of the individual employee and their supervisor. The employee needs to know what is expected of them in the form of performance standards and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that each employee is consistently meeting these performance standards. It becomes the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that the turnaround times are met by confirming that both staff is working efficiently and that sufficient resources have been allocated to meet the workload demands. We have found few jurisdictions that have established a basic unit of workload that can be applied to projects when they are submitted. Without a measurable means of determining workload, it is nearly impossible to hold employees accountable to meeting performance standards. A supervisor must work diligently to establish and monitor workload units and then closely work with management to establish a process that allows the section to quickly adjust resources (i.e. staffing levels) to adequately respond to the constantly changing demands for services.

The more progressive jurisdictions we have studied have addressed the increased workload challenge by incorporating a variety of approaches that typically include the use of quality contract staff, hiring part-time staff, overtime, and using former employees on an hourly basis to perform specified tasks. This approach allows for a quick response to changing conditions. When the level of anticipated permit activity can be predicted with a high level of confidence then these positions can be either released or converted to full-time employee status without introducing significant turmoil to the organization.

Individual employees cannot be held accountable for an organization’s ability to meet the constantly changing overall service demands of the public. Logically, employees should only be held accountable for meeting the performance standards required of their specific position. While it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure these standards are consistently being met, just as important, it is the supervisor and management’s responsibility to secure the overall resources necessary to ensure the organization’s continuing ability to meet its commitment to its customers.

Brad Remp, Zucker Systems C.B.O. and Executive Vice President
and the Management Doctor