Creating Better Flow at King County Wastewater

How a growing county attacked a growing problem

In 2015, King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division was celebrating its 50th year. While celebrating five decades of cleaning up Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, the sewer utility also was staring down a big problem coming down the pipe (so to speak).

The problem: The number of upgrades to pipes, pumps and other facilities needed to serve the booming population was ballooning. With another million people expected to make their home in the Puget Sound region by the end of the next decade, King County’s regional wastewater system needed to act quickly to keep pace with growth.

King County WTD Team

King County Wastewater Treatment Division leaders at the end of six days spent creating a strategic management system.

Growing up, not out, using operational excellence

Looking ahead, County staff projected the construction upgrades needed to grow new treatment plants and pipes and keep the current ones operating well. That projection showed a spike in system upgrades—projects that, in a normal year, already numbered 170 and cost upwards of $2 billion—based on an aggressive 16-year project delivery timeline needed to serve the new residents.

At the same time that project workloads skyrocketed, King County kicked off a robust Lean initiative intended to cut expenditures for all operations, including the ratepayer-funded sewer utility. Increasing rates to cover 100 percent of the additional project costs including hiring additional staff and consultants was not an option in a Lean environment. The directive from the top was clear: implementing efficiencies to reduce costs and shorten the delivery time to complete projects would have to come first.

“We have the largest capital program in King County government,” said Wastewater Treatment Division Director Pam Elardo. “And internal county and public pressure demand that we spend our ratepayer dollars efficiently. Demands on our capital program will continue, so it is time to look at how we can improve the way we do our work to meet these demands.”


The Wastewater Treatment Division forecasted a spike in construction projects, signaling a need for more staff and consulting resources.

The utility’s management team challenged the organization and themselves with a big, hairy audacious goal: Reduce the timeline for delivering new and updated facilities by 10-15% by finding efficiencies within the capital project process.

The front line: a strategic management system

The first step to achieving that stretch goal? Creating a clear vision of what the best possible future could look like. Clarity maps created agreement and a focus on the organization’s direction and included a vision, a mission, values, and goals. They answered that key question: Who are we and who do we want to be in the future?

While celebrating its golden anniversary, King County WTD leaders took the long view by focusing on the next 50 years. They wanted to create a work plan to address both the looming challenge of burgeoning capital projects and changes in the industry that included a heightened commitment to sustainable practices. And they needed to get the organization to buy into that vision to propel the utility forward.


The top leaders in WTD spent six days crafting a strategic management system to address the challenges in creating the utility of the future head on including a vision, mission, values and goals (link to attachment with title WTD Goals) that created a high-level work plan for the next three to five years and faced the upcoming challenges head on.


WTD Director Pam Elardo hosts catch ball session on the draft clarity map.

Catch ball truth tests the strategy

Before finalizing the clarity map, though, one important task remained: Hosting “catch ball” sessions with staff to test the relevance and resonance of the elements.

Catch ball is the term used to describe a method of communication. The purpose is to create a back and forth dialogue between groups, rather than just a one-way download of information. Catch ball uses the analogy of playing catch with a ball. If you have an idea, a change or a development underway, the idea is to “throw” the idea out to others and be ready to receive something back when the idea is still in draft. Involving people in the process of creation creates buy-in and commitment to the idea or change.

At WTD, the management team, including the director of the 600-person division, hosted a series of meetings to gather feedback using catch ball. Staff attendance at the sessions was high and the feedback afterward was positive—they appreciated being asked to participate in the vision for the utility.

With clarity comes consensus to move ahead

After incorporating input from the catch ball sessions, King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division finalized its clarity map (link to PDF included). Next, the management team set to work on the next step in creating a healthier organization—developing leaders to be coaches able to support a culture of continuous improvement.

It was a challenge the utility was ready to take on.

“Right now we have the best mix of employees with the skills, experience and ideas to take on this challenge,” said Pam Elardo. “I am excited to be launching this effort now, knowing the caliber of employees we have ready to work on this.”

About the client: King County, Washington, protects water quality and prevents water pollution by providing wastewater treatment to 17 cities and 17 local sewer utilities. The county’s Wastewater Treatment Division serves about 1.7 million people, including most urban areas of King County and parts of south Snohomish County and northeast Pierce County. Service area is approximately 424 square miles. There are over 391 miles of sewer lines. There are about 600 employees with headquarters in downtown Seattle.


Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.