Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” This mindset is how the City of Olathe continues to improve and grow. For a business to be successful, it is imperative to satisfy the needs of its customers. And to do this, a business must first identify and understand its customers’ needs and problems. To this end, Olathe administers a DirectionFinder Survey in an effort to determine the priorities for their community as part of the City’s ongoing strategic planning process. This approach has led to the City of Olathe receiving the best ratings not only in the Metropolitan Kansas City Area but in the United States when it comes overall satisfaction with City Services.
The DirectionFinder Survey results have made resident’s priorities obvious. Since 2000, flow of traffic and congestion management and maintenance of city streets, buildings, and facilities have been the top two priorities for Olathe residents. City officials used this insight to focus their efforts on Lone Elm Road, a popular road that carries on average 14,000 vehicles per day, leading to issues with traffic flow. Safety concerns were at an all time high due to an 111 reported crashes on Lone Elm Road from January 2013 through December 2015. Below are the three steps the city has taken to successfully use this data to address congestion on Lone Elm Road.
- Identify the specific problem. Now that staff in the city’s Public Works department knows they must address traffic congestion and other traffic concerns to improve citizen satisfaction, what’s next? First, it’s important to figure out the problem within the problem. Knowing that residents are not satisfied with the flow of traffic is not enough. It’s important to follow up to the customer satisfaction surveys to determine which roads and specific areas are of greatest concern to residents. Honing in on where traffic congestion and traffic issues were the greatest led to the beginning of the Lone Elm Road Project. The City’s Public Works Department was able to identify issues with crashes, congestion, and customer concerns related to Lone Elm Road through online portals and calls, which is why this project was chosen to compete for funds from the metropolitan funding process. It was a great achievement that the project was selected to receive federal funding in 2020 from the Surface Transportation Program (STP).
- Develop a plan. After the problem has been identified, a plan must be developed. For the Lone Elm Road Project, that meant increasing capacity by improving Lone Elm Road from a 2-lane section into a four-lane divided arterial, constructing bicycle lanes, and improving storm sewer, lighting, bike lanes, landscaping and sidewalks. After identifying the problem, staff must collect data on performance of the system to determine its appropriate plan of action. Olathe hosted public meetings to gather information from the residents regarding their concerns when traveling the corridor to inform residents of the project options. They also met to discuss potential impacts during project construction and to provide information on the design process, while providing multiple opportunities for residents to give their input. Additionally, the City researched best practices and innovative approaches in cities with similar problems.
- Monitor changes. Once the problem has been identified and a plan of action has been put into effect, the third step is to monitor the data to ensure the changes translate to improved citizen satisfaction rates. There must be performance measures in place to monitor that the changes result in the outcome desired. Olathe Performs is a community dashboard that measures progress toward achieving excellence in efficiency and service delivery to ensure residents get the most value from their tax dollars. As part of the 2016 Transportation Master Plan update, Public Works revised the Mobility Index to measure progress toward organizational goals relevant to transportation. This includes the Transportation Satisfaction element that emphasizes customer perception to improve decision making, justification of resources, and how well the City of Olathe has done addressing the needs of its residents and businesses. In 2017, Olathe received their target Transportation Satisfaction Index Score of 100, and additional data showed that changes made because of the Lone Elm Road Project resulted in higher citizen satisfaction–the public took notice.
When it comes to giving advice to other cities, Beth Wright, Transportation Manager in Olathe’s Public Works Department emphatically said, “Don’t wait for the perfect survey!” Ms. Wright believes other cities should begin by identifying their problem area by asking the community, collecting data and asking staff about their concerns or satisfaction. Ms. Wright also advises cities to examine multiple solutions before rushing into a decision, and then use performance measures in order to see progress and improvements.
Although the City of Olathe is still working to identify and resolve traffic concerns that their residents face, they have already made great progress through their use of data and customer surveys. Their efforts to address the flow of traffic and the maintenance of streets, buildings, and facilities have been clear and appreciated by the residents. Olathe has no intention of slowing down.