It was spring of 2018 when the Town of Cary, North Carolina's Water System Manager Alex Jones and Public Works Administrative Specialist Terry Meyers realized they had the same problem: not all of their departments' bills were getting paid on time. Jones just stopped by to catch up with Meyers, but their conversation wound up answering a burning question they had reflected on independently for months: Is this problem only in my department? The answer was no. They were not alone, and other departments were coming to the same realization.
Jones recognized challenges when she became supervisor of the Cary/Apex Water Treatment Facility and vendors called wanting to know when they would be paid for chemicals. One of the major water treatment chemical suppliers refused to fill an order because the town was months behind on payments. It wasn't possible to keep doing business like this--the town had reached a tipping point. So staff worked to make it a turning point instead.
As they put the pieces of the puzzle together, staff realized this was not one department's problem; it was the entire organization's problem. These conversations set a cross-departmental group of staff on a journey toward improving the procure-to-pay process, and it became one of the first documented cases of process improvement in the Town of Cary to take underlying adaptive challenges into consideration
In Cary, when employees need to purchase goods or services, they begin the procure-to-pay process. First, they submit a requisition to the procurement division, which is responsible for helping staff obtain goods and services based on regulations set by state statute. Once a requisition is approved, procurement staff issues a purchase order to a vendor. The accounts payable division receives the invoice from the vendor and sends it back to the department to confirm the accuracy of the invoice and to authorize accounts payable to pay the bill. At the Town of Cary, accounts payable and procurement both fell within the finance department with accounts payable located at Cary Town Hall and procurement at the operations center two miles away.
As a maturing municipality, Cary, a town of 165,000 people, was paying for more products and services than it had in 1990, when it had 45,000 citizens--while trying to maintain the same level of service. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of bills was no longer growing, and it took 11 more days, on average, to pay.
Increased development since 1970 had supplied the town with additional resources, allowing it to offer more amenities and services to its growing population. The town had hired hundreds of new staff members over the years to take on this ever-expanding list of offerings. Employees became more specialized, and processes began to involve more people. While the number of accounts payable technicians remained the same, the number of specialized staff members needed for departments to approve and pay for purchases increased--at least eight people by 2018. As a result, staff began to lose sight of the bigger picture; they only understood their piece, not the whole process. Finance Project Manager Andrea Johnson, who previously supervised accounts payable, said there was always a standard process for paying bills, but previous accounts payable technicians often made exceptions at the request of a vendor or staff. As a result of these, and other, factors, staff and vendors did not follow a single, streamlined process; they often provided incomplete information, skipped steps, or submitted documentation via different channels, including e-mail and interoffice mail. Vendors sent invoices to both the department that was making the purchase and accounts payable, resulting in duplicate efforts and extra e-mails.
One employee reported receiving hundreds of e-mails a day. "There's no way any human being can keep up with that," Jones said. "That's unsustainable to have a system that requires that amount of e-mail."