Lending An Ear

Active listening is the key to a continuous improvement initiative that is streamlining operations for a Nevada city’s utility department

Faced with rapid growth in the last 15 years that sometimes strained internal systems and processes, officials at the Utility Services Department in Henderson, Nev., used a simple tool to achieve smoother, more efficient operations: listening hats.

Armed with input from industry peers and employees at all levels, the department, which manages water and sewer services for a large Las Vegas suburb, has boosted productivity and cut expenses by millions of dollars annually. It all stems from developing and maintaining a culture of continuous improvement that begins with feedback from employees in the trenches.

“I’m a big believer in human capital,” says Dennis Porter, director of utility services. “You can develop all the continuous-improvement planning you want, but if employees aren’t amenable to it, it makes it that much more difficult. We’re blessed with a lot of talented folks.

“Getting people to think differently gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. The folks who have the most knowledge are down in the trenches. It’s important to empower them to make changes. Once they know you’re empowering them to make decisions about how to run things more effectively, they take it and run with it.”

Kathleen Richards, a city public information officer, points out that the best ideas for improving efficiency and productivity usually percolate from the bottom up. “We’re unique because we involved our field staff — the guys who are in the field nine hours a day and have little interaction with management,” she says.

“They took that feeling of empowerment back to their peers, which really increased employee buy-in. So many times you see strategic plans created by upper management and forced down to every one else. But the people who are closest to the real work are the ones who can suggest the best improvements.”


Peers audit operations

The continuous-improvement initiatives grew out of a higher-level strategic planning effort begun about a decade ago. That plan led to two peer reviews by the American Water Works Association, which sends out a team of industry professionals for a weeklong review of operations. The team then recommends ways to improve.

“It’s always good to have a third party look at how you operate,” Porter says. “The review is like an operational audit, covering everything from finances to engineering. It’s a good program and it’s relatively inexpensive — in the neighborhood of $35,000 to $40,000.”

The review revealed some chinks in the department’s operational armor. In field operations, for instance, the review zeroed in on inadequate inventory control — how the department ordered, catalogued and organized parts and materials.

“Before the audit, when a work order would come in, we’d end up spending a lot of time running around for parts — a valve, a gasket or just about anything,” Porter says. “So we reorganized our warehouses, and now we have a couple of guys in water and wastewater who maintain inventory-control programs. Now when, say, a main breaks, we have the right materials on hand to make repairs.

“We know exactly what parts and pieces we have, and we know when we’re running low on inventory. We also know what parts our trucks are carrying. We easily saved tens of thousands of dollars annually, mainly in time. I know it sounds elementary, but we just weren’t doing it efficiently. We were too busy just trying to keep up with growth in the city.”


Picking brains

Employees were encouraged to suggest and act on improvement ideas. The department is divided into 12 sections, each representing a core business function. At the start of strategic planning, management met regularly with employees from all the sections, sometimes at 6 a.m. so the people wouldn’t fall behind on work.

“When you start that process, everyone is sort of quiet,” Porter says. “There’s not a lot of feedback because they’re not sure what you’re trying to accomplish. But once they realize you’re looking for feedback, they open up. We still schedule formal quarterly meetings with field operators, although they’re free to make suggestions any time.”

Employee ideas paid quick dividends. In one instance, a team of water operators suggested palletizing all materials needed for specific maintenance tasks ahead of time. That way, when a crew is scheduled to perform maintenance on a valve or other device, they have all the tools and replacement parts in one package before going to the job site.

“In some cases, materials are gathered weeks in advance, depending on what kind of work order it is,” Porter says. “Before, the system was arguably less efficient. In general, people knew what was in their vehicles, but not like they do now. In addition, we now purchase vehicles that are better designed to manage parts and equipment. They carry shelving and toolboxes, versus throwing everything into the back of the truck the way we did during the old days.”


Shift in training

The continuous-improvement mindset extends to training and development. Concerned about a brain drain as Baby Boomers retire in numbers, management needed a structured succession program. The result was a program that gives people with leadership potential a chance to develop management skills and lets them actually walk in a manager’s shoes for a month to see how they like it.

Employees nominated by supervisors attend eight to 10 four-hour classes that cover topics such as understanding personalities and generational differences and dealing with criticism. Classes are held during work hours but are scheduled to minimize work disruption. Classes are limited to 20 employees representing office and field staff.

“The other good thing that comes out of the training is that everyone gets a better understanding of what their fellow employees do,” Porter says.



What could other utilities learn from Henderson’s experience? For one, be sure to have the time and resources to act on employee suggestions. “If you don’t follow through on things like strategic plans and suggestions for improvements, staff is going to look at you funny,” Porter says. “In retrospect, we could have acted on some employee feedback sooner, but we had our hands full at the time and couldn’t get things done. It was just a matter of not enough time and resources.

“Even now, we’re careful. The way to get buy-in is to communicate results, and have good communication, period. You need to do what you say you’re going to do, so don’t bite off more than you can chew. We all have a tendency to do that at times, so you need to make sure your plan is realistic and achievable.”


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