Employee Input Improves Utilities

Virginia utility developed an innovation-centric culture that highly prizes new ideas

Employee Input Improves Utilities

Jay Bernas, Hampton Roads Sanitation District general manager

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Back in 2013, employees in the planning and analysis division in the Hampton Roads Sanitation District came up with a bold idea: Close a wastewater treatment plant that needed significant upgrades and divert the flow it was handling to another plant with sufficient capacity. The estimated savings: $130 million.

Senior management at the utility, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, approved the proposal and began building the necessary diversion infrastructure. And years later, the plant was shut down.

A post-shutdown analysis, aimed at determining whether the assumptions made in the initial proposal were good or bad, revealed that the move actually saved the utility $239 million, says Jay Bernas, HRSD general manager and former head of the planning and analysis division.

The proposal to close down the plant was significant, and not just because it saved the utility hundreds of millions of dollars. It also was noteworthy because years earlier, employees probably wouldn’t have pitched such an audacious idea and management wouldn’t have approved it, Bernas observes.

“There was absolutely no way this would’ve been proposed or approved,” he says. 

The difference-maker? The development of an innovation-centric corporate culture under the leadership of Bernas’ predecessor, Ted Henifin, who retired in February 2022.

“Our level of risk-tolerance changed dramatically,” he says. “Without a culture of innovation, there’s no way we would’ve pulled off that proposal.”

Minimal collaboration

Before Henifin’s tenure, the utility operated more like a system of silos. There was little communication and collaboration between departments, Bernas says.

“It was an old-school mentality about how people should work together,” he explains. “There was a little bit of an us-versus-them mentality between departments.

“But when Ted came in, he shifted the focus.”

For example, Henifin combined the treatment and interceptors departments, which forced people to work more collaboratively in terms of sharing resources and information. He also created a research division in 2008 that focused on developing technology.

Furthermore, Henifin hired a renowned wastewater engineer, Charles Bott, a former professor of civil and environmental engineering, as chief of special projects. (He’s now the utility’s director of water technology and research.)

“The innovations that came out of that division really provided great examples for the rest of our organization for what was possible,” Bernas says. 

For example, the research division collaborated with researchers at the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (aka DC Water) to develop a process called partial denitrification-anammox (PdNA), which efficiently and cost-effectively removes nitrogen and ammonia from wastewater.

“Today we’re the first wastewater utility in the world using this patented process,” Bernas says.

Cultural shift

Henifin also brought in new leadership that fully bought into concepts such as listening to new ideas and taking calculated risks, Bernas says.

“Instead of the old mentality, where mistakes were punished, management emphasized that mistakes provide something you can grow from. That completely changed our level of risk tolerance.

“If you’re trying to shift a culture, one of the most important things is having a core group of people that help drive that change,” he adds. “That’s very impactful in moving the needle.”

Henifin also created an inclusive environment that encouraged employees at all levels to propose new ideas for doing things better. He also made sure senior management reviewed all ideas and then responded to each one so employees would know not only that all ideas receive consideration, but also understand why some ideas are rejected.

To further encourage innovation, the utility makes a point to celebrate successes. For example, when a new wastewater treatment innovation proposed by an employee became a reality, Henifin invited all employees to sign up for tours of the treatment plant in honor of the accomplishment. And he personally hosted the tours.

“It’s really important to take a step back and really think about how great it is that we executed a new idea and can see the fruits of our labors,” Bernas notes. “It’s great for boosting morale. Too often, it’s just go, go, go at utilities because there’s no shortage of brush fires to put out. But it’s important to reflect on accomplishments.”

In addition, representatives from a recently revived employee association get a seat at the table during HRSD’s monthly meeting of the utility’s leadership team, composed of directors and division leaders. This gives them an opportunity to directly contribute ideas.

Furthermore, to emphasize the importance of innovation, new employees are required to come up with an idea, execute it and present it to their team.

“If it’s a really good idea, it gets presented to the leadership team and possibly even patented,” Bernas says. “It reinforces to employees that we’re interested in their ideas.” 

Change takes time

Cultural change does not happen overnight, however, and it requires a deep commitment from senior management as well as leadership by example.

“There’s no one silver bullet to effect change,” Bernas notes. “Many things are required to change an organization’s culture. And it doesn’t happen in a day.”

But the rewards are well worth the time and effort invested, says Bernas, who joined the utility in 2005, just before Henifin was hired as general manager. As such, he’s had a front-row seat as the cultural shift unfolded.

“It’s been 100% gratifying,” he says. “Everyone here understands they play a role in our success. As an organization, I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders, with everyone executing at a high level.

“Our turnover rate is very low and I think that’s because our employees really believe in and are very proud of our organization. It’s totally different than it was years and years ago.” 


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