Sweat the Small Stuff

At Denver’s innovative Peak Academy management program, there’s a big focus on celebrating small-scale wins.
Peak Academy Director Brian Elms teaches a class on innovation. (Christopher Stark)

This article is adapted from a new book by Brian Elms, the director of the Denver Peak Academy, with J.B. Wogan, a Governing staff writer. The book, Peak Performance: How Denver’s Peak Academy Is Saving Millions of Dollars, Boosting Morale and Just Maybe Changing the World (And How You Can Too!), is now available at governing.com/peakbook.

During the last recession, Denver government had cut costs everywhere. The city had instituted furloughs, laid off staff, increased employee pension contributions, frozen pay and more. Yet when Denver Mayor Michael Hancock took office in 2011, we were still facing an $80 million shortfall.

Hancock wanted to find further savings without taking any more from his workforce, and that’s how the Peak Academy started. We would leverage the vast wisdom and expertise of current front-line city employees to improve the efficiency of our services. To me, it sounded like a brilliant idea: Using the principles of Lean manufacturing and other established process-management ideas, city employees would train each other on how to implement innovation.

But not everybody agreed with us.

One night during the first year of the program, I turned to my wife and asked if she’d be OK if I was unemployed for a while. “I don’t think I can keep doing this,” I said. At that point, the experiment that would become the Peak Academy wasn’t going well. People weren’t signing up for our trainings. When we did teach classes, many of the employees were combative. There were some exceptions, but most didn’t trust us and didn’t want our help.

It’s important to understand how unwelcome the Peak program initially was. My team collects and saves feedback from our trainings, so I still have a stack of people’s reasons for why they didn’t believe in our program and didn’t want to work with us. Here are some examples from those early days:

“Just because you work for the mayor doesn’t mean we care.”

“That may work at Public Works, but that won’t work here.”

“My boss would never let me do that.”

“I’m an innovator. All I do is fix stuff. I just don’t think my job can be fixed.”

“I don’t have any power or authority to do anything.”

“I’ve been working here for more than 20 years. This red bouncy-ball crap you’re teaching isn’t going to work.”

And it wasn’t just front-line employees. Their bosses didn’t want them at the trainings, either. In their eyes, having an employee out for special training just meant more work for everybody else. Managers refused to send employees for a four-hour class, not to mention a full week of training. I spent the first three months of my job going door to door, meeting with about a dozen department directors to ask if they would send some of their staff. Stupidly, I had thought this would be easy, or at least easier than it was. Before coming to the budget office, I’d been a lobbyist for Denver International Airport, and, in my own estimation, a pretty good one. During my time there, I had already developed relationships with directors in several city departments. Besides, I was selling something I figured they would already want -- a way to teach their employees to be innovators.

Only two directors said yes.

We saw Peak as a way to invest in our employees again after years of cuts in pay, benefits and staffing. We wanted to earn back employees’ trust, and we thought we could do that by teaching new skills. Department heads didn’t see it that way. They were understandably afraid that “process improvement” was a euphemism for more cuts. It all sounded like a distraction, another management fad. In hindsight, it makes sense. We were selling them an unproven product. Why wouldn’t they be skeptical?

Back when I talked to my wife about quitting, I was exhausted and ready to leave. I didn’t see how things could get better. We were trying to do something we believed in, and we were met with hostility at every turn. It wore us down; a couple of my original team members left within the first year. Everyone likes the idea of spreading innovation, but what that really means is long hours, lots of confrontational meetings, angry emails from trainees and their bosses, inevitable moments of self doubt, and no guarantee that you’ll be thanked for your hard work in the end.

Still on board? Good, me too. There’s a reason I’m still here at Peak, in spite of that rough start. It got better -- a lot better. We started with small victories. Remember, most department directors had turned us down, but two hadn’t. And there’s a reason why: prior relationships. One of my bosses in the budget office, Scotty Martin, had previously worked with Denver Human Services. And as I mentioned, my preceding job had been with Denver International Airport. As a favor to us, directors in both agencies promised to send a handful of employees each for our initial trainings. Without their help, the Peak Academy never would have gotten off the ground.

So we started small. In addition, we got a few more agency directors to agree to undergo an abbreviated four-hour course to at least become familiar with the core concepts and tools we teach. Later on, some of them would encounter a work issue that reminded them of Peak, and they’d send a couple of their employees to take our training. Slowly, our graduates would return to their departments and begin using the simple tools we teach -- process maps, production boards, fishbone diagrams -- at their desks. Their co-workers would become interested in learning those tools and volunteer for the training.

Somewhere along the way we had our first big success. I think that’s when we knew we were going to be OK. It was in the first few months, before Scotty and I had even hired other trainers. Two graduates from one of our initial trainings, Loretta Bennion and Amber Vancil, worked at Denver Wastewater Management. They had identified a potential money-saving opportunity in their department, and they implemented it once they finished their training. You see, the agency was sending out warning notices whenever the city was about to put a lien on a property for late payments. They were sent using certified mail, which costs about $4.50 per notice. Bennion and Vancil switched the notices to regular postage, a simple change that saved the city an estimated $40,000 a year.

It was a big moment for us. We had been preaching the power of these various improvement techniques, but here was concrete evidence. It felt like validation, and it helped in our classes, too. We could point to their innovation and tell trainees that they too could make this kind of impact: an immediate $40,000 in savings, simply by stopping an unnecessary practice.

Near the end of our second year, we gathered momentum. The trainings became their own advertisement. Now, we’re regularly overbooked months in advance.

We have a long list of inspiring achievements by our graduates, and it’s been a powerful tool in overcoming people’s initial skepticism. Demonstrable results mean more than the fanciest PowerPoint presentation we could ever give. Those results show department heads that what we’re doing isn’t a management fad, because it’s not about the managers. It’s about the employees. And that’s when they stop calling your program crap. Well, some of them anyway.

It really is the little things that can transform a process, the small questions that can cause you to reexamine the way something’s always been done. When you’re looking for an opportunity to learn and to innovate, think small and

ask yourself this question: Is there anything you do just because it’s always been done that way? If it wasn’t done that way, if you could start from scratch, could you come up with something better?

One of my favorite Peak innovations received exactly the kind of tepid initial reception I’m describing. Here’s what happened: A group of employees from the city controller’s office took a four-hour training course from us. The next day, one of them, a guy named Chris Tubbs, sent me an email with the subject, “What is this report?” In the email, Chris described a frustrating situation. For years, the controller’s office had been emailed a daily report from one of its vendors. Every day, the office would receive the report and print it out. We’re not talking about a couple sheets of paper. Each day’s report was about 500 pages long. But here’s the kicker: Chris’ team only needed the information contained in the final six pages of the report. So every day, they’d hit “Print,” wait for the report to print out, flip to the last six pages and toss the other 494 in the recycling bin. It was the height of inefficiency, and it was costing the city about $5,000 a year.

I know what you’re thinking right now: You know how to solve this problem. Yes, I caught you. You’re saying, “Just tell the printer to only print the last six pages!” In theory, yes, that should work. But in practice, people would forget, and the entire report would get printed out. At Peak, we encourage people to mistake-proof the process. In this case, that meant finding a solution that never resulted in printing 494 unnecessary pages.

Again, a simple innovation won the day. Chris’ team asked the vendor to stop sending the entire report and only send the pages they cared about. Then they wouldn’t have to print the entire thing. If the report only has the six pages, you can’t print more than you need.

When I received Chris’ email, I was really impressed. I thought it was a keen innovation that should be celebrated. A couple days later, I was out with some friends who work in the private sector, explaining the type of work that Peak performs. I proudly mentioned Chris’ innovation. My friends gave me a look. “Dude, only in government would someone get away with that type of stupid thing,” one of my friends told me. “And only in government would you be excited about it.”

There are two ways to respond to every innovation. You can roll your eyes and say, “Why didn’t you do that before?” Or you can support that innovation no matter how big or small, whether it succeeds or fails. The more celebrating, the better. The more you support innovations, the more you will see them happen.

So yes, we celebrate not printing a report. We even bought Chris and his entire team a Starbucks gift card. When you celebrate the small innovations, the big innovations become easier and easier. The truth is, incremental improvements add up. They sometimes even pave the way for a breakthrough change.