In 1999, I launched the Productivity Improvement Process (PIP) as a way to mine the expertise of frontline employees. Through PIP, employees were given the opportunity to explore ways to streamline processes, capitalize on new technologies and make improvements to their work environment. These efforts have led to ongoing annual savings of $20.5 million in operating expenses and an increase in morale by removing day-to-day frustrations that had plagued employees for years. PIP savings also allowed TriMet to weather the economic turndown in the early 2000s without any frontline layoffs.
While reaching to the frontline for ideas, we continue to develop leadership skills in our frontline supervisors and managers. This “soft skill” training consists of how to facilitate team meetings, coaching for performance and teambuilding. Early in the PIP process, I coined the phrase, Sustained Management Excellence. This means creating a work environment that brings out their best in employees. This consists of six attributes that I refer to as the “ABC’s” of Sustained Management Excellence:
- Acknowledge people for their unique contributions
- Build trust
- Define the Vision
- Encourage continuous improvement
- Focus on excellence every day
- Give action to words
Acknowledge People for Their Unique Contributions
Every employee has something to contribute. It is up to managers and supervisors to identify and celebrate this contribution in the way that is meaningful for each employee. For some this is public recognition, for others it is personal acknowledgement. The key is routine and ongoing encouragement.
Building trust is essential to achieving organizational excellence. This first requires being trustworthy. The organization, through its supervisors’ and managers’ actions, must demonstrate trustworthiness. This begins with believing that employees want to do their best and have the best interest of the organization at heart. It is listening to employees and acting upon their suggestions.
Define the Vision
Managers and supervisors must clearly and concisely articulate the organization’s vision. In TriMet’s case, this vision includes the understanding the role transit plays in the region’s livability, being good stewards of public resources and responding to customer needs by delivering excellent service. At TriMet we try to help every employee understand how his/her job contributes to the vision.
Encourage continuous improvement
Continuous improvement is at the heart of excellence. As part of PIP, we ask employees to be ever mindful of what and how they do their jobs. Whether it is a process, an activity or daily operations, we must always look for ways to do what we do better. This has served TriMet well. All of our rail projects have come in on time and on budget. TriMet also has been the first to use NASCAR technology to cool buses and save fuel and the first large-scale biodiesel user in the state.
Focus on excellence every day
I believe that you get more of what you focus on. By encouraging employees to focus on achieving excellence in every aspect of their jobs, they will achieve it. Oftentimes, organizations focus on meeting standards. I encourage employees to start at the standard and see what they can do to exceed it. We often pose the question when taking on a project, “how can we exceed expectations?”
Give action to words
This is the most important of all. You must role model the behavior you want. People have a keen sense of whether someone is being genuine, not by words, but by actions. That is why I was determined in the early days of PIP to ensure that this was not just the “flavor-of-the-month program.”
As we come upon TriMet’s eight-year PIP anniversary in November, I believe the organization has internalized much of the PIP philosophy. There is still more work to do. Cultural change in organizations takes time. But, we are well underway. It is routine to reach into the frontline for ideas and suggestions. In the early days of PIP, formal teams would meet to generate employee suggestions. Today, it is not uncommon to be on the maintenance shop floor and see a group of mechanics spontaneously meeting to discuss someone’s new idea. When it comes to developing a new concept, you will hear employees say, “We need to ‘PIPitize’ this.” This translates into making sure input is gathered from all the stakeholders, research is thorough and consensus is reached.