Manager’s Forum

Phoenix, Ariz.
Debbie Cotton
Public Transit Director
Phoenix Public Transit Department

Getting on good terms with employees, and staying there, is a goal for Phoenix city government as a whole, and the Public Transit Department in particular. Government agencies are created to contribute to the community, and serve the public. If we expect our employees to devote themselves to the public good, it’s only reasonable that they expect we have their best interests in mind as well.

How do we do show that their interests are our interests? We do it by making long-term, substantial investments in our employees. Phoenix Public Transit is very fortunate to be a part of Phoenix city government. It allows us to bring many resources to bear where employee relations are concerned. Our municipal leaders consider supporting staff a priority. They have — through policies and programs — shown employees that the city they work for is a great place to live — and a great place to work. A host of benefits are provided to every city of Phoenix employee, with slight variations depending on position: tuition reimbursement to pursue advanced degrees; professional development funds to attend seminars and conferences; financial aid for childcare costs; and both pension and 401/457K programs; and career consultation to rise in the ranks of management citywide. This is all in addition to the city’s other health and life insurance benefits.

Starting with such a solid foundation, developing good employee relations is much less of a challenge. Phoenix Public Transit strives to create the best working environment possible, and also implements its own programs to provide opportunities for staff development. One of the best practices a manager can implement is a fair-minded, professional workplace. When staff members know that they will be given clear expectations, and treated with consistency both in their successes and their challenges, everyone benefits.

Rules aren’t the only means to an end, however. Investment in employees is crucial in today’s competitive employment market. When staff members know you have taken the time to invest in them — as old-fashioned as it sounds — they will invest in you. As a part of that investment Phoenix Public Transit has been testing pilot staff development programs for its internal use. A department-wide mentoring program, designed to let employees learn about different careers in the department has been warmly received. By overseeing a special project with a manager outside their area, the mentored employee develops new skills and fosters relationships that will be beneficial in the future. We’ve taken this commitment to employee development very seriously. Each member of our executive management is required to mentor at least two people as a part of their annual employee reviews. We’ve also instituted a less formal shadowing program for employees who are simply curious about their coworkers’ duties, to give them an opportunity to “check under the hood” and see how other areas operate.

These efforts add to an already strong sense of ownership and involvement from Phoenix Public Transit employees. How do we know our efforts are succeeding? One simple fact: Employees who join our department stay here. Citywide the turnover rate for employees is just over 9 percent. At Phoenix Public Transit we’ve managed to lower turnover to less than 7 percent. In the same vein, employees stay with us for decades, because they know it’s a genuine partnership here and a chance to grow. In the end, that’s the most important result of good employee relationships, and why we continue to work toward the best workplace possible.

Portland, Ore.
Fred Hansen
General Manager
Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet)

It is my belief that success comes from trusting employees to know what works best in their own areas and then entrusting them with the power to make needed improvements.

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.

Build trust
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.

TriMet is transforming the way it does business. Employees throughout the agency are stepping up to the challenge of making TriMet more dynamic, more responsive and more efficient. Through PIP, the work environment is not only improving common workplace frustrations, but significant dollar savings are being reaped as ways to work smarter are found. In return, TriMet is able to put more service on the street.

Creating an environment where frontline employees are engaged in decision-making and frontline managers and supervisors demonstrate true leadership are the most important things I can do build relationships with employees.

Manager’s Forum goes to the front lines of the transit industry to get feedback on different topics relevant to passenger transportation — and we want to hear from you! If you have an idea for discussion or would like to voice your opinion, please contact Leah Harnack at (800) 547-7377 or via email at