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The Continuous Improvement Team: Applying Best Management Practices through Employee Ownership

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The single most important factor needed for the successful introduction and application of best management practices (BMPs) in utilities is employee ownership. The City of Columbus's Department of Public Utilities has developed a forum for employees to take initiative of applying BMPs by creating a committee called the Continuous Improvement Team (CIT).

Employees are ultimately responsible for the sustainability of best management practices and have the best knowledge base to suggest new or changes to BMPs. Moreover, employees stand to benefit the most from applying best management practices. Gaining ownership of EPAmandated improvements that call for the use of BMPs, however, can be a challenge for utilities.

In 2002, Columbus entered into a Consent Order requiring implementation of a Capacity, Management, Operations and Maintenance (CMOM) program. By 2004, management in Columbus's Division of Sewerage and Drainage (DOSD) had identified BMPs to meet compliance with elements of the Consent Order. Columbus recognized that without employee understanding of the benefits of these practices, they would not move beyond initial implementation or consultant assistance.

The CIT committee was organized in the Sewer Maintenance Operations Center (SMOC) of DOSD to maintain momentum on the application of these practices and to resolve operational disconnects. Participation in the CIT was voluntary and open to all employees. Additionally, all SMOC employees could submit ideas for improvement to the committee without joining.

After the CIT's successful oversight of the application of the practices originally suggested by DOSD management, ideas submitted by employees from all levels of SMOC began driving the committee's actions. The CIT has given employees their own voice in the creation and application of BMPs, and in the process, has become a mechanism for addressing the problems utilities have when implementing CMOM or any program of change. Utilities have difficulties gaining employee ownership of EPA mandated BMPs because:

Staff perception that programs of change are driven from the top of the organization. In most organizations, utilities included, management determines and drives the direction of the organization. When this direction involves major changes, employees often recoil from it. The employees may be uncomfortable with change or feel the changes are unnecessary. They may feel that management does not understand or care how these changes will impact their jobs. They may even feel that they cannot contribute to the program of change from their position in the organization. The CIT worked because it asked that employees, and not management, identify problems and create solutions in the organization. This process allowed employees to drive their own change as well as the future direction of the utility. The CIT also gave the employees a voice to express their concerns to upper management which underscored their value as employees and allowed management to better understand the perspective of the employees.

Utilities have to change their management initiatives often based on political forces. The leadership direction of a utility can change frequently based on political environments or mandated legislation. As a result, utility employees have often worked through several different management initiatives. Employees can feel that a program like CMOM is just one of a series of programs that will fade away with the next political trend and that their participation in it is temporary and therefore unimportant. The CIT worked because the employees controlled the direction of change instead of feeling controlled. As the change originated with the mployees, they feel it will outlast any program.

Each utility is unique. EPA-mandated guidance is written to be applied on a national scale and so cannot address the unique strengths and challenges each utility has. The CIT was powered by the employees who have the most knowledge about the utility's qualities and day-to-day operations. This quality of the CIT enabled solutions to be created that were tailored specifically to Columbus.

Utilities almost always cannot provide financial incentive to employees for improvement. Because utilities are not in a competitive market and have set hiring procedures, it is often difficult for the utility to provide individual incentive to employees to motivate them to a program of continuous improvement. While the CIT did not provide financial compensation to its members, it enabled the employees to have a voice in the changes and empowered them to take control of their future. The CIT provided a way for mployees to take pride in their additional accomplishments, to distinguish themselves with additional service, to develop leadership skills, and to improve their working conditions.

For the past three years, the CIT committee has proved a powerful way for Columbus's utility managers to involve their employees in organizational change and to create emplo ee ownership of best management practices. Without utility employees becoming the drivers of these practices, continuous improvement programs like CMOM will not be sustainable into the future.

Keywords: Best Management Practices; CMOM; Continuous Improvement; Employee Ownership

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2009-01-01

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