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Don't Stop Improving: 10 Lessons Learned in Plano, Texas

By Abby Owens

I joined the City of Plano Public Works Department in late 2017 with a priority project: implement new software that combined asset management and work orders. Oh, and train 200 users, deploy 100 iPads, and do it all as quickly as possible because we promised a launch date of a year ago.

No big deal, right?

Fortunately, with recent retirements, promotions, and overall frustration with old processes, our department was ready for some change. We all saw so much potential in improving how we communicated about and tracked what happened in public works. There were hurdles to overcome—including the fear of “big brother” watching every move our crews made—a reluctance to give up paper, and distrust among groups and divisions.

How did we get started? Every good project requires goal setting. Along every step of the way, we had three main goals in mind:

  1. Improve workflow
  2. Streamline communication
  3. Improve customer service

Improving workflow was going to be the key to "selling" the new software. Each interaction with a superintendent, supervisor, crew leader, maintenance worker, or customer service team member offered a chance to ask, "How can we improve how you work?"

It started with simple changes like improving reporting or how staff work was prioritized. Soon, they were asking me for ways to improve. The ultimate happy dance occurred when they collaborated with peers to brainstorm ideas and then asked me if they could implement the changes using the new software.

Streamlining communication initially meant helping improve collaboration between customer service and supervisors or among crews. Very quickly, we saw how communication across divisions and even departments helped everyone work more efficiently and effectively. Before I knew it, the goals of improving workflow and streamlining communication ignited this new passion for sharing everything in the software to improve information sharing. And, within a few months, we added two other city departments to our software.

The heart of Plano's mission is to provide a high level of customer service. It drives so many decisions in our department and the city. Whenever possible, we identify ways to enhance the customer service we provide to residents and other departments.

Our customer service team really took the lead on this and championed many improvements. They quickly learned how to search the software for information on their own instead of having to call supervisors and crews for updates—which previously delayed customer response time. Supervisors developed ways to communicate across divisions, decreasing response time and reducing work that was lost or forgotten.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention any lessons learned—all good posts do. So, here are my top 10 takeaways done in true David Letterman style (some of you will get the reference):

10. Not Everyone Is a Smartphone User.

Keep in mind that changes involving technology will also require computer/tablet/device 101 training too. "Press the home button" isn’t a universal phrase.

9. Train All and Train Differently.

Even though our crew leaders were the main users of our iPads and software, we included all maintenance workers and operators. We knew that if multiple people on a crew heard the same information, they were bound to remember enough to get through the difficult times. Also, everyone learns differently. So, we provided hands-on training in a classroom but also provided a written cheat sheet to follow along or reference later.

8. Provide Space for New Ideas.

Ideas can come from everyone—and should. Have some way for them to be shared that doesn't require supervisor approval first. Every public works employee had my email and telephone number and were welcome to stop by my office anytime to brainstorm or share an idea.

7. Take It Slow.

My personality is a mad dash to the finish line; but we knew that a methodical rollout that trained one group at a time would work best. Moreover, as each group grew more confident in the software, we gained another set of trained users who could answer questions if I wasn't around.

6. Ask, "How Can I Help?"

For the first two weeks after training a new group, I would spend the last hour of my day waiting in bays for crews to return. This gave me a chance to check in with supervisors and answer questions. Then, when crews started returning, they would mention a challenge they had or ask a question. It was much easier to go to them than expect people to line up outside my door.

5. Field Shadow at Every Opportunity.

I did not know how to repair a sidewalk, street, pothole, traffic signal or water meter—or processes to do so. My favorite days were spent with crews learning what and how they did their work so we could devise new and improved workflows. I also took my iPad and would practice entering the work with the crew to identify any potential issues before we trained that group.

4. Don't Stop Improo-ooo-ooving (Thank You, Journey).

Even when you think you've gotten everything perfect, something will change: software, people, policies, or reporting. We keep finding better ways to do things, especially as upgrades to software and technology occur.

3. Engagement From All Employees Is Key.

One weak link can derail the best plan. People need to feel valued and involved in the change or just one person can slow things down.

2. Pilot Projects Never Fail: They Are Learning Experiences.

For anyone who is afraid of change, offer to test a different way to see what works and what doesn't. We have changed our process to manage potholes three times—each time we learned something that made the next attempt better.

1. Sometimes You Need Sunshine and Rainbows.

Public works is hard work. Heck, local government is hard work! My co-workers are some of the most dedicated and best people I know. When we have a win, they need to know about it and understand their contribution. I've shared a link to a city council meeting where their work was shown, featured them in presentations at conferences, and explained how they made another department's work easier. A success is a success, and everyone involved deserves to know about it.

Now, go forth and change your piece of local government. If you need a pep talk, reach out and I'd be thrilled to give you a great Leslie Knope quote or meme.

Psst: This blog was originally featured on Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) blog. Head there now for more resources on transforming your local government.

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