Investing in Future Innovators: Denver’s Peak Academy

Posted by David Edinger, Scotty Martin on

In Denver, we believe that innovation does not need to be centralized in one place. Of course mayoral leadership plays an important role in driving large-scale innovation, but we believe successful innovation must start with the people who do the work. Improvements in our people and processes are the cornerstone of Denver’s innovation strategy. Innovation, as we approach it, is strategic change resulting in improved performance. It comes in small, imperfect steps and depends on our resolve to invest in our people to create a distributed responsibility for innovation.

In 2011, Denver embarked on an effort to create a culture of innovation among city employees with Lean training through our Peak Academy. Denver’s goal is to turn 10,300 employees into innovators. In 2013, Peak Academy will train over 1,000 new Green Belts (4-hour introduction to Lean process improvement) and 180 new Black Belts. Black belts receive 4.5 days of training taught by an internal city process improvement team. Black Belts go back to their jobs with the expectation of 2-3 annual innovations built into their individual work plans.

Institutionalizing the practice of innovation throughout city government is not easy. On the final day of Black Belt training, when candidates start thinking about going back to their jobs, fear can creep in. They fear a lack of supervisor support, they fear co-workers resistant to change, and they fear that this newly acquired knowledge might only apply in the classroom. To quell this fear, the Black Belts present three of their work-related innovation ideas to classmates, executive sponsors, and instructors. Together the group strategizes on how to refine individual plans using the tools they have learned, and sponsors chime in with support to strengthen confidence, and instill a sense of hope.

Our work to distribute responsibility for innovation throughout the city government has begun to produce results. For example, after four hours of Peak Academy training, one Denver colleague went back to her wastewater division office where she has worked for years and promptly created over $46,000 of annual savings. She did this by completing one of the problem-solving tools the Peak Academy teaches to identify and eliminate waste. She determined that the 11,000 annual lien letters from her department did not require certified mail. As a result, she saved $44,235 in annual postage (hard costs) and freed about 100 hours from stamping the mail (a fully-loaded soft cost savings of $2,201, since these hours were reassigned to other functions). We call this type of innovation a Just Do It, or Just Stop It, as the case may be.

This type of innovation is now frequent in Denver because the people who do the work are empowered with the tools to innovate in that work. While the term ‘waste' can initially seem insulting, Peak Academy teaches that acknowledging that waste exists is a key step in ensuring that workers, customers, and citizens no longer have to endure work and processes that produce no value.

Especially at a time of tight municipal budgets, we need to find new ways – large and small – of improving how we work. In Denver, we are looking to empower a wide spectrum of our employees to help bring forward and accelerate the innovation that we need.

Peak Academy is a component of Peak Performance(www.denvergov.org/peakperformance), Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s vision for smart government.

Scotty Martin is the Manager of Process Improvement and David Edinger is the Chief Performance Officer for the City of Denver.