schroeder.untappedFor the highway maintenance crews at the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), fixing bent, twisted, or knocked down delineators was a difficult and dangerous task. Delineators are those U-shaped steel posts with reflectors on top that are spaced every 500 feet or so to designate the edge of highways. The stakes are critical in helping motorists stay on the road in dark or low visibility situations such as fog or snow.

The problem is, even with the help of the delineators, motorist don’t always stay on the road. And as their attention drifts from driving or they slide off slippery highways during Colorado’s icy winters, a lot of delineators get damaged. Traditionally, maintenance crews have used whatever tools they could come up with (including pipe wrenches, pry-bars, and hammers) to bend the delineators back into position. This haphazard approach can be dangerous, because the tools can easily slip and cause injuries

When Mickey Madalino, who worked out of the CDOT’s Greeley Maintenance Section, was handed an odd looking tool constructed by a member of his maintenance crew, he began to think about ways the crude design could be improved to make it safer and more effective in fixing bent delineators. He formed a prototype out of copper tubing and took it to a supervisor meeting where he received permission to have two of the tools fabricated at a local welding shop. The result was a tool that wrapped snuggly around delineator posts (see photo) and had a long handle to apply considerable leverage to make the task of straightening delineators faster, easier, and much safer.

This ingenious tool saves about five minutes per repair. This may not sound like much, but when replicated across the state it translates into saving thousands of hours of maintenance time per year – and it makes the task of repairing delineators much safer.

Mickey’s idea was part of what CDOT calls “Everyday Ideas” – a program that encourages people on the front lines to develop and share ideas that make their work easier – and save the state money. Everyday Ideas has front-line supervisors engaging their crews in regular discussions of problems and improvement ideas. The focus is on small ideas that can be quickly and inexpensively implemented, usually by the crews themselves. Cumulatively, these small ideas save a lot of money and enhance overall CDOT’s performance. (Supervisors are taught to break bigger problems and ideas into smaller, more manageable components.)

Ideas that prove helpful to other crews are shared in two ways. First, the stories of these ideas are written up and posted on CDOT’s idea website at: http://www.coloradodot.info/business/process-improvement/everyday-lean-innovations-ideas   . Second, the regional Everyday Ideas committees review all implemented ideas and share those that are more broadly applicable with the other crews across the state.

Is going after front-line ideas simply something that is nice to do as a government agency, or is it a game changer? Consider this: Our research consistently finds that, whether in manufacturing or service, healthcare or government, 80% of an organization’s improvement potential is found in the creativity and ideas of its front-line people. This observation may be surprising until you consider that these are the people who on a day-to-day basis process the paperwork, fix the roads, deliver the services, and handle citizen’s complaints. While elected officials and top administrators may constantly struggle with ways to cut budgets and save taxpayer money, their front-line workers are in a much better position to cut real waste and deliver services much more efficiently. As Gary Vansuch, director of the CDOT Office of Process Improvement and champion of the Everyday Ideas program says, your front-line people can make you look very good – but you have to have the systems in place and manage work in ways that get and use their ideas every day.