ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

August 1999


Ford Takes Road Less Traveled

Vancouver, Washington: Making Room for Double

Weathering The Storm


Conference Calling
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change



Vancouver, Washington: Making Room for Double
Dealing With Rapid Growth Overnight

What do you do when the size of your company, the number of its employees and breadth of its responsibilities increases twofold over the course of one night?

It's hard to comprehend what's happened in the city of Vancouver,Wash., but let's try: Imagine that in your plans to have a baby, you anticipate the first appearance of little Johnny or little Suzy in the delivery room; what you don't anticipate is the first appearance of both little Johnny and little Suzy. The ultrasound technician missed the fact that your baby load was double, so you now find yourself returning for yet another
spending spree at Babies 'R Us. You're chagrined, but ultimately accept that it's only one more kid.

The situation in Vancouver is a little more complicated. The city became the fourth largest in Washington state after its population increased from 68,000 to 126,000 between December 31, 1996 and January 1, 1997 when the geographic barriers of the city were expanded to incorporate an area twice Vancouver's original size. That's a lot of babies.

Sure, the increased tax base may seem like a financial windfall, but when 17.6 additional square miles, 150 new employees and an increased customer base of 85 percent are taken into account, that windfall may seem like a fall, indeed.

Growth in any organization can be painful, but Vancouver already had some headaches of its own: A major downtown economic development plan was in the works, and Vancouver's new size only made this burden heavier. Outside pressures to live up to a
big-city image meant two things for city officials: increases in tax-payer demands and skepticism that the old Vancouver government could handle new Vancouver challenges.

Faced with these increased demands, the city of Vancouver did what all good companies do when under the gun - they formed a unified front-line of defense. Vancouver's is based on four principles:
* Staying focused on getting the job done
* Fulfilling higher customer expectations by keeping promises
* Making the changes necessary for growth and progress
* Understanding that higher expectations from employees should mean higher expectations for employees, i.e. a reciprocal beneficial relationship.

Of these four, the last two were the toughest to accomplish and speak volumes about Vancouver's success.

When implementing policy initiatives reflecting these principles, officials initially heard the familiar cries of flavor-of-the-month management styles and undergoing too many changes too fast. But skepticism and resistance didn't win out.

Counting the Fingers and Toes
Vancouver's city government sat down with a new diagnostic report on the city showing its strengths and weaknesses at every level. Officials highlighted issues detailed in the report that needed to be improved, acknowledged the fact that communication, information dispersal and decision making were all sadly muddled
and set out to establish Vancouver's future image.

The report revealed that, while there was a lack of trust in the organization, there remained a solid sense of pride in the city itself. This pride was enough to encourage the city's management staff to take on the task of making the government fit its new
size, and first on the agenda was creating a larger, more sophisticated identity.

To create this identity, Vancouver made a commitment to quality growth and development, improved support and communications systems and a strong downtown, waterfront and heritage site. The hope was by improving these areas, Vancouver would become an enviable place to work and live.

Growing Up
To achieve their external goals, Vancouver had some internal changes to go through. The strategy for change included a three-pronged plan to improve management structure, develop a higher level of team and leadership skills and align systems to
support the teams.

Changing the management structure meant increasing involvement in the change process by making labor and management partnerships crucial and re-orienting decision making to the lowest practical level. None of these are small tasks. A design and oversight committee (DOC) was formed to take over the implementation of these new goals and serve as the center of learning where committee members could voice multiple views and concerns and build a coalition. The goal was to design, guide, oversee and establish the change process as a way to do business in the future.

The DOC began by establishing a labor/management conference to bring the nine unions and key management together. A Future Horizons conference was also organized, with the primary goal of sharing data on a survey of 170+ employees. At this conference, employees looked collectively at the past, present and future of
the city and helped develop a DOC action plan.

Following in the footsteps of the new-found communication established at the Future Horizons conference, Vancouver endeavored to make the following partnerships:
* Involving unions at every step of the process
* Union representatives on every key group as equal partners
* Involving unions on equal footing with trainers
* Constantly inviting and encouraging participation

Next, the DOC took on leadership development by customizing leadership training, targeting the city's specific needs and issues, establishing step-by-step learning and development programs and holding leaders accountable for success. Of course, none of this can happen without employee training, so the DOC set about team development as well.

The final DOC policy initiative is motivation and accountability, including the re-alignment of promotions and hiring practices to match the new policies of training and searching for talent from within. New performance appraisals reflect the new corporate culture," and reinforce open communications policies and procedures in human resources.

Vancouver's new city government focuses on training "intact work teams," recruiting and training internal talent, educating staff on the business side of running the city and developing competency in interpersonal, team and business skills.

During this process of major internal and external renovation, Vancouver found its strength in diversity. Placing emphasis on each team's ability to approach its tasks in unique ways is now a source of success, and the city encourages a theme of "uniqueness" as a matter of course. "Different strokes for different folks" is a familiar refrain as employees watch fellow team members approach problem solving in a new way. As it turns out, uniqueness works, and cookie-cutter procedures are out with
yesterday's trash like a used diaper.

Through the experience, Vancouver has learned the power of the involvement and accreditation process; they've discovered you have to provide accountability and rewards to undergo enormous change successfully. In this way, accreditation enables the transfer of power, information and authority; leaders are accountable to make sure power is transferred, and employees are accountable for fulfilling their new roles. Empowering people to take on new tasks encourages the creation of benchmarks,
providing a measurement of success that begs us to answer the question, "Are we all grown up yet?"

So what happens when a city doubles its size, responsibilities and staff overnight? If the city is Vancouver, you think on your feet, open your mind . . . and grow. Vancouver increased employee involvement, improved leadership styles and created a better
information network for the workforce. Ultimately, more credible and reliable internal communication means a more motivated and committed employee base - and if you have those things, there are very few added burdens you can't handle.

August '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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