Unleash innovation within your DOT

Building an innovative culture can save money, boost employee morale and increase elected officials’ support of your DOT and its mission.

Because departments of transportation play a significant role in creating desirable, multimodal transportation systems in which commerce can flourish, they are part of the state’s economic development engine. But where do DOTs get the necessary resources to fulfill such a role? The days of increased budgets have been replaced with the “do more with less” mantra. 

That’s why some DOTs – in Florida, Texas, Utah, Iowa and other states — are unleashing the power of internal innovation. Embracing innovation can potentially save millions of dollars. Plus, an innovative culture can boost employee morale and increase elected officials’ support of a department’s mission and the resources it requires. 

Cultivating an innovative workforce

Five factors separate innovative cultures from the status quo:

1.    Having a change agent.
A change agent is someone who has the organization’s respect, has worked there a number of years and consistently demonstrates willingness to think differently. Change agents interface directly with DOT leaders to replace any internal inertia and resistance with openness to and acceptance of change. A core team helps the change agent solicit, evaluate and implement employee ideas.

2.    Creating why-friendly cultures.
A why-friendly culture gives employees permission to question longstanding systems, processes or approaches. 

For example, why is the standard highway lane width still 12 feet? That standard was mandated decades ago to accommodate the wider vehicles of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Now that vehicles are narrower, couldn’t the standard width be reduced to 11 feet? Applied to an existing four-lane highway, the narrower standard would gain enough pavement to allow a DOT to add a 4-foot bike lane – without purchasing additional right of way. 

During 2013, the Florida Department of Transportation saved more than $150 million through value engineering, changing asphalt mix design criteria, implementing pavement-only projects, changing bridge painting and coating requirements, reducing the fleet and removing motorist-aid call boxes. The department currently is implementing additional “why-inspired” ideas, such as eliminating lights on maintenance of traffic devices and overhead guide signs, and delivering construction forms and documents electronically. 

3.    Refusing to take “no” for an answer.
“Because that’s how we’ve always done it” is an off-limits response in innovative cultures. Even so, those who make recommendations and get pushback may have to make the same request multiple times. Eventually, the wall of objection will crumble or the true reason why an idea isn’t feasible will surface. Perhaps the reason can be overcome. If not, so be it. Just don’t give up on the first try. 

4.    Staying relevant.
Innovative DOT leaders review all tasks to identify core competencies that should remain in-house versus work that could be contracted or eliminated. For example, why continue to print maps when almost everyone uses GPS devices or smartphones apps? Why spend money to print and distribute specification books when those documents could be posted as PDFs and printed by others at their expense?

5.    Recognizing and being recognized.
Innovative cultures take root faster when leaders recognize employees whose recommendations are adopted – even if those recommendations don’t produce needle-moving results. Recognition reinforces desired behaviors, which will begin to change the department’s perspective.

Recognizing their role as part of the state’s economic engine, innovative DOTs also promote their cost-cutting and efficiency measures with elected officials and constituents. Each successful initiative is another proof point that demonstrates wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars. 

The world is changing, and we must change with it. By unleashing the power of innovation from within, DOTs can transform themselves.