In the corporate world, the notion of “continuous improvement” has been getting a lot of buzz in recent years. From the Japanese concept of Kaizen to the “Six Sigma” strategy that became popular in the U.S. in the mid-90s, corporations all over the globe are constantly looking for ways to streamline processes, eliminate waste, increase productivity, and above all, save money.
When it comes to ideas for continuous improvement, there’s no better resource than the workers themselves. Their collective experience and know-how makes them the single best resource for innovative recommendations. Union members at PG&E are positively brimming with easy-to-implement, no-nonsense suggestions to improve the company. But up until now, they’ve been unsure as to how to put their ideas out there, which is what prompted IBEW Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell to host a unique seminar focused specifically on worker-driven process improvements.
“What we’re here to do today is to talk about how we can make PG&E a better, smarter and more efficient company,” Dalzell told a room full of members who came together on Sept. 25 for the seminar, “but not at the expense of giving up what we’ve fought for and won over last 60 years, and not at the expense of giving up jobs. This is an experiment, and we’ve designed it in a way that we think has the best chance of success.”
“Flexible, nimble and quick”
Dozens of members from just about every line of business joined this first-of-its-kind event, which was facilitated by Paul Adler, a professor at the University of Southern California. Adler has studied many large corporations that have pursued similar continuous improvement efforts, and he opened up the seminar by sharing case studies from several big companies, including Toyota and Kaiser, and explaining the continous improvement principles commonly adhered to by these and other corporations.
The union then took the opportunity to share some examples of union-driven continuous improvements that Local 1245 has already undertaken. Senior Assistant Business Manager Ralph Armstrong detailed Local 1245’s peer-to-peer safety program, which is an improvement that was borne out of necessity – far too many workers were being grievously injured and killed on the job. The peer safety program has continued to grow and evolve over the years, and serves as a prime example of what can be accomplished when the union takes the initiative to make a far-reaching difference in the workplace.
Senior Assistant Business Manager Bob Dean provided insight into a much newer continuous improvement initiative regarding electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. He explained how Local 1245 is ready to demonstrate that PG&E workers can install EV stations just as well, if not better, than the outside contractors that PG&E is considering bringing in for this new project, but doing so will mean upending the usual processes. According to Dean, delving in and fine-tuning the EV station installation process will require us to be “flexible, nimble and quick.”
“We’re committed to doing whatever we have to do to make ourselves better, and we’re ready to go wherever the industry takes us,” said Dean. “We believe we’re the best in the world at what we do. We can compete against anyone and win.”
“Communication is the biggest key”
After the presentations concluded, it was time for the members to get down to brass tacks. They broke out into groups delineated by line of business, and began brainstorming different ideas aimed at improving efficiency, safety, quality, cost and customer satisfaction.
“The group that I worked with, I had never met them before, but we realized that we all have the same goals,” said Alicia Rodriguez, who works in Damage Claims at the Concord RMC. “We all have so much knowledge, and we all want to work together [to improve the company].”
Each group outlined their best ideas on large sheets of poster paper, which were hung up on the walls for all to see. The members then toured the room as if it were a sort of interactive museum, stopping in front of each poster to take in the unique ideas presented, and voting on the ones they liked the most by tagging them with brightly colored Post-It notes.
The ideas were wide-ranging and varied, and there were recommendations related to nearly every process, but the ones that seemed to stick out to many of the attendees pertained to improving communication among employees at the company.
“I think communication is the biggest key, across all lines of business,” said Luis Sotomayor, a lineman working out of Grass Valley. “Just opening that up, and having us all on the same page, is going to be beneficial to everyone.”
The seminar concluded with a discussion about the best ways to move forward and present these ideas to the company. Dalzell stated that the union would endeavor to go directly to PG&E Chief Operating Officer Nick Stavropoulos, and would advocate for a system-wide type of listening tour, where every union member would have a chance to express their own unique ideas.
The members who participated in the seminar seemed cautiously optimistic about the potential for positive change on the horizon.
“I think this could be a success, but only if the company is willing to listen to what the union has to say,” said Richmond Electric Crew Foreman Terry Washington.
–Rebecca Band, IBEW 1245 Communications Director
Photos by John Storey