By Michael Pearsall, P.Eng., CVS, FEC
Keeping your transportation value management team alive and active can be a challenge for most of us. Many organizations, mine included, have an organizational structure that relies heavily on one Value Engineering (VE) expert. A strong champion in that position can take the organization a long way; however, there is an inherent risk that the loss of that strong individual can wipe out a successful program overnight. Sadly, I have seen this scenario played out far too many times in various transportation departments around North America.
As the champions for VE in our organisations, how can we stop this from happening to us?
My thoughts have been turned to this topic a great deal lately as I contemplate the retirement this month of my co-worker and good friend SteVE Holmes, P. Eng., CVS-Life. Many of you reading this will know SteVE from the many AASHTO VE meetings, SAVE conferences and Value Summits he has attended over the past 20 years. SteVE is a true dyed-in-the-wool champion right down to his insistence that the last letters in his first name be capitalized to show how much VE is part of him.
In our transportation agency we only have one position (the Senior Engineer, Value Engineering) dedicated to value management, a position that has essentially been held by the same individual for the past two decades. Having the same person in a key subject matter expert role for a long time can be both a benefit and a problem. This is particularly true when you are facing the loss of this key individual.
To many people, SteVE Holmes is synonymous with VE at MTO and he is rightfully credited with being largely the father of our existing program. I often tell surprised people that I was involved with VE at MTO prior to SteVE and helped coordinate our very first training. Many people initially don’t believe me that VE at MTO existed before SteVE as he has had such a profound effect on the program for such a long time. You may or may not be surprised to hear of other now-retired MTO staff were instrumental in the early stages of our VE program, such as Brian Ruck, Ted Lane and Tom Fletcher. Many other DOTs can tell similar stories with other notable subject matter experts.
In contemplating this situation, I have come up with some suggested “rules” to help keep the momentum of your VE program in a single-incumbency situation.
Rule #1 – Heavily involve others in delivery of the program in any way that works for your organization. This is very important for continuity and succession planning. If you can’t get more dedicated positions, you can have volunteers. Our organization relies on VE Coordinators (VEC) in each of the Regional Offices. The position is a volunteer title on top of the individual’s existing position. We started out with one per region and after a few years expanded to have two per region. While volunteer ad-on positions may not be the best solution, they are a valid option to have multiple people involved in running your program. Personally, I served as a regional VEC for nearly a decade and it was a great way for me to stay heavily involved in our VE program while chasing other career experience and paths.
Rule #2 – Train as many as you can. The more internal staff you train, the more potential champions and future successors you have available. A big side benefit of this is some people may take career paths where they bypass VE roles and end-up in Senior Management as a helpful champion. Our SAVE International President, Renee Hoekstra, often speaks about spreading the word of VE. Internal training is a great way to spread the seed proselytizing and the more seeds you plant the more will sprout up.
Rule #3 – Build a strong team and solid partnerships. I have joked a few times over the years that SteVE is my “second wife”. We have co-facilitated and co-trained together so often that we can read and react to each other like an old married couple. Getting your group of VE program leaders together on a regular basis and having them co-lead things helps to build this strong team. Another benefit is learning each other’s strengths and the team using these individual strengths to a group benefit. In the early days of our program at MTO I remember many a long afternoon or evening with SteVE, Ted Lane and myself sitting around a boardroom table trying to sort out a problem or fix a policy. Ted had an incredible way of seeing things through multiple viewpoints and phrasing it best for the audience, SteVE had buckets of enthusiasm, energy and creativity, we all had our roles and like a VE workshop team we used them together. Look to build your own strong internal teams.
Rule #4 – Document and write everything. Get policies and procedures written and update them regularly. It is easier for succession and continued progress and momentum when how you operate is clearly documented and always up to date.
Rule #5 – Find the right expert and have faith. If you only have one position, make sure it is filled with the best person you can find. Honestly recognise that person may not be an expert in VE when they start. What is most important is their ability to learn fast and a passion to keep your program running strong. I still clearly remember looking at the job ad 22 years ago, deciding not to apply and later saying who is this person they gave the job to? The reality is that I have said many times over the years since that I am so glad we ended up with the subject matter expert we did as our program would not be where it is today otherwise.
Hopefully this discussion and suggested “rules” will help you with your program. We are just heading into our first big test, so time will only tell. I have taken a different path than some being a Value Engineer in our organization in practice but not in formal title working my way up to managing the office that oversees our VE program. Along the way I have been blessed to work with a strong champion and see an award-winning program develop. It was with a heavy heart that I signed his retirement papers.
Does anyone out there have other rules to add to this?
Here are a few things you may not know about SteVE:
- He loves real camping. SteVE is the only one I know who has been tent camping in all Provinces (and maybe the territories as well);
- He is an avid canoeist;
- He is active in Scouting. Not only has he been through all the ranks, he has also volunteered as a leader for many years;
- He is into cycling. SteVE loves to ride his bike and has in many different areas around North America;
- His favourite sport is hockey and his team of choice is the Montreal Canadians. I know it is a difficult team choice to live with, but I have stayed his friend throughout;
- He is a proud source of Canadiana. He can champion everything from folk songs, to beer with knowledge facts.
Most importantly, SteVE is also one of the best friends you can ever have. I can personally attest to the fact he will give you the shirt off his back, help a friend with anything and go without a meal himself to see a friend fed. I can easily give you many true examples of all of these traits. I will miss working closely with SteVE, but I know our friendship will last for many more years.
In closing, I would like to give everyone a reminder that the 2020 Value Summit will once-again have a dedicated track for transportation. Mark Gabel of WSDOT has been working hard again this year to make this happen and I can’t continue to thank him enough.
Until the next issue, I would like to continue to encourage any transportation professional out there who would like to share their stories to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope to see you all June 6-9, 2020 at the 2020 Value Summit in New Orleans, LA – mark your calendars now!