Jean Ann Lawson

Brian Elms
Director of Peak Academy and Analytics
City and County of Denver

Favorite Music

Learning to play acoustic guitar, so music he listens to “consists of songs that I can play.” Eg, “Swing Life Away” by Rise Against, “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon, “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix, and “Hey Hey, My My” by Neil Young. “The one I’m best at is ‘Hey Joe,’ because it’s ridiculously easy.”

Challenge

In 2011, new Denver Mayor Michael Hancock faced a deep recession and budget shortfall but didn’t want to turn to usual remedies like furloughing staff or reducing health benefits; indeed, he felt more services for staff and citizens were needed at such a time.

Solution

Using methods developed by companies like Motorola, Toyota, and FedEx, Brian helped create the City of Denver’s Peak Academy, a “school of innovation” that teaches city employees to find bottlenecks that waste time, annoy citizens, and gobble tax dollars. They are encouraged to propose clever improvements. In the past five years, Brian and his team have trained 6,500 city workers—from cops to custodians and clerks—and saved $22 million. Brian says the program has boosted morale by giving employees more autonomy over how they do their jobs. “Most of the people working in city offices are really smart,” Brian says. “If someone went to college to be a social worker, and they’re now reviewing applications for food assistance, they should be able to say ‘approved’ or ‘not approved’ without having to go to their boss’s boss’s boss.”

The 4.5 day curriculum imparts principles of “lean” or “behavioral” economics. It’s voluntary but employees love to sign up “because they all want to make Denver the world’s best city.” In a typical week, 20 workers from 10 agencies are enrolled, plus 5 from other cities—the latter producing $400k a year in revenue to offset Academy costs of $1.1 million, with the objective to save $5 for every dollar spent. The Academy has already become a model for Providence, San Jose, Kansas City, LA, SF, Chattanooga, the transport agency of Canada, and Brussels, Belgium .

Successes range from expediting food assistance in 24 hours instead of 6 days, to getting licenses for business in 20 minutes instead of 1.5 hours. A parking cashier who went through training decided to analyze every transaction processed at his window. He realized that having to toggle among different electronic databases to answer citizens’ questions was a huge waste of time. By figuring out a way to avoid consulting multiple directories, “he was able to reduce the time it took people to pay their towing bill, get a resident permit, or pay a parking ticket,” Brian says. “There hasn’t been a line in front of the cashier window for months.” The employee got a nice promotion.

Big Lesson

If you ever see people waiting in line or on hold, or if there’s a pile of papers waiting for action, “those are our ‘aha’ moments” representing opportunities to find inefficiencies and improve people’s lives.

Brian’s Personal Background

Raised in the Denver suburb of Arvada, grad of nearby Regis University, served in Americorps in Philly, became policy director for Department of Aging under Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendel, lobbyist for AARP in DC, returned to Denver 10 years ago as city lobbyist for airport.

Currently Reading

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. “His premise is that what we’ve been fed by the leadership industry is all fake.

Brian’s Own Book

Peak Performance: How Denver’s Peak Academy is Saving Money, Boosting Morale and Just Maybe Changing the World. (And How You Can, Too!), available on Amazon.

Additional Personal Factoids

Avid snowboarder (picture is at Keystone, Colorado). Wondering if the same management principles can be applied to raising his teenage daughter.

Contact Info

brian.elms@denvergov.org

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