How Peak Performance Is Taking Denver Employees to New Heights

How Peak Performance Is Taking Denver Employees to New Heights
Anthony Camera

Under the fluorescent lights of a suburban conference room, thirty government employees are trying to figure out how to pass around a tennis ball. There are a few rules: Everyone must touch the ball, but no one can touch it more than once; if the ball is dropped, they have to start over; they must be able to replicate the process.

The people in the room range from gun-slinging police-department officials to tech support to budget specialists to HR representatives. Combined, they have 220 years of experience in Lakewood’s city government, but they’ve clearly never been asked to solve a tennis-ball puzzle while on the clock.

After minimal discussion, the group huddles in a circle, and then each person passes the ball to his or her neighbor. They’ve solved the problem. Easily.

“Great,” says co-facilitator Andy Rees. “Now do it in less than five seconds.” They have two minutes to figure out how. After a little more discussion, the person who started with the ball in the first iteration runs around the circle, making sure to hit the outstretched hand of each member of the group with the ball, in order. Four and a half seconds. Easy again.

“Now do it with three balls,” says Rees. This requires some finagling, some improvising and a couple of practice rounds, but eventually the group accomplishes the task by creating a sort of pinwheel formation of runners who are able to hit everyone in the circle without getting in each other’s way. When they finally succeed, the whole room cheers loudly.

This exercise is part of Peak Academy’s Green Belt training, a four-hour introduction to a Denver-based program designed to help frontline government employees innovate in their jobs — without getting more money or new technology.

The tennis-ball tests lead to a handful of takeaways. Some of those relate to process improvement: Groups are forced to eliminate space and motion to deal with the changing rules of the game — which, a facilitator points out, are often easy to eliminate in processes related to government work, too. Change how far a form has to travel by putting two people in the same room, for instance, and you get quicker approvals and lower wait times in your office. The other takeaways encourage employees to think differently about their jobs: The tennis-ball game fosters a culture of “Let’s try it,” with execution ideas coming from all members of the group, regardless of pay grade.

That is exactly what Peak Academy has tried to foster in the day-to-day workings of Denver’s city government: a belief that employees can be positive agents of change by innovating in their own jobs.

The Lakewood employees spend the rest of the session working with tools that reinforce process improvement. They map the steps to catching a flight at an airport, and find eight types of waste before the plane takes off. They learn to approach innovation by first determining who their customer is — be it the taxi-driver applicant in line at Excise and Licenses or the homeowner receiving a notice — and then identifying an end goal for better delivery of service (such as shorter waits or more efficient online transactions). And they find out how to use a tool called the A3, named for the size of paper it’s printed on, to start fixing a process they have control over, one that can bridge the gap between their current reality and their goal. “Your customer expects to be treated like Zappos and Amazon treats them,” says Brian Elms, director of Peak Academy. “They expect for things to be done immediately. They expect for you to hand them an approved document on the spot.”

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” Rees adds. “You don’t have to make the process perfect. You can improve on each step and make it better.”

“Fix what bugs you, and stop complaining about it,” urges Elms.

And above all, understand what it feels like to try to improve — and succeed. “That training was a fake environment,” concludes Elms. “You figured out how to win, and you were excited about it. How exciting would it be to do that in real life?”

Chief Performance Officer David Edinger was charged with building Peak Performance into a program.
Chief Performance Officer David Edinger was charged with building Peak Performance into a program.
Anthony Camera

When Michael Hancock ran for mayor in 2011, part of his platform called for changing the way Denver government interacted with its constituents. “We wanted to be the most globally competitive city, so we had to get better from the inside out,” Hancock explains. “We needed an innovative way to get at old vestiges of thinking in city government. We want a city built for 2016, not 1916.”

But tackling that was going to be a major challenge: The city was still coming out of the 2008 recession, and in addition to facing some major budget shortfalls, it was dealing with a crisis in staffer confidence after several rounds of layoffs and cuts.

Hancock envisioned creating something like CitiStat, a pioneering program implemented by Martin O’Malley in Baltimore in 2000 that uses real-time data monitoring to point out shortcomings and, ideally, improve performance in departments across the city. CitiStat had grown out of New York City’s CompStat, based on the broken-windows theory of fighting crime: Real-time data helps police departments effectively manage their resources, allowing them to go after smaller offenses — which leads to a decrease in more violent crime. CompStat has been credited with bringing down crime in New York City more than 60 percent.

Hancock wanted to move toward the same type of data-driven decision-making, but decided to call his program Peak Performance because he wanted a “catchier name,” explains Chief Performance Officer David Edinger.

Before joining city government, Edinger had run warehouse logistics operations for a private equity fund for about a decade, using analytics to improve business operations. In 2008, then-mayor John Hickenlooper recruited him for the Denver Department of Safety, where Edinger spent three years helping the sheriff and the head of the fire department figure out how to use innovation to improve the performance of their existing force rather than adding more deputies and firefighters. One of his biggest accomplishments, Edinger says, was figuring out “how to arrest someone more efficiently. At the time, a police officer filled out a triplicate form, handed one copy to the defendant, and then everything got keyed in over and over in all these criminal-justice systems.” With new systems, he adds, “we were getting to a place where everyone gets what they want with the push of a button.” This was better for both the city and the defendant, because nonviolent offenders were processed more quickly and weren’t sitting in jail as long, and police-department staffers were freed up to work on other duties.

Soon after Hancock took office, he charged Edinger with building the Peak Performance campaign promise into an actual program. But when Hancock gave him the playbook for CitiStat, Edinger was skeptical that it alone could fix Denver’s problems. “Every mayor who walks in the door says, ‘I’m going to run this city better, faster and cheaper.’ But it’s not just about measuring people and holding people accountable,” he says.

“We were in some tough budget times at that point, and we wanted to address budget issues in general,” recalls Denver Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon, whose Budget and Management Office in the Department of Finance houses the Peak program. “We needed a way of engaging employees close to the work itself to create improvement. We often see systems that are top-down — they don’t involve employee engagement. Management has some ideas, but day to day, they might not work. We have 10,000 experts in the field all the time. We needed a driver around innovation rather than telling them what to do.”

Brian Elms and his Peak Academy team have trained more than 5,000 city employees.
Brian Elms and his Peak Academy team have trained more than 5,000 city employees.
Anthony Camera

Edinger knew that change would only be possible if the city could shift the mindset of its employees and encourage them to embrace continuous improvement, following the theory of leadership and management expert Simon Sinek, “who talks about how you really get innovation,” he says. “If you try to control it at the top, it’s not going to work.”

So Edinger and Scotty Martin, then a business-process analyst for the city, began batting around the idea of applying Lean tools to city government. Lean is a decades-old methodology that came out of Toyota, and it focuses on customer value and the processes that drive that value. Crucially, it relies on employees to own those processes and take responsibility for continually improving them, eliminating waste. When Lean works, it not only leads to cost savings, but it also helps efficiently meet and even exceed customer expectations.

Hanlon, Edinger and Martin were especially interested in Lean because of what they were seeing at Denver Health, which had implemented the Lean Academy in 2005. As a result of Lean training, Denver Health had seen some major organizational and budgetary improvements: Standardizing the outside referral system made it less confusing to external providers, thereby boosting net revenues by $40,000 in two months; restructuring the cardiac-arrest response system led to a drop in cardiac-arrest incidents, even as it eliminated costs by training staffers already working with patients to recognize the signs of an impending problem. Hanlon was one of the first city officials to attend Denver Health’s training, and he’d recognized the possibilities.

Now Edinger and Martin decided to build their own training program, called Peak Academy, applying Lean methodology to the specific quirks of city governing. Martin, who was responsible for crafting the nuts and bolts, relied heavily on a book by George Koenigsaecker called Leading the Lean Enterprise Transformation, which teaches management teams how to implement Toyota’s tools, including weeklong events meant to rapidly improve broken processes (rapid-improvement events) and the A3, a tool that structures problem-solving by analyzing the gap between a current state and an end goal. He also borrowed from SixSigma, another Lean methodology that relies on measurable data to direct change and empowers a small, elite group of employees, called Black Belts, to disrupt processes across companies.

“The idea is that you build out your Black Belts to be 5 percent of the organization, and they lead the improvement events,” says Elms. “And then the team supports the Black Belts. They are the champions of change — they can disrupt any organization.”

At the same time, there was a push to think of the Denver constituent as a customer, and to deliver value to that customer more efficiently. “Our job is to make people of Denver’s livelihood better,” says Elms. “We needed to think about how what you’re doing impacts an individual and change parts of the system to make it better.”

Most important, Peak had to instill in Denver employees a realization that it’s okay to fail. “That’s hard in government. Failures make the newspaper,” says Elms. “But without failure, you can’t improve.”

By June 2012, Martin had built a pilot five-day Black Belt training program, adapting tools to operate within government, and he’d tested a rapid-improvement event in one city department. That August he brought on Elms, who’d worked as a lobbyist for Denver International Airport and had gone through Denver Health’s program. [Editor’s note: Elms is a friend of reporter Laura Shunk.] Elms helped Martin tweak the curriculum and write the introductory Green Belt. That fall, Peak Academy launched in earnest, offering two classes and rapid-improvement events to everyone in city government.

But in December, Peak officials learned they had a time limit: The city would fund the academy to the tune of $500,000 annually for two years. If it didn’t see a return on investment in that time, the funding would dry up.

The clock started on January 1, 2013.

Drew Brown (from left), Jerraud Coleman, Christi Ng, Brian Elms, Melissa Field, Andy Rees, Kate May and Robert Peek are the Peak Academy team.
Drew Brown (from left), Jerraud Coleman, Christi Ng, Brian Elms, Melissa Field, Andy Rees, Kate May and Robert Peek are the Peak Academy team.
Anthony Camera

Peak’s early days were dark. Only two departments agreed to work with the program in the beginning: the airport, which was doing Elms a favor, and Denver Human Services, Martin’s former agency. Participants were often forced into training by bosses eager to please the mayor, and they were combative; they’d tell facilitators that the tools they were learning would never prove practical. Classes were unruly, probably because “people had already tried other things, and they were used to being blamed for failures,” Elms says. “They felt paralyzed, and they didn’t know that the class could help them out.”

Employees left trainings feeling unempowered, the opposite of what Peak intended. One early participant, who asked to remain anonymous because she still works for the city, remembers spending a week working on a process improvement related to a problem that no one in the group had the power to influence. “It was demoralizing,” she recalls. “It left such a bad taste in my mouth.”

Moreover, some employees would use the training as an invitation to step over boundaries: Elms remembers one participant who took a Green Belt training and then went back and completely reorganized a neighbor’s desk while that colleague was on vacation. Not surprisingly, the vacationer went ballistic upon returning.

Elms thought about quitting, and other members of Peak Academy, who’d been hired on under the city’s provisional budget, actually did leave. But then the team got its first measurable success: After going through a Green Belt training, Loretta Bennion and Amber Vancil, who worked at Denver Wastewater Management, saved the city $40,000 per year by using regular postage instead of certified mail to send out notices. “I think that’s when we knew we were going to be okay,” Elms wrote in Peak Performance, the book he wrote with J.B. Wogan that was published by Governing Books this year.

More success stories started filtering in. Jerraud Coleman, who worked in parking permits, took the Green Belt training, then instituted a simple labeling system at his desk to ensure that permits didn’t get mixed up, which enabled him to issue them more quickly while decreasing the number of errors. At that point, Coleman says, “I was pretty much hooked.” He took a Black Belt training soon after and worked with his team to re-engineer the entire permitting process by standardizing the procedure and moving some of it online, dropping transaction time by several minutes (a soft savings of $44,000 a year) and reducing constituent complaints by 5 to 10 percent. Coleman now works for Peak, and he relays the stories of his own trials and tribulations as encouragement.

City Park Greenhouse and Horticulture Manager Julie Lehman used training to fix what bugged her.
City Park Greenhouse and Horticulture Manager Julie Lehman used training to fix what bugged her.
Anthony Camera

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Julie Lehman, City Park Greenhouse and Horticulture Manager, took Peak’s training and used the tools to streamline the process of ordering and picking up plants for all of Denver’s parks. “It saved us tons of hours of labor,” she says. “People were really upset by the old process; it bred bad blood for years. People would make their order a year ahead of time, and we’d grow plants for them. When time came to transplant, they’d come to get the plants and the plants wouldn’t be there, because someone took them or they weren’t available.”

In 2013, Peak saved the city a total of $3.3 million. In 2014, that number jumped to $5.4 million. Peak had proved its return on investment and was no longer under threat of being defunded. But the team still wasn’t getting the kind of lasting changes it wanted, and couldn’t quite put its finger on why.

By this point, Martin had passed control of Peak Academy to Elms and had begun beefing up the city’s analytics programs within the same department. After a rapid-improvement event that Elms says was a colossal failure, the pair looked at the data collected about its program participants and had a revelation. “When an individual who worked in a given area made the change and then continued working in that area, they were successful,” Elms observes.

What wasn’t working was employees trying to make changes in a process over which they had no control — which called into question the wisdom of those rapid-improvement events. “Our 5 percent Black Belts didn’t have the capability to follow through on the massive parts of those changes,” says Elms. “So we had a 70 to 80 percent failure rate in the events they were running. Our own events were also massive failures.
When we tried to schwoop in and out, we failed tremendously. We call it schwoop and poop, or seagulling.”

It was around this time that Elms happened on the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Peak Academy’s programs needed an overhaul, he realized; they needed to focus on encouraging employees to innovate only within their own lanes so that their innovations would stick. And something needed to replace the rapid-improvement events — or, at the very least, Peak needed to minimize the bad effects of schwooping and pooping.

Alice Nightengale’s Animal Protection team saved the city about half a million dollars via a Peak Partnership.
Alice Nightengale’s Animal Protection team saved the city about half a million dollars via a Peak Partnership.
Anthony Camera

When Alice Nightengale took over Denver Animal Protection in 2013, she quickly realized she needed help. Morale was low in her department, in part because employees were distraught over the poor level of animal care. “Animals don’t do well in a shelter environment,” Nightengale says. “They get stressed. Being able to get them to a home quickly is important and humane.” But when she took over, animals were spending an average of seventeen days in the shelter. Their medical care was slow, too, and caregivers were giving them too many treats, which was not helping their health.

Nightengale called Peak. “I saw Peak as an opportunity to step back and look at what we do and think about who our customer is,” she explains.

Peak’s initial engagement with the department was disastrous, however. Facilitator Melissa Field trained a large chunk of the staff in one session and described the experience in a guest chapter she wrote for Peak Performance: “I was struck by how disengaged and hostile some of the employees seemed to be.... The employees looked at me the way a clique of friends looks at an unwelcome transfer student.”

But Nightengale was hopeful: During her own Black Belt training, she focused on a citation process that was always backlogged. “We cut out so many days of backlog just by mapping out the process and having the users engaged in the process,” she recalls. She was sold on the power of the methodology, and so when Elms approached her about a program he wanted to test, she was receptive.

The idea was to embed Field at Animal Protection full-time for six months. She would start out by observing the daily workings of the department, and then the team members would work together to identify their customers and a goal in line with providing better service for those customers. After that, Field would gently but persistently push every single staffer to apply the Peak tools (especially the A3) to the processes they were responsible for and come up with innovations geared toward that goal, while bettering their own jobs at the same time. They were to fix what bugged them.

Change at Animal Protection didn’t happen overnight, but once the staffers decided they were going to focus on reducing the length of animal stay, employees started stepping forward with ideas. “Before the change, we had this five-day wait requirement. If we couldn’t find the owner, the animal becomes ours on day six,” remembers Nightengale. “So we’d trace the tags and we’d wait. The animal would wait for medical staff to see it for two or three days. Then we’d assess its temperament, its behavior, whether it was fearful, and it took a long time for us to get around to making a decision about its placement. It might sit on a list for a long time, which meant its behavior would deteriorate,” which also increased the risk that the animal would be sent to another shelter instead of a home. “One innovation automated animal flow: Medical staff would get a notice to go look at it within a time frame, then it showed up on someone’s list.

We were able to do everything at once, without waiting for an owner to show up,” she continues. And if an owner never did show up, they could quickly move the animal to a home, which had the bonus effect of perking up caretakers who hated to see animals move on to other shelters.

Other innovations included a simple index-card system to halt over-treating, and signage directing people looking for animals to the right place. In the end, says Nightengale, the engagement led to eliminating “something like a half-million dollars in soft and hard costs,” and it reduced the average length of stay for an animal from seventeen to ten days. Perhaps more important, it also empowered the staff. “It boosted the internal organizational image,” she observes. “Employees puffed out their chests because we were more productive, and that conveyed to the community that we’re problem-solvers. Staff was more likely to speak up instead of getting angry. If they’re tired of something, they dust off A3 and try to solve it. It feels good to be productive or effective.”

The work with Nightengale’s department was the birth of Peak Partnerships, which, over the course of the next couple of years, completely replaced rapid-improvement events and became the most successful component of Peak Academy. Peak has since worked with the Office of Economic Development, Transportation and Mobility, Excise and Licenses and the City Attorney’s Office, and while not every one of those partnerships was a broad success, several produced massive changes and cost savings as well as an improved experience for Denver residents.

Stacie Loucks, the former director of Excise and Licenses, says she called Peak during her first week on the job because she realized she was facing major structural issues, and she had a lot of unhappy business applicants milling around her lobby. Excise and Licenses processes licenses for taxi drivers, security guards, marijuana facilities and restaurants. It touches every new business in the city except for contracting — which many contractors only found out after they’d waited in line at the wrong office for hours.

Field spent the first weeks of her tenure with the Excise and Licenses team sitting in the lobby and timing transactions; she determined that Loucks had a one-hour-and-forty-minute average wait time, and a peak wait time of three hours. The team got to work analyzing processes and making changes; it installed signage directing contractors to Denver Community Planning and Development, stapled packets of forms together to avoid having applicants reach the clerk’s window without everything they needed, and helped people fill out those forms in the lobby so they didn’t have to do it at the window. “Our average wait time is now under ten minutes,” says Loucks. “Those are some pretty significant changes.”

Peak Academy’s current engagement with the city’s HR department “is probably going to be the largest success we’ve ever seen,” Elms says. “The team is on target to get people into a job forty days after the job posted, down from 85 days. They’re trying to be within the [private and public-sector] HR industry standard of 35 days. This is one of those stories you tell for decades.”

And then there were the changes that the Academy made to its Green Belt and Black Belt training, focusing employees more on owning — and fixing — their own processes. The Peak team based a lot of the curriculum tweaks on the Chip and Dan Heath theories of change management, pulling from the books Made to Stick and Switch. The Heaths advocate chunking problems into smaller problems to push through incremental and easy-to-stomach microchanges that eventually add up to big results.

“After we made that shift, our numbers went nuts,” says Elms. The failure rate of Peak-related innovations fell to 50 percent, a significant improvement over the 70 to 80 percent failure rate the Academy had seen before, and better than at many Lean-oriented private companies, which often settle for that higher failure rate.

Because of Peak’s success in several departments, it suddenly had more trainees than it could handle. To date, nearly half of Denver’s 13,000 employees have gone through at least the Green Belt training — and they’re now working across the city to make small improvements for big gains.

As Peak’s success rate skyrocketed, other municipalities began taking notice. “In 2014 I attended a conference out in Denver about transforming local government,” says Eric Milch, the Learning and Organizational Development specialist for the city of Gainesville, Florida. “Brian made a presentation about Peak. I’d already read a little bit about it. I knew we needed process-improvement methods here in the city of Gainesville, because we had a lot of things that we did kind of piecemeal. All I could talk about after the session was that this is what we needed.”

Municipal officials were particularly drawn to the way Peak took private-sector methodologies like Lean that governments have been trying to use for years and made them relevant and seamless in a government environment. “I was in our budget office ten years ago, and I attended a SixSigma Black Belt course through a manufacturing company,” recalls Kansas City Deputy Performance Officer Julie Steenson. “It was 120 hours of instruction, and it was super-intense. My other classmates were mostly engineers from around the country, and they were very focused on manufacturing stuff, but all the math and control charts were hard for me to apply in a social-services setting. I’d been using the tools ad hoc as best we could, but I was on an island. I went out to Peak last August, and it made all the difference. It’s very applicable.”

Milch and Steenson have implemented versions of Peak in their cities, as has Nicole Pollack, who was the Chief Innovation Officer for Providence, Rhode Island, before she became the mayor’s chief of staff. About 350 Providence workers have been trained to date, and the city has started to see some significant results.
“One of our clerks was mailing notices to abandoned homes to tell them that the home was abandoned,” Pollack says. “The inspector had already gone out to verify that it was abandoned and not to code. Mailing wasn’t required by ordinance, so our clerk realized we could have another notification system through e-mail. It saved $50,000 to $60,000 a year in certified mail and paper.”

Elms and his Peak team have now trained officials in more than 100 municipalities, ranging from small towns to the government of Canada. They charge about $5,000 per day, which goes into the Denver General Fund. The influx of interest prompted Elms to write his book; he’s splitting royalties with the city.
“I didn’t have time to talk through the program with everyone who calls,” Elms explains. “So the idea was, go read this book and then come back to me.”

Peak’s success has propelled Denver to a leadership role among government innovators. “We’re surprised and honored by the international interest, but it’s really very basic,” says Mayor Hancock. “Invest in your employees to be the innovators and to make continuous improvements. If you want to get better, that’s the best tool.”

Edinger agrees that employee empowerment is what sets the Peak program apart. “We’re a leader because we have a mayor willing to make an investment in our employees more than others want to,” he says. “Most places are more ‘command and control.’ This takes the authority out of the leaders’ hands and puts it into the hands of the employees, so leaders focus less on authority and more on their leadership; there’s no micromanagement strategy. That’s how you shift the models.”

Juan Garza used Peak lessons to make improvements at the city's parking-permits office.
Juan Garza used Peak lessons to make improvements at the city's parking-permits office.
Anthony Camera

Peak’s work has already earned the program honors and accolades, including a Public Official of the Year award that Hancock will pick up next week from Governing magazine. But Elms, Edinger and Hanlon insist they’re just laying the groundwork for a much broader vision.

Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies made Denver a What Works City thanks to Peak, and with that title came expertise to integrate behavior economics into its trainings — aimed at getting better responses from constituents to communications from the city — and support for analytics training, which is Peak Academy’s next big push. “We’re trying to democratize data,” Elms says. “We’re training people how to collect and use their data, and to analyze their own data using more powerful systems where you don’t need code.”

The goal, says Edinger, is for every leader in the city to be able to look at real-time data and make decisions that will help enhance performance on the spot. “Performance needs to be part of every conversation,” he says. “We don’t run the business and every once in a while come talk about performance. If we can get to the place in 2017 where every meeting has a performance component to it and every leader is thinking about outcomes, we’ll be a leader in the country on that. I haven’t seen any other city that’s been able to get to that.... I want to get to the place where the police chief says, ‘I don’t need more cops, I need better lighting. The mission is to reduce crime, and I don’t care what the resources are — I want to use resources to get me to where I need to be.’”

To that end, the team is encouraging data-gathering initiatives on the front lines, too. When Juan Garza’s first attempt at innovating within the parking-permits office failed, he began collecting his own data on his transactions, recording the type and the time it took to complete. Then he looked for patterns and places where he could improve. “The biggest thing that came out of it was e-mail,” he says. “If someone applies online and doesn’t provide what we need, we have to let them know that we can’t give them their permit because they forgot something. We were composing a new e-mail every time, which meant taking two and a half to five minutes telling a person what they’d messed up on. I came up with an e-mail template; now it takes thirty seconds. We just highlight what they missed and send it. Going from two and a half minutes to thirty seconds several times a year adds up.”

The Peak team hopes all City of Denver employees will follow Garza’s example. “Peak Academy is turning into more of a lab,” says Elms. “There are multiple things happening at the same time with the same people.”

Even with Hancock’s support, Peak Academy has its fair share of detractors. The anonymous official who felt demoralized after an early training calls the Peak team “arrogant” and objects to its approach. “I’ve been in government longer than I’d like to admit, and if you want lasting change and enthusiasm behind the process, you need buy-in of the people doing the process,” she says. “Peak is very dismissive.

Supervisors are left out, and those supervisors know the history of the processes. Government is built on ordinances and code, and no one really thinks about those during the trainings. So you get these situations where people are really gung-ho, and they find out after the fact that there’s a reason in the code that they can’t make the change. So they’ve invested the time and taken the time out of the work and pushed through the process, only to find out it can’t happen.”

Elms says he stopped focusing on buy-in after an engagement that he spent months setting up. “I worked on a weekly basis with management talking about the types of things their employees were going to do, the things we needed them to do,” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘Are you excited?’ And they’d say ‘Yes!’ We did this whole exercise, and at the end, management said, ‘This is stupid. What a waste of time this whole two-month exercise was.’ They blamed my team in front of 100 people, after months of buy-in. I’ll never forget how I felt. Since then, I don’t ever try to get buy-in.”

But the true threat to Peak Academy’s longevity is not its methodologies; it’s inevitable regime change. Elms is not an appointee, so his job is not directly dependent on who is in the mayor’s office, but he acknowledges that Hancock’s successor could dismantle Peak Academy. Still, he’s optimistic that new leadership would at least be open to keeping Peak around in some capacity. “Because of the significant amount of success we’ve received over the last few years, it would be shocking to me for a new executive to come in and say ‘You guys have to go away,’” says Elms. “But it happened in Baltimore. It happened in New York. They still have a stat program in Baltimore, but it’s a totally different world.”

Even if Peak is shut down officially, Elms thinks the program has a good chance to live on, if just through the day-to-day operations of the people the Academy has trained. “Look, this is working because we have employees working every day to make this the best city in the country,” he says. “It’s not because of me. They see a problem, and now they have the tools to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, Peak continues to rack up victories. Thanks to Peak’s influence, Elms says, the wait to receive food assistance has dropped from six days to 24 hours. DMV lines have dropped from an hour and a half to less than twenty minutes. Peak has already saved the city more than $7 million this year, its biggest year yet.

For Hancock, the program has already been a wild success. “Peak Academy has instilled skills that will last a lifetime,” the mayor says. “Employees have the tools to ask, ‘What are the unnecessary steps, and how do we improve?’ Peak’s greatest value has been enabling a different way of thinking by city employees. That enables us to leave behind a much better city than the one we found.”

One of the last activities in Lakewood requires the trainees to draw a pig. After two minutes, Elms asks everyone to hold up their drawings. Thirty different kinds of pigs flash up in the air.

Next, Elms hands out a set of written instructions that the trainees are to follow when they draw another pig. This is marginally more successful; a couple of people manage to do a decent pig. But most people hold up some combination of geometric shapes that vaguely resembles an amateur take on cubist painting.

Finally, Elms shows a slide that animates each step, culminating in the pig that they’re all supposed to draw. This time, everyone produces the same pig.

The lesson is twofold: Participants need to rethink instructions to better accomplish goals, but they also need to think about the benefits of standardization in streamlining and enshrining whatever changes they make.

“Standards will likely live on,” says Elms. Even after an employee leaves, a director leaves, an initiative changes.

Even after Peak.


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