A SMART approach to continuous improvement

Bristol Tennessee Essential Services in northeast Tennessee has little worry in how to retain institutional knowledge about completing everyday work.

That’s because BTES has a comprehensive online program that tracks all of the public power utility’s operating procedures and process improvements. It's called System Management and Resource Training, or SMART. All employees access the system to review specific processes related to their job – and some processes that aren’t as directly related to their job – on a quarterly basis.

Nearly 250 processes are detailed in the system - everything from how to answer the main telephone line to how to set a power pole. Each employee is expected to log into SMART each quarter, run through a step-by-step presentation of a process and then take a 20-question test on each process assigned to them. Employees must get a perfect score to pass the assessment and they retake the test until they do.

Leslie Blevins, public relations and communications manager at BTES, said that the public power utility developed the system to quickly and effectively train new employees and keep existing employees updated on process changes. Before having a system to track all these processes, which BTES first developed more than 10 years ago, Blevins said the utility relied on employees and supervisors to pass along information to new hires or other colleagues. Training employees on how to perform tasks, such as handling the cash register, would take months. Now, said Blevins, training on such a system might take only one day.

“Enabling employees to do their jobs at a very high level and to engage in productive work respects the time and talent of our workforce,” said Mike Browder, chief executive officer at BTES. “Employees see it as an opportunity to improve, and an opportunity to make sure we are doing things to the best of our ability.”

The system is employee-managed, noted Browder, in that employees write the processes, which are then reviewed by the entire department to ensure robust input. Employees can also look at every process to see if there are improvements that can be made and to suggest alternatives or efficiencies. Browder said changes range from small efficiencies or adjustments to how emails should be handled to a complete revision of a process when new technology or software is implemented.

“As an employee, you have buy-in on how future employees are trained,” noted Blevins. “You want them to know how to do their job right and do it effective and quickly.”

Having an online based system proved beneficial as BTES employees transitioned to remote work because of the pandemic. At the end of September, Blevins said that about half of the utility's employees were still working remotely. BTES worked with a vendor to ensure that employees could access the system from mobile devices and other non-networked devices. Blevins also pointed to how the SMART system allows for cross-training, which has helped BTES employees to jump in as needed to help with tasks outside of their regular jobs and balance the workload.

The system isn’t just for training and documentation but is also a source of key business intelligence. Senior leaders and supervisors can evaluate the effectiveness of the learning and development system, including how long it takes for employees to complete the tests, how many attempts it takes for employees to pass the tests, and how effective employees are at the process after the tests.

The SMART system also plays a key role in the utility’s continuous improvement process. Each week, BTES looks at all the ways and reasons that customers contacted the utility – whether in person, over the phone, or via one of its digital platforms – and turns that into a discussion about the top five opportunities for improvement.

For example, Blevins said if customers contacted the utility because they didn’t know the balance of their bill, then the utility explores why the customers had to reach out to receive that information, and where there might be gaps in how customers learn about specific programs or ways to access utility information.

“It is our opportunity to look at the reasons our customers called, and then make process changes based on that feedback … and those process changes go directly into SMART,” said Blevins.

Blevins credits the SMART system as a key reason BTES earned the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for performance excellence in 2017. BTES has been engaged in the Baldrige program since 1993, and Blevins said that the approach informs every aspect of how BTES operates.

“And while some of that happens naturally, in doing our jobs and wanting to be better and more effective, reviewing these processes on a quarterly basis makes continuous improvement a little more intentional,” said Blevins. “It’s part of our culture, it’s who we are, and this is just another step in continuous improvement.”

BTES worked closely with a previous Baldrige winner, a local fast food restaurant called Pal’s Sudden Service, to develop this program. “We took their program for teaching their employees how to make hamburgers and French fries and implemented it to teach our employees how to answer customer questions and provide reliable services,” remarked Browder.