Denver Peak Academy: The Innovation Interview

Brian Elms and Melissa Field of the Denver Peak Academy share their thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and lean thinking in the public sector.

Brian Elms is a creative public affairs and process improvement professional with 15 years of experience providing political, policy, legislative and program management expertise to government agencies, elected officials, trade associations and non-profit organizations. Brian started his career in public service after graduating from Regis University and joining the National School and Community Corps (AmeriCorps) as a team leader. After working in Washington DC, Brian moved back to his hometown and served as the Assistant Director of Government Affairs at Denver International Airport.

Brian is a certified Lean Black Belt and is a leader in Denver’s Peak Academy. He helped create the Peak Academy curriculum and trains employees performance management and continuous improvement through the Lean process improvement methodology. Brian is a graduate of Leadership Denver.

Melissa Field has over 6 years experience in public policy. She previously held positions with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the United States Department of State, a Philadelphia-based public policy consulting firm, and a local nonprofit organization. She currently serves as the Peak Academy process improvement analyst for the Denver Animal Shelter and has worked extensively with the Departments of Public Works, Excise and Licenses, and Environmental Health. She has coordinated several large scale conferences and trainings and facilitated multiple process improvement efforts. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently writing her first book.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation for us means trying something new or different. The Peak Academy believes in accepting all attempts at change, no matter how small.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

The Peak Academy uses the Lean methodology. We first teach employees the tools to help them innovate because we think it’s important for employees to feel empowered with knowledge and have a shared language as they go through process innovation together.

Our classes pull together employees from agencies throughout the City and County of Denver. We teach the value of working as a team and building an infrastructure where teams can go through changes together. We also test all our ideas through experiments. It’s important for our employees to understand that, through the testing process, we might find that certain ideas won’t work and that’s fine.

We’d rather have employees try something new and not be successful than never try at all. The Mayor also made a promise to City employees that no one would lose his/her job as a result of a process improvement.

Embracing failure as a step on the way to success, promising support and security, and training facilitators and leaders to lead with humility and build supportive open environments where people can share without fear are all strategies we use to embrace innovation and take more risks.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

My advice is simple:

  1. Do not dip your toe in the water, it will get cut off by the culture of the city.
  2. We didn’t do this and I feel we missed a major step…focus on supervisors and managers after the line staff training. The supervisors and managers are former line staff and used to do this job…they can single handily defeat your continuous improvement.
  3. Only go where you are invited. And slice it really thin. Don’t commit to the Department of Public Works as a whole. Break them down into groups of 100. Use a single facilitator/internal consultant for every 100 employees. Focus intently on them for 6 months before moving to another 100 people.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

Seeing 8 non-lean practitioners become amazing facilitators and internal consultants in less than 1 year.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?


Why did the City of Denver decided to actively embrace Lean Thinking and open the Peak Academy?

Lean was simple—easy to use and understand. In addition, it’s open source and we could easily tailor the tools to government processes.

What inspiration has Toyota had on the City of Denver when it comes to implementing lean thinking?

Toyota and Lean are the basis for the curriculum. We liked the simplicity of Toyota’s approach and their focus on continuous improvement, the customer voice, and employee engagement. We also facilitate kaizen events, which we refer to as Rapid Improvement Events.

Has the City of Denver turned to the home-grown company Chipotle to learn how they were able to grow a Denver based business into an international brand all the while maintaining their culture and maintaining a cool factor with their customers?

No, we haven’t talked to anyone at Chipotle, though that’s a great idea!

How has the startup scene in Denver evolved since the Peak Academy launched in 2011?

We work with employees throughout the City and County of Denver so we haven’t partnered with startup companies or businesses in Denver.

Thus far what are the City of Denver’s greatest takeaways from the Peak Academy and have other City Governments approached the City Of Denver to learn best practices of lean thinking?

Accept all changes, no matter how small; train employees in process improvement; allow the employees who do the work to innovate on that work; tie innovation to metrics and a strategic plan; track metrics and follow-up; celebrate employees; build environments of honesty and kindness.