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PennDOT honors 18 employees for winning ideas at first-ever Virtual Innovations Awards ceremony

November 17, 2020 09:00 AM
By: Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT Bureau of Innovations

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​Eighteen current and former PennDOT staff were honored on Oct. 29 at PennDOT's first-ever virtual Innovations Award Ceremony, which recognized employees for their idea and smart practice submissions into IdeaLink and WorkSmart, PennDOT's two online employee engagement systems.

Secretary Yassmin Gramian, P.E., welcomed the winners.

"COVID-19 has forced us to rethink how we do our business," she said. "With our large transportation network and our always scarce resources, we have built a strong legacy of creativity to meet our day-to-day mission and goals. But COVID-19 has challenged us to stretch even further. And today, we honor members of our PennDOT team for their outstanding innovative contributions."

Deputy Secretary for Administration Robert L. Chiappelli added that "the challenges we are all facing in the pandemic environment have shown why it is so important for PennDOT to have embraced innovation through IdeaLink and WorkSmart and the Lean PA initiatives. We simply could not allow the precautions needed to fight the pandemic to thwart our service delivery. And our award winners are a testament to the innovation, ingenuity and problem-solving abilities of our staff to meet these changing circumstances."

Executive Deputy Secretary George W. McAuley, Jr., P.E., recognized each of the winners:

IdeaLink Winners

  • Kristi Smith, now retired from Highway Administration, Central Office, recommended that Safety be added as a separate IdeaLink category and that any safety IdeaLink suggestions undergo an expedited review. Daryl St. Clair, special assistant to the Highway Administration deputy secretary, accepted the award on Kristi's behalf.
  • Daniel Carpenter, a highway foreman, and Andrew Eickholz, an equipment operator, both in PennDOT's  District 8 Lebanon County operation, came up with an idea to add a spray bar to dump trucks for winter de-icing. The innovation allows PennDOT's maintenance forces to pretreat more roads, save salt costs and make winter services more efficient.
  • Julie Stickler, artist illustrator in the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations, works in PennDOT's Sign Shop in Harrisburg. She noticed that the rolls of sign sheeting have two thick plastic holders on each end. She noted that her operation goes through 25 to 50 rolls a day and was not recycling the plastic holders. She suggested PennDOT recycle the plastic holders, which it now does.
  • Stacey Renee McMullen in District 1 - Mercer County, suggested replacing the 5-, 10- and multiple-year references in the roadside signs thanking highway clean-up volunteer organizations with a one-time sign that refers to the year the volunteer group started clean-up work. The change means the thank you signs do not have to be replaced every five years.

WorkSmart Winners

District 1

Highway Equipment Manager, Matt Semian, in the Crawford County Maintenance Office accepted the award  on behalf of the county garage staff for their Snowplow Refurbishment Program. Each year, county staff thoroughly assesses plows for refurbishment or replacement. Plows that can be refurbished are disassembled, repaired, and sent to a vendor for sandblasting and refinishing with a high-quality urethane primer and topcoat. During reassembly, wear items, such as pins, bushings, hydraulic rams, chains, and hoists are replaced or rebuilt. Since 2016, the county has refurbished 32 front plows. County leadership expects this effort extended the life of the plows from 14 years to 24 years. The three-year cost savings already total nearly $288,000.

District 2

Clinton County Manager, Peter Kempf, and Office of Performance and Operations (OPO) Regional Manager, Damon Wagner, developed a process mapping idea while working together in PennDOT's OPO. They thought it would be helpful to learn how the counties operated as well as being able to show new employees why things are done a certain way and where assigned tasks fall in the overall operation. They decided to analyze each county process, identify all the steps and look for any Lean opportunities as they created documents to outline each process. In the end, not only will the process mapping help new employees adjust, the documents will serve as a guideline for all staff members to ensure consistency and efficiency. It will define roles and responsibilities for the employee.

District 3

Controlling drainage is an important aspect of PennDOT's roadway maintenance program. David Shearer, maintenance manager in Snyder and Union counties in District 3, has championed the installation of underdrains to help curtail premature roadway base failure. He teamed up with Maintenance Assistant District Executive Eric High and Maintenance Services Engineer Ken Bair to arrange for a rented trencher to expand underdrain installation. It took about a year to find a vendor with the right trencher, and in 2016, the district performed the first three pilot projects. Productivity improved from 0.21 workhours per foot to 0.55 workhours per foot. All counties within District 3 now have a goal of using a rented trencher for at least one underdrain project a year. This has led to significant reductions in the quantities of base repair and patching needs. For example, from 2007 to 2014, Union County averaged almost 7,000 tons of base repairs annually. That was cut to an average 3,200 from 2015 to 2019.

District 4

Five years ago, the only way to track construction costs during a project was to manually add data to an Excel spreadsheet. Acting District 4 Maintenance Services Engineer, Jonathan Eboli, led a team for Central Office and District 2 that developed an online, automated version of the construction cost sheet. After two pilot programs and a few adjustments, a fully functional cost exposure report is now available on the PennDOT Data Integration Facility (PDIF) site for every district to use. Instead of taking  an hour to complete, the process can take as little as four minutes per project and accuracy is greatly enhanced. District 4 alone anticipates $72,000 per year in personnel cost savings.

District 5

Northampton County's Senior Maintenance Manager, Rodney Vanscavish, created a winter checklist to help ensure his team is ready for the first snowfall. The checklist covers everything from preparing equipment and supplies at stockpiles to updating plow routes and emergency contact information. Beginning in September each year, the list is reviewed weekly at staff meetings, identifying what needs to be done, who is responsible for each task, and making sure it is all completed by winter. Rodney also created a Snow Fighters Handbook for operators, foremen and assistant county managers. Each handbook contains phone numbers, fueling station locations, route maps, directions and simple answers to every imaginable question from handling irate customers to the amount of salt needed in a snowstorm. The handbook is updated every fall and placed in every snow removal vehicle. Before the handbook, Rodney noted, loose notes were being placed in trucks and the chances were good that scattershot approach would mean lost information.

District 6

Senior Traffic Manager, Francis Hanney, played a key role in developing Virtual Inspection  for PennDOT projects. This innovation allows contractors to coordinate with and submit documentation to PennDOT to verify projects are complying with PennDOT policies, standards and regulations. The COVID-19 emergency dictated this tool to help verify compliance with all required policies, standards and regulations. The Virtual Inspection packet includes full instructions, process guidance, and places to provide required construction documentation. It also includes applicable standard PennDOT forms for compaction, nuclear density testing results and inspection cost reimbursement. The packet also contains clear, concise instructions for the contractor and ensures clear, daily communication and coordination of all projects.

District 8

A culture of innovation in District 8 has made a big difference in how its traffic unit has met and exceeded the pandemic challenges. Under the direction of the district's Intelligent Transportation Systems Manager, Christopher Flad, the Traffic Unit started working diligently to reduce paper records, improve the electronic traffic study and permit review process, as well as try to embrace telecommunication technology. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, not only could they maintain productivity, they were able to provide guidance to other district traffic units in issuing electronic permit plans. Under Chris' direction, the traffic unit developed a process for electronic signatures and professional engineer seals and trained other staff statewide on this process; improved customer service by moving to an all-electronic submission system for traffic studies and traffic signal permits; shifted to teleconferencing for internal meetings with consultants; and transferred paper records to digital formats. Chris also headed up the transition of the District's Traffic Management Center (TMC) to a telework environment.  

District 9

As PennDOT maintenance forces know well, overhead power lines can pose a significant hazard for dump truck operators. PennDOT saw that firsthand in Blair County on May 20, 2019. During a department-force mill and fill operation, a vendor truck was dumping into the widener when its cab protector hit a power line. The truck bed arced off the power line and left a burn mark on the side of the truck. During the After Action Review, it was discovered that a vendor employee had been electrocuted in a similar incident in 2008. Borrowing from the vendor's response, Sean Homan, roadway programs manager, advocated for a mandatory policy to place pink flags on each side of the roadway directly under any overhead wire crossing. There is also an option to paint pink lines across the roadway directly under the overhead line. 

District 10

To meet the objective of promoting open communication, Paul Koza, assistant district executive for construction, and Seth Marshall, senior civil engineer supervisor, developed construction project and winter services electronic customer surveys. The district's Construction Unit and then Community Relations Coordinator Deborah Casadei worked with PennDOT's Bureau of Innovations to develop the new surveys using SurveyMonkey. The electronic survey replaced paper surveys mailed to residents in the project areas. The survey listed 18 projects under construction in 2016 within District 10's area of Armstrong, Butler, Clarion, Indiana, and Jefferson counties. There also was an option to list "Other" projects respondents wished to rate. The first annual survey resulted in 183 responses from residents and travelers. The change replaced a paper survey process that had a low response rate. In 2017, the winter services survey was live from mid-November to the end of December, and the district received 149 survey responses from residents and travelers. The winter services survey replaced previous, unsuccessful attempts to reach customers by phone.  

District 11

Landslides continue to be an ongoing issue in southwest Pennsylvania. But Allegheny County Maintenance Manager, Lori Musto, has pushed the idea of using sheet piles to address this recurring problem. Lori used sheet piles in 2015 to address a missing shoulder wall issue on the I-376 Parkway West and felt it would work with slide issues. Working with the Geotechnical Unit, the maintenance staff identifies slides that may fit the criteria for sheet pile usage. Geotech conducts core drilling operations to determine if subsurface conditions allow for use of sheet piles. One advantage to using sheet piles is cost savings. The repair of a slide on Harrison Hollow Road in Lincoln Borough was estimated at approximately $1 million. By using this innovative technique, the repair cost has been lowered to about $250,000. 

District 12

Responding to a request by Pennsylvania State Police (PSP), PennDOT District 12 developed an innovative paving application for truck safety enforcement pull off areas on state routes. A contractor, Golden Triangle Construction, suggested the use of Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) for the pull off areas. To accommodate PSP's need for a smooth surface so they could slide beneath the trucks for inspections, a power trowel finish was added to the RCC. The District Construction Unit, Pavement Designer and the Materials Unit all were involved in adopting the innovation. Accepting the award for this innovation was Assistant Construction Engineer, Len Kubitza.

Deputy Secretary McAuley extended his thanks to the winners.

"Your creativity and willingness to innovate help us in our ongoing, challenging mission to keep Pennsylvania on the move to a better future," he said.

Closing out the ceremony, which was coordinated by PennDOT's Bureau of Innovations (BOI), were Deputy Secretary for Highway Administration Melissa Batula, P.E., and Tom Prestash, P.E., district executive in District 9.

"Your effort to make sure we are constantly thinking up new ideas really propels us forward as an agency," Deputy Secretary Batula said. "You are always striving to make us better and improve what we do."

District Executive Prestash noted that 2020 has certainly been a year that demanded innovations for organizations to succeed.

"New ideas spark innovation, and new ideas are vital for the continued growth of PennDOT," he said.

The award winners showed the diversity of ideas that are welcomed and implemented at PennDOT, he noted, adding:

"We are here today to let you know how much we value and appreciate you. We respond to challenges and continue to serve the traveling public while maintaining the safety of our staff."

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