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Agility Celebrates 25 Years: A Look at Its Beginning

March 29, 2021 12:00 PM
By: Rich Kirkpatrick, PennDOT Bureau of Innovations

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​A visionary leader supported by savvy executives intent on overcoming bureaucratic obstacles paved the way for PennDOT's innovative Agility program, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2021.

In 1995, then-PennDOT Secretary Brad Mallory came across a book by author Roger Nagle, "Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations," outlining a concept to spur businesses to think outside of the box. On Sept. 29, 1995, Nagle and associates from Lehigh University met with Secretary Mallory and they later reconvened at Lehigh along with Deputy Secretary for Highways Mike Ryan, District Executive Walter Bortree from PennDOT's Lehigh Valley region and Center for Performance Excellence staffer Joe Robinson. Nagle briefed the PennDOT team on his Agility concept.

"On a superficial level, I was struck by the term initially," Mallory said. "That was a good thing to be as I thought about it. It occurred to me the notion was akin to a competitive organization declaring a Christmas truce from the normal trench warfare. Join forces and cooperate to release the life of the joint enterprise to a higher level and produce higher productivity."

"If there ever was an enterprise that needed that, it was government," Mallory added.

Mallory's initial thought was to join with academia, but a mentor, former PennDOT Secretary Tom Larson, who had engineered a dramatic turnaround at PennDOT under Gov. Dick Thornburgh, advised against it.

Mallory then turned to his deputy secretaries and for Christmas 1995, bought them each a copy of Nagle's book and asked them to come back to him with ideas on how to bring the Agility approach to PennDOT.

"Rob Wonderling (then PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Administration) came back with a program layout to reach out to local governments and trade services with them," Mallory said. "Instead of stopping the plows at the borough line, we should continue with a straight pass and they do a similar loop and hit some of our network." By enabling PennDOT and partners to equally exchange services, like snow plowing or mowing, without exchanging money, synergies could be found to better transportation in Pennsylvania.

"It was mundane kinds of things," Mallory added. Plus, he noted, it would address the challenging impact of the jurisdictional boundaries created by Pennsylvania's myriad of local governments with road responsibilities.

Reflecting his often-stated mantra when he headed PennDOT, Mallory said, "People don't care who owns the road, they want seamless service and that (Agility) really played to that.

"When he (Rob) suggested that, I got excited about it," Mallory said. "Rob could take input and turn it into something that turned out to be quite valuable."

Wonderling, now president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, said he had absorbed the lessons Mallory had conveyed to his team about how far PennDOT had come under Governors Dick Thornburgh and Bob Casey and their Secretaries Larson and Howard Yerusalim.

"I was very committed to understanding the history and legacy of the Department, which Brad had articulated so well since he had lived through it," Wonderling said.

"Early in our term, he had told the story how PennDOT fiscally, morally and legislatively was bankrupt," Wonderling said. "It came out of the ashes through the Larson era where Brad had cut his teeth with the Department. Governor Casey and Secretary Yerusalim had continued the innovations … Because of my young age (barely 30) and wanting to succeed and carry that forward professionally and personally, my incentive was to do that and help serve in a collaborative way."

At that time, in 1995, there was no established internet, the information and technology revolution involving computers was picking up steam and economic globalization was increasing. It simply was a time ripe for new ideas such as Agility.

"The notion of collaboration through innovation really captured my imagination," Wonderling said. "It felt like a really good frame to continue that legacy of Larson and Yerusalim and Thornburgh and Casey for PennDOT to innovate.

Wonderling credited Rich Harris, head of PennDOT's Center for Performance Excellence, precursor to the current Bureau of Innovations.

Calling him his "Yoda," a reference to the Star Wars sage-like character, Wonderling said he spent hours with Harris mapping out the Agility concept.

"He had an unparalleled wisdom and understanding of PennDOT," Wonderling said of Harris. "He was in the Air Force and saw how to move from vision to the practical. He was a very wily guy."

They focused on the highway maintenance organization as the best place to incorporate Agility's principles. At the time, PennDOT management was working on a new master labor agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents the Department's frontline workers.

"We saw an opportunity to make AFSCME equal partners through Agility, to earn credibility with the union," Wonderling said.

One key to success was to ensure Agility had a very public face and efforts to streamline maintenance efforts would be highly visible.

"We always heard from Brad that the yellow maintenance truck was the most visible symbol of PennDOT," Wonderling said.

A driving concept was to keep it simple and "we saw building relationships with municipal government on maintenance made the most sense. People just want a smooth ride," he added.

On March 27, 1996, during his quarterly initiative meeting with Mallory, Wonderling outlined the Agility program.

"It went from a concept somebody had told me in a meeting at Lehigh and six months later, Rob had put pen to paper and laid out the bare bones of the initiative," Mallory said.

On May 30, Wonderling, Harris and Sherri Chippo, Wonderling's special assistant whom he later made project manager, met with Mallory and the Agility program was launched.

Dr. Chippo, now Assistant Professor/Managing Director for the Administration & Leadership Studies Research & Training Center (ALS-RTC) at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said the principles for Agility were written to help businesses become more agile. During Gov. Tom Ridge's administration, "We were looking at best practices in business that we could bring them to government," she said.

"The Ridge administration was very receptive to it. We had begun looking at government as a business, adapting practices to help improve performance and service delivery. Our leadership was ripe for taking this on," she added.

In November 1996, Mallory and Wonderling held a series of meetings with the House and Senate Transportation chairs to explain the program.

Dr. Chippo said the biggest challenge of all was dealing with an undercurrent in the organization that believed this was just another new program that would eventually go away if you just wait it out. 

"There was superficial support in a lot of places in the organization. They would give it 'token' support without any intention of really giving it a try." she said. "But counter to that, there was a lot of support from people who liked the idea and that was what eventually won out."

Mallory said many critics thought the local partners would not be able to offer anything of equal value, and that PennDOT would be contributing more than it was receiving.

"It was our money and not the people's money and that was the flaw in the opponents' thinking," Mallory said. "But the real goal is to make life better for people. The public relations benefits of this were enormous. It was anti-bureaucratic in the extreme and people loved it. Rules and regulations be damned. It was about how to do something that makes sense, common sense, but do it in a fashion that is still legal."

Initially, the Office of Chief Counsel felt the risks were such that they were very uncomfortable with the concept of a written handshake between partners that the agility concept called for, Dr. Chippo said.

"We had a lot of back and forth with Legal to get them comfortable with it," Mallory said.

First drafts of proposed Agility legal agreements were 30 pages long, Mallory noted. "But we ended up with a couple of paragraphs for the agreements. That had to happen to make it work."

Wonderling noted that Agility really was simple.

"It was a bartering arrangement," he said. "You've got this, we got that. You do this and we do that. That is what got us going." 

Critical to Agility's success was PennDOT's insistence that the value of the services was carefully calculated to ensure equitable sharing for all parties.

"But we came up with a new agility agreement that really was different. It was  much simpler, more of a 'written handshake,' and helped to break down the initial bureaucratic resistance that we can't do this," Dr. Chippo said. "We made it a much less intimidating process for our partners." This form followed by a work plan has led to over 3,200 agreements in 25 years.

She noted that sharing credit for Agility's success was crucial.

first Agility Agreement execution in Harborcreek Township, Erie County
Harborcreek Township, Erie County completing their work as part of the first Agility Agreement executed.
"One of the most effective tools for winning support was giving people credit for their role, regardless of how big or small and despite the fact that they may have been reluctant about it to begin with. This 'sharing of credit' included Department managers, employees, local governments, local elected officials, AFSCME, and others. It brought them out of the dark and into the light, gave them 'ownership' in the project, and they began to believe in it. This growing support broke through a lot of resistance and helped others implement their ideas and gave them credit for helping bring things along. More and more people started to work hard for it, coming up with more and more ideas on how to adapt and make it better.

"There were so many pieces that made it work … getting out there and celebrating new Agility agreements … turning over the 'keys' for the maintenance organization to our employees ... bringing union leaders to the table and helping them realize a sense of ownership." Dr. Chippo said. "This was Rob's 'multi-pronged approach' as he often called it. It was brilliant! It really worked and was very exciting to watch as it unfolded."

Mallory noted that several years later, after Agility success was apparent, "I made an observation: 'I must have been crazy to take this on.'

"We were up to our necks in alligators, dealing with the need for a new building. (The Transportation and Safety Building, PennDOT's headquarters, had been hit with a disastrous fire.) We were in a condemned building and we were a new administration.

"We were launching a host of new initiatives. In retrospect, it strikes me it was almost irresponsible to take on such a new challenge, but we did it," he said.

Dr. Chippo said it is wonderful to see Agility celebrating 25 years.

Wonderling said the ongoing success of Agility "is testimony to the employees at PennDOT, who always had a strong sense they were stewards of tax dollars. They have a deep-rooted sense they are doing important work to save lives and improve the health and welfare of our communities."

Mallory recalled a lesson he had learned from legendary District Executive Paul E. Heise, P.E., in District 3, based in Montoursville, Lycoming County.

"When he was assistant District Executive for Maintenance, he told me he learned that ramping up good maintenance practices is infectious. When we take better care of our roads, the locals start to take better care and people start taking better care of their properties adjacent to our roads. I thought that was a bit much.

"Over the next several years, I began to realize the quality of the highways was improving and local roads were getting better and houses along Route 87 (in District 3) were getting better. He (Paul) clearly saw it and it was true."

PennDOT line painting truck
A common Agility exchange over the past 25 years has been PennDOT painting lines on local roads.
And Agility helps further that effort.

"It was too good to believe, but it was true and what a benefit it is to society at large and in Pennsylvania," Mallory concluded.

This is the first in a series of articles celebrating the 25th Anniversary of PennDOT's Agility Program.

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