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Right of Way Quality Managment System - The Journey of Five States

The Survey States: Oregon

Oregon approaches the ROW process through a centralized organizational structure with decentralized staff. Regional staff report directly to the central office but serve as technical support for the regions. The State is divided geographically into 5 regions, with the central office located in Salem. The ROW section has an annual budget of $40-$50 million and a staff of 105 employees, who generally process 900 parcels a year. About 90 percent of their work involves addressing the critical appraisal process function, with full appraisals required about half of the time (for parcels valued over the level of their appraisal waiver).

The appraisal waiver process in Oregon is referred to as ADVAL (administrative determination of value). The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) estimates that parcels acquired under the ADVAL process about 50 percent of aquisition. This process can be used for uncomplicated properties under $10,000. The waiver level started at $2,500 in 1989 but was increased to $10,000 in 1995. The ADVAL process, documented on a single sheet of paper, requires only a second signature by any senior staff member who is familiar with the project and has values on the project. This process By passes both the central office review process and a 15-day notice requirement that ODOT must give property owners to inspect/appraise their property. Consultants are never contracted to do the ADVAL appraisal waivers; rather, ODOT regional staff perform this function.

Roughly 8-10 percent of parcels will receive a recommendation for Condementation , referred to as an "RC" in Oregon. Once this occurs, staff evaluate which files are prime candidates for mediation. Of this 10-percent figure, about 2 percent may actually end up in court, with the others reaching settlement. Oregon employs the best-and-final offer 30 days prior to the trial, at which time ODOT must put its best offer on the table. If the property owner still does not accept this best-and-final offer, the case goes to trial. If the amount awarded comes in under this 30-day offer, then the property owners pay their own legal costs. If the amount brought in by the jury is even one dollar over the 30-day amount, ODOT pays all legal costs for the property owner, including the appraisal cost.

The ROW division is located within the technical services branch of ODOT's Transportation Operations Program. The division operates through a management team comprised of the ROW manager and 10 supervisors. Except in special circumstances, members of this team have equal voting rights. Supervisors know exactly what is expected of them, as each supervisor drafts an annual performance plan, tying their goals into five core areas directly related to:

  1. Management accountability;
  2. Continuous improvement;
  3. Employee development;
  4. Organizational improvement; and
  5. Customer service.

Once the supervisors have drafted their performance plans, the ROW manager sits down with each one to go over proposed goals before the plan is put into operation. The ROW manager meets quarterly with the supervisor to discuss progress made and challenges remaining relative to this plan. The ROW manager also brings the management team together annually to brainstorm ideas for consideration as a management team during the next fiscal year. According to Ms. Dee Jones, ROW manager, this approach has generated approximately 30-50 ideas in the past. These ideas are then prioritized, with the management team deciding which ideas to select and implement. Each selected idea is assigned to a different supervisor who serves as the "lead." Accountability for progress on the idea is then folded into that supervisor's performance plan.

Oregon's technical supervisors learned strategic planning skills, how to develop business plans, and how to lead their crews to become a team of technical generalists. They started with a management retreat and used professional facilitators to teach management techniques, team building, and problem-solving strategies.

ROW in Oregon has adapted Edward Deming's philosophy that, "Effective work is not possible without understanding how it relates to the whole." This insight has enabled excellent multidisciplinary communication between all team members and stakeholders. This approach results in a project that meets the needs and is delivered on time and within budget, as clearly stated in ODOT's vision statement. Oregon felt so strongly about customer service as vital to its quality journey that this performance category was incorporated into the employee performance plan, as discussed above. Peter Drucker's philosophy that the purpose of business is to "create a satisfied customer and deliver all of the parts of the enterprise in the service of the customer" is clearly evident throughout ODOT's ROW processes. Its quality systems assure compliance with all laws and regulations, and all processes are clearly identified.

Public Relations

Oregon has a number of tools in place to address public relations. At the onset of a project, ROW staff attend preliminary design meetings, public hearings, and town and neighborhood meetings, showing preliminary design maps for the future road project. The ROW division has produced a number of informational pamphlets and brochures for the public that discuss property acquisition and the public hearing process. Ms. Jones' passion toward customer satisfaction is illustrated through her daily screens of internal and external client surveys to make sure that all customers have been treated fairly. She reads and responds to all survey forms, regardless of what they uncover. If an employee was well-received by an internal or external client, Ms. Jones sends an e-mail to that employee's supervisor and to the employee. If the internal or external client was disappointed with the service, she will discuss the situation with the supervisor, hear both sides, and then contact the customer either verbally or in writing. If this negative comment is the result of performance that can be modified, she will ask that the process be evaluated. Ultimately, her commitment to public relations aligns well with her commitment to client satisfaction.

Training

Training is an area in which ODOT truly excels. New right-of-way employees receive a 1-day new employee orientation session. They visit the central office and meet the staff, so they can learn who people are. ODOT recognizes the importance of relationship building and makes this a priority from an employee's first day on the job. In addition to the new employee orientation process, new agents are assigned a project manager to serve as their mentor. This individual is responsible for answering questions and for guiding the new employee through the ROW process. Employees may also take outside courses, which are fully reimbursable if job-related.

Recognizing the critical importance of the role support staff play in the ROW process, ODOT has also developed a "core curriculum" for them, emphasizing such areas as public contact skills, effective writing and presentation skills, specific computer software classes appropriate to their positions, and an introduction to right-of-way basics. These classes are to be taken within the first 3 years of employment.

A database tracks each employee's progress toward completing these core classes and can print out training reports at any time. All employees taking training courses evaluate their training using a curriculum-input survey. Interest in training has been overwhelming, as has employee input. E-mail is used as yet another venue for employee input.

Perhaps the most impressive of ODOT's accomplishments in the training area is the Project Leader Academy. This is a weeklong, multidisciplinary training program for the agency's project leaders, who are responsible for advancing and developing a project. ODOT has conducted three of these programs and trained about 90 project leaders. The course, conceived by ROW manager Dee Jones and designed and presented by ODOT senior project leaders and technical staff, including ROW, earned the agency an AASHTO Pacesetter Quality Award. The course has spun off a number of sequel courses for project team members and consultants. Most recently, an annual project leader forum was begun to allow trained project leaders to continue to share best practices and receive updated procedures and tools. Other states have expressed interest in adopting this type of program and numerous management employees stressed the desire to attend this excellent project leader course as well. The Project Leader Academy allows for cross training cross division experience. This training was so successful that the ROW manager is now envisioning a training academy specific to ROW processes.

In addition to the formal training program, ODOT has a number of day-to-day training experiences that occur in meetings and through the e-mail system. Monthly staff meetings feature training issues as a standard agenda item. ODOT also holds statewide ROW meetings every 18 months, where all right-of-way staff meet for training sessions and share best practices with each other. In addition to formal training programs, individual training plans are prepared at the regional level and approved by central office as part of its business plan. Regions may also share training dollars across regional lines as long as they stay within total resources allocated for the training function. Portions of the ROW manual are available on-line on a shared directory, and policy memos, clarifications, and relocation meeting minutes called "Andy-grams" are frequently circulated and stored electronically. These minutes were affectionately named after the long-time staff member who began circulating them.

ODOT also has a number of user groups in place. The relocation key advisor committee meets every 2 months and provides a learning environment, a look at efficiencies, and a training function. The FHWA right-of-way officer is a member of this team. Based on the committee's success, an appraisal advisory committee has now been formed. It has met three times and is looking at revising the appraisal forms that staff felt had become antiquated. Even the area of employee discipline includes a training element. When a behavioral change is necessary, the supervisor/manager works directly with agents who may be having a problem, using a coaching approach to handle discipline matters.

Project Management

ODOT uses a team approach in the area of project management, and has produced a document to guide this process: The Oregon Department of Transportation Guidelines for Project Teams, issued in November 1997. Project teams were established so that every project in the current STIP (Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan) had a project leader and team. All projects are developed using this approach, and design decisions belong to the project team. Right-of-way parallels this concept, having assigned a project leader to every right-of-way project in the current workplan. This internal project team in ROW focuses strongly on project management philosophies, which results in project managers who are both accountable and responsible for the projects they complete.

The basic elements of the ODOT project team process include assigning a designated project leader responsible for project delivery according to a business plan date, adhering to an authorized construction budget, and establishing the scope of the project. The project team is responsible for delivering all components of the project, including workplans, budgets, schedules, project decisions, and technical excellence. These elements are clearly part of an effective project management system. The project team establishes strategies, resolve issues, and ensure informed consent from project participants and stakeholders. Team composition will vary from project to project depending on the size, the type, and the complexity of that project.

The project leader, on the other hand, must be able to negotiate work items and schedules with the project team. Project leaders, trained through the Project Leader Academy, must be able to recognize conflicts before difficulties emerge and possess skills for conflict resolution.

An operational change within right-of-way to parallel the project leader model has provided strong support for a past decision regarding staff utilization. Initially, ROW staff tended to be specialists in a specific ROW functional area, such as appraisal or property management. This approach shifted to a generalist concept that crosses all specialty areas of a given project. The shift towards multidisciplinary teams has enabled the ROW personnel to focus on the overall project. Cross-functional teams have given ROW personnel excellent project management skills, although expertise in specific areas may be lacking for expert witness cases. Some personnel have urged the provision of refresher courses in given areas so that generalists can still become experts in a given specialty area.

Project management, as a multidisciplinary approach, can also be a double-edged sword, with projects that never proceed forward. For example, Oregon's District 1 office initiated a HWY 217 project in 1989 and involved the design group, ROW, and the Environmental Division. Three years later, the designs came back and put project well over the estimated budget provided in 1989. The project needed to be re-evaluated to incorporate a value-engineering approach. Five years into this process, there still was no project, although many ad-hoc teams had been formed to address a series of public hearings during the development phase.

One of the most promising project management tools encountered was the Optimum Workload (OWL) team within right-of-way. This group, comprised of the five regional ROW supervisors and several ROW supervisors from headquarters allows the supervisors to examine each region's workload for possible sharing of staff and resources. With this fluid sharing of staff across regional boundaries, workload fluctuations can readily be accummulated with a simple redeployment of staff. The OWL team has fostered trust among the regional supervisors so that loaned staff are no longer the weakest link in the staff chain. Staff can also bring technical issues to OWL meetings for input and problem-solving opportunities. The team meets once a month to look at the workload demands in each region.

The ROW management team also meets monthly so all five regional supervisors and all five central managers can discuss policy, efficiency, and legislative issues. This meeting occurs the same week as the OWL team meeting. Strategic quality management occurs at these meetings, where once a year, managers generate process improvement ideas and prioritize what they want to work on that year. Project management is further enhanced by a liberal delegation of authority through the organization. The ROW manager recognizes that one person cannot possibly approve all matters of business and readily delegates authority to the management team. Clear instructions regarding vested authority are provided in writing to clarify roles and expectations and to expedite the ROW acquisition process.

Production Tools

ODOT also excels in the area of production tools. There are traditional production tools in place, such as e-mail, fax machines, training manuals, training conferences, advisory committees, and project teams. In addition, staff members have CDs with metro scan information sorted by county, multiple listing services (MLS) on line, and the Internet. ODOT also has an Intranet in place, which links all of the departments and the Oregon revised statutes (ORS).

Perhaps the most remarkable production tools in place are the database system and the mediation process instituted to settle cases prior to trial. The initial database system was called the ROW information management system (RIMS), which ODOT hired a consultant to create. This system proved to be less than satisfactory, with employees complaining about the difficulties in using it. Even though the organization had already invested about $1 million in the system, the ROW manager discharged the consultant and began from scratch. A needs assessment was performed, and within 15-18 months a full-scale system, along with the associated training, was in place. On-line help is also available.

The new system was named RAIN, for right-of-way automated information network. The ROW manager asked ODOT's information systems branch (ISB) for help in designing a system that would meet their needs. An ISB consultant interviewed the regional office staff to solicit important performance characteristics and to encourage them to think about what they ultimately wanted the system to do. The new management system cost about $500,000 and, according to staff, it completely changed the way they do business and an increase in productivity. The system was so well received that ODOT has released the 2.0 RAIN software system and is working on future releases. The RAIN system handles critical data storage, task assignments and tracking, automated production of all acquisition and relocation forms, and production of needed management performance reports.

Oregon also has a mediation process in place for cases heading to trial. A specially created position in the ROW division for an alternate dispute resolution coordinator (ADRC), was filled by a former Department of Justice condemnation attorney; who is familiar with the legal underpinnings of the condemnation process. A case can be considered for mediation if the negotiator reaches an impasse with a client. The file is then forwarded to the ADRC, who determines if the file is ready to go and if mediation is appropriate. The ADRC then contacts the property owner and offers the opportunity for mediation and explains its benefits. If the property owner is agreeable, the ADRC hires a mediation coordinator, sets a date for the mediation, and advises the respective parties of the designated time and place. ODOT representatives remain in one room, and the property owner and counsel, if desired, remain in another room. The outside mediator runs the meeting and carries compromise offers between the two rooms. Generally the process takes 8-10 hours.

According to ODOT staff interviewed, this process has been highly successful, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of 10 files going to condemnation, all but one was settled. According to one regional supervisor, Rodger Jarmer, "The mediation process has resulted in a process improvement on my part. It makes me recognize how to train negotiators better. Mediation saves thousands of dollars. The mediator helps settle the file so we can do our work much faster. There was an improvement in legal fees and a speeding up of the process through the use of mediation."

Internal and External Controls

Numerous internal and external controls in place at ODOT are key to the successful implementation of ROW activities. Checklists, time schedules, and standards for specific processes and procedures are all in place and readily available for staff use. Employee input is regularly encouraged and actively sought, with input opportunities available through various means, including electronic mail, so that individual employees may use the tool they are most comfortable with. All employee suggestions receive a response. Employees are thanked for their suggestions and encouraged not to give up and to keep trying. Once employee suggestions come to the management team, they are prioritized. This process has generated many improvements. It is the philosophy of the ROW manager that, "Process improvement must be a mindset. It must be continuous. We must create the environment that fosters a forum and a place for employees to bring their ideas and know that they will receive thoughtful consideration." Evaluation forms for in-house training are sent via e-mail to participants. ROW has also developed a form for supervisors to give to their staff so that employees may evaluate their supervisor's performance. Internal and external customer service surveys are routinely used as well. External surveys are mailed out to the property owners, along with the check for the property, and are also sent to all displaced individuals and families following relocation. The surveys receive about a 75-80 percent response rate. Ms. Jones reviews all customer satisfaction surveys and congratulates employees on superior performance or follows up directly with property owners having a complaint. If a negative pattern develops with a specific employee, she notifies the employee's supervisor and works with the employee in a coaching manner. At the regional level, if a negative comment is received from a property owner, the regional supervisor will review the diary-contact sheet to surmise what happened in the conversations. Staff take these comments as constructive criticism and incorporate them into their processes as part of continuous improvement efforts.

Internal customer surveys are sent annually to all divisions. This process has been in effect for about 5 years. Because their product affects others within the department, regional supervisors are asked to prepare a list of all internal customers they have contacted, so surveys can be sent to them.

Ms. Dee Jones likes to recognize employees as often and as differentially as she can. She will write a personal letter to employees to recognize superior performance or achievement. She then sends a copy of this letter to the deputy director, the employee's supervisor, the regional manager, and her own supervisor--who then sends a personal e-mail to the employee and congratulating the employee on behalf of the department.

Performance Indices

A sub-group of the management team has identified and implemented ROW performance measures. A quarterly performance measure report is issued to all ROW management to show progress in achieving these measures, which are continually reevaluated and updated as needed. Monthly budget status reports are compiled and distributed to ROW management to provide needed budgetary information. Each program budget is tracked, along with approximately 150 individual project budgets that typically make up the division's annual workplan. A special staff position was created to be responsible for the ROW budget and performance measures.

Further performance indices include a process to document efficiencies gained for later collation. Efficiency documentation forms provide areas for staff to record efficiencies achieved in five categories:

  1. Cash savings;
  2. Cost avoidance;
  3. More output with same input;
  4. More quality with same input; and
  5. Other.

These forms are collected, collated, and summarized in monthly reports showing the continuous improvement process in action.

Oregon Planning Model

Oregon reveals a success story in strategic quality planning, with personnel who know exactly what is expected of them. Each supervisor annually drafts a performance plan that tie goals into five core areas directly related to the mission of each one's area of responsibility. Once the supervisor has drafted the performance plan, the ROW manager sits down with the supervisor and reviews the proposed goals for the period and how they fit into the overall goals of the division. The performance plan is then finalized and put into operation.

The ROW manager meets quarterly with the supervisor to discuss progress made and challenges remaining in this plan. The ROW manager also brings her management team together annually to brainstorm ideas they would like to take on as a management team for the next fiscal year. These ideas are then prioritized, with the team deciding which ideas to select and implement the following year; each selected idea is assigned to a different supervisor to serve as the "lead." Accountability for progress on the idea is then folded into that supervisor's performance plan.

Updated: 09/05/2014
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