Technicians save $5,000 each time they rebuild a mechanical pick-up arm in-house. Photo: Houston Solid Waste Management Department
Technicians save $5,000 each time they rebuild a mechanical pick-up arm in-house. Photo: Houston Solid Waste Management Department

By Deandrea Woody

Like many large cities, Houston's Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) doesn't charge its 372,000 residential customers for collection services. Combined with continuing declines in the property and sales taxes that are its primary funding mechanism, this practice was squeezing the operation's $77 million annual budget.

But over the last two years, employee-suggested enhancements — including better route management, a new approach to job functions, and improvements in work teams and contracts — have saved $10 million without eliminating one full-time equivalent position.

As budget constraints grew, Director of Solid Waste Management Harry Hayes sought the help of a local community college program that assesses the personality traits and underlying motivations of nonsupervisory employees. Having heard that the Houston Chamber of Commerce and the Houston Port Authority had worked with Houston Community College business consultants to deploy the Birkman Method, he wanted to see if the test could facilitate supervisor/ employee communication.

The consultants assessed 84 employees in various locations — maintenance shops and warehouses as well as administrative offices — over six months from 2009 to 2010. The two-phase delivery process consists of a personality test that measures productive behaviors, inherent needs, and stress behaviors, and an assessment that measures the perceptions of colleagues.

The consultants developed flow charts based on the behavioral and motivational patterns of individual responses, which they analyzed by shift, across departments, and by level of responsibility.

A productivity program was created to recognize employees who submitted suggestions for making processes more efficient while promoting quality, economy, and safety. The primary focus of suggestions emphasized team-building and developing greater trust among supervisors and subordinates.

Personality plus

The Birkman Method ( is a personality, social perception, and occupational interest assessment that identifies behavioral style, motivation, and potential stress behavior stemming from an employee's unmet motivational needs.

Developed in the late 1940s by Roger Birkman, the tool provides an integrated, multidimensional, and comprehensive analysis that often eliminates the need for multiple assessments.

Depending on the levels of reporting and support, prices through Birkman International Inc. range from $20 to $475/employee; fees for consultant-provided services vary depending upon the amount of support provided.

Two projects in particular demonstrate how this focus capitalized on employee involvement:

  • Selected based on area of expertise and job responsibilities, 12 of the maintenance department's 160 employees figured out how to turn three backup collection vehicles into new recycling vehicles. Each in-house conversion costs $12,000 compared to $200,000 for a new vehicle. The effort took four months to complete, and in some cases other vehicles can be similarly refurbished.
  • A team of two mechanics rebuilt the mechanical pick-up arms of automated collection trucks. This was previously a contracted item in which the arms, which were not covered by any warranty, were sent back to the manufacturer for rebuilding at a cost of $5,000 each.
  • “We've received great feedback from peers and management about how the process generates leadership,” Hayes says. “Our employees better understand what our mission is and how our cost structure affects it. They're able to adjust their behavior to give us the results we're looking for in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.”

    — Woody ([email protected]) is a program manager at Houston Community College's Corporate College and a certified Birkman consultant.