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Elephant-Powered Process Improvement for Zoos All Over the World -

“It takes a village…..”. Over the years, I have referred to this phrase as the gold standard for collaboration and accomplishment. It also provides a perspective on empowerment of your associates. Organizations experience the greatest success when they leverage and align their entire team toward a common goal. That—in combination with the influence of competition, markets, and industries—serves to push them toward their potential.

Being a father, this phrase felt apropos when my son left for college. I realized I couldn’t teach him the skills he’d get from his peers. At first I was disappointed, but I quickly realized that his real-life experiences could never be preemptively taught. This resonated with my professional experience. Leaders are not able to anticipate, or preemptively teach, all the skills required for their organization to maximize its efficiency. Additionally, they need the fluctuations of the market and the pressure of competition to encourage innovation and refinement.

The Path of Standard Work

One way organizations maximize efficiency is by reducing variability with Standard Work. To level set, Standard Work is defined as a detailed description of the current best way to carry out the steps of a process. While critically important, Standard Work is not possible without the experience of your process owners. Their daily exposure to processes gives them the best skillset to address variability. Maybe that is the best definition of Empowerment, allowing your associates to define Standard Work by eliminating variability in their processes. Standard Work—the current best way— is a pillar of process improvement.

Standard Work is not possible without the experience of your process owners.

Process Improvement on paper has no impact. I learned early in my career to “go and see”—where the work is taking place. Having seen the process in action, the next steps are to reflect, consider countermeasures, and involve the process owners. If we work together, there is no obstacle or barrier we cannot reduce or eliminate. I fully appreciate the power of collaboration, but the reality is that leaders often struggle with recognizing the value of the process and the process owners.

A Panda’s “Village” Finds a Better Way

An example of this came up while I was working at San Diego Zoo Global. Our elder male Panda, Gao Gao, had high blood pressure and needed regular blood pressure testing. The leaders all had answers for how to get his blood pressure taken, but the methods they suggested were cumbersome for the Keepers and Technicians. After one particularly difficult battle of wills between the reluctant Panda and the frustrated Technicians, the Keeper and Technician teams sat down to improve the process.

Collaboratively, they designed new behavior training and a blood pressure “tunnel.” Within a month, they trained Gao Gao to slide his arm into the blood pressure sleeve for testing. What originally took 4-5 people two grueling hours to get through could now be accomplished in 10 minutes with 2 people. The leaders were astonished. They were stunned to hear about the new process. The lesson I took away that day was the power and knowledge of the process owners and the ease of process improvement when everyone works together.

What originally took 4-5 people two grueling hours to get through could now be accomplished in 10 minutes with 2 people.

Don’t Be a Hero

One of the greatest assets of any organization is their associates and the process knowledge they bring to the table. Leaders need to encourage and communicate with total transparency. Their value is in allowing process owners to make necessary process changes—this forms the roots of Lean culture. A key aspect to culture change is teaching leaders to shift from their role as “Omnipotent Hero” to “Barrier-Remover-In-Chief.” Removing the obstacles that keep your associates from organic process improvement helps shift the organization into a problem-solving culture.

One of the greatest assets of any organization is their associates and the process knowledge they bring to the table.

An Elephant’s Pain Drives Worldwide Best Practice

I saw an intriguing example of empowerment while working at San Diego Zoo Global. The elephant species are notorious for developing sores on the bottom of their feet by stepping on objects that pierce the skin. When the wound is continuously exposed to dirt and debris, the elephants experience infection and pain. Since elephants spend all their time on their feet, the resulting healing process is slow and difficult.

Some years ago, the Keepers and Veterinarians got together to discuss treatment options for a particularly large elephant with an open foot wound. Repeated anesthetization is dangerous for all animals and more so for larger animals. After brainstorming, one Keeper suggested training the elephant to lift its leg and allow medical treatment. The team cut a window into the enclosure and trained the elephant on how to place its foot for treatment.

This was a first-of-its-kind treatment design for a Zoo, but that was not the impressive part. Before training, they had to anesthetize the elephant quarterly, requiring 8 people for the 4-hour process. This was a huge, expensive, time-consuming task. After enclosure modification, and some behavior training, the process requires only one Keeper and a single Veterinarian technician 45 minutes—and they do it once a week. The elephants’ health and welfare improved, the cost of treatment decreased, and the best practice—Standard Work— has spread to zoos worldwide.

How Do Leaders Empower the Village?

How do leaders best support an Empowered environment? The answer involves 4 key practices:

  1. Create Standard Work
  2. Allow the process owners to design solutions to eliminate variability—improve Standard Work
  3. Remove barriers that prevent associates from accomplishing #2
  4. Learn how processes are performing by going to see where the work takes place

None of these themes require leaders to be omnipotent heroes, have all the answers, or ‘manage’ the associates. Managers evolve into leaders when they understand the difference between managing and leading.

Managers evolve into leaders when they understand the difference between managing and leading.

The Power of Walking a Process

I recently worked with a small hotel portfolio with the goal of reducing the hours to conduct Housekeeping. The managers had a list of incorrect actions and wasteful resources but no solutions. After spending an hour with the Executive Team, I learned that many did not have a first-hand understanding of the problem, or where it was happening, because they had not walked through the process themselves.

The “Armchair Quarterback” came to mind as I listened to the assessment of the challenges. I spent the next two days working alongside Housekeepers cleaning guest rooms. Some of the brightest ideas came from discussions with associates as we walked the process. These properties were challenged with a shortage of storage space. This caused Housekeepers to take multiple trips to the office for supplies.

The “aha” moment came when the Housekeeper I was working with explained that the supply closets were full of holiday décor. Further investigation made it clear that many of the required housekeeping supplies could be stored directly on the floors. They eliminated excess trips to the office simply by relocating the holiday décor. They rented a storage container for the seasonal items and placed it near the back dock.

Analysis showed that the increased productivity resulting from the elimination of the trips to the office paid for the container rental and reduced wasted housekeeping labor by 2,000 hours between the two hotels. The most gratifying result was a significant increase in housekeeper engagement. Suddenly, a tidal wave of ideas flooded the housekeeping office for evaluation. It dawned on the managers that there was both financial benefit as well as a boost in morale when they evaluated the suggestions to eliminate barriers and allow their team to work faster and easier.

What is the Role of the Leader?

While reliving past successes is gratifying, I always ask my clients, “How do you empower your process owners?” and “What is the primary role of a leader in your organization?” The answers are often superficial and vague since many miss the simplicity of empowerment. Process owners are the most knowledgeable resource an organization has. They are invested in continuously working toward the best current practice. Removing barriers to support the development of Standard Work is the true role of the leader. Collaborative work environments produce the best performance. It takes a village, literally!

Jeff Foster

Jeff Foster is a passionate Process Improvement practitioner who specializes in applying and teaching Lean methodology in non traditional applications. His specialties include Attractions, Theme Parks, Hotels, and Zoos. Learn more at