The solution is often not the solution. At least that’s the way the park district in Naperville, Ill., has been looking at things recently.
“People think that if there’s a problem and everyone walks away happy, then the problem is solved, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Naperville Park District Executive Director Ken Brissa.
“Something within your system allowed that problem to occur in the first place, and the only way to ensure optimum service to your community is to make sure you eliminate the root cause of that problem forever, and now we do that.”
As one of the fastest growing cities in Illinois (it’s the state’s fourth largest), Naperville needs to be on top of its game. The park district operates and maintains 130 parks and growing, on over 2,300 acres, which includes five sports complexes, an outdoor aquatics center, golf courses, a small recreation center (the city jointly operates some indoor facilities with the school district), a senior center and a skatepark, among other amenities.
Brissa offers a step-by-step process based on quality control procedures found in private industry. Brissa says the problem-solving process boils down to asking yourself “why” until you can’t ask yourself “why” anymore.
Recognize & Adjust
First, says Brissa, identify the problem. An important part of that identification is understanding the problem and its root. From there, take short-term corrective action that contains it while you work on permanent action.
Once that permanent action is identified, it’s crucial to put measurement systems in place to make sure the problem doesn’t creep back.
“Try to make the problem happen again,” says Brissa. “If you’re successful at not being able to re-create the problem, you’re probably well on your way to implementing permanent corrective action.”
A recent example of this process attacked the increasingly long lines at the city’s outdoor aquatic facility, Centennial Beach, a 6,000,000-gallon chlorinated former limestone quarry donated to the city in 1933.
Its original design had one entry point and one exit point. The re-designed solution created three separate entrance areas, with patrons filing through to each one depending on the type of pass they hold.
The lines were problematic, but were certain to become worse after the current improvements — which include reengineering and reinstalling the circulation and drainage system and new water play features — are completed. The new people circulation system has mitigated those problems significantly, and should continue to do so despite an expected attendance increase thanks to the improvements, but success is not a certainty unless those outcomes are measured.
“We periodically audit the time people are in line at different points of the season and times of the day, and correlate that to other data we’re collecting,” says Brissa.
Change at Centennial Park is but one of many examples of the park district’s underlying philosophy that guides its planning and implementation.
“You have to start out with a good strategic vision and plan. For us, that’s not just a punch list of things you have to do. Our strategic plan is very outcome-based, meaning we envision what the district should be like at some point in the future. We articulate the outcome and put the systems in place so that those outcomes are achieved,” says Brissa.
“We’re very process oriented. We collect a lot of data and measure ourselves against that data. What we do very well, we continue to do and improve upon and replicate in other areas. What we don’t do well, we make process changes so that we can get that process on track.”
Naperville has been very proactive about implementing technology to help maximize its effectiveness. The park district uses TMA software for project and activity tracking and for preventative maintenance on its equipment in order to collect, as Brissa calls it, “real-time, real-life data” about the system.
An automated payroll system is being implemented, and an on-line registration system is showing increased usage from season to season. The park district is also able to track such items as when the registrations are coming in, providing usable usage data on customer trends and patterns.
Ahead of the Curve
Though quick to implement technology, Naperville hasn’t haphazardly implemented bells and whistles for the sake of bells and whistles.
“You can’t simply invent or purchase a new system, implement it and then expect your employees to automatically adhere to it. It changes something that’s been done a certain way for awhile and if they don’t understand it they’ll have a difficult time buying into it,” explains Brissa.
“Here, our employees are most likely involved in the investigation and recommendation of the type of system we’ll purchase. Then, a cross-functional team is involved in the implementation process. This team then becomes our internal trainers on the system we’re implementing.”
Brissa emphasizes a training regimen that’s well-rounded. In Naperville, training is not limited to how employees perform their jobs in the field. Further education in things like communication skills, customer service and managing change are key ingredients to a successful staff, says Brissa.
“You have to have a clear understanding of where your community is headed — a clear vision of what they want, and it’s the staff’s job to find out the how. Once that’s done, training opportunities tend to rise to the top,” says Brissa.
“We have daily management boards, which include a lot of the key measurements for each department. One of those measurements that we keep in the human resources department is training hours. We made it a strategic goal that every full-time employee in the district would receive at least 20 hours of what we consider formal training. We also have development plans for each full-time employee, where supervisors and employees sit down and create a development plan for the employee for the upcoming year, which includes mutually agreed-upon training needs.”
Perfecting those individual processes and procedures — whether related to staff, facilities or programs — to a big-picture goal is the aim. But those individual components cannot add up without a broader vision.
“Even though we’re not for profit, it’s no secret in this industry that you have to perform to net revenue expectations. The days of simply looking at the revenue you bring in are over. We have to keep increasing our net revenue,” says Brissa.
Naperville is working on accomplishing its broader outcome-based and net-revenue goals with a re-vamped capital plan process that effectively prioritizes every possible upcoming project in the next 20 years.
These projects are given a current dollar value, with a 3 percent up-charge added each year to keep up with inflation. So, if Naperville plans to build something ten years from now, the city will take today’s value, add three percent to each of those ten years and put that new number in the capital forecast.
As projects come to fruition, those projects fall off the capital forecast and move to the capital plan. The key to this process, says Brissa, is a priority system that goes from 1-10. The ranking system identifies the relative importance of certain criteria, such as safety, and assigning each a number from 1-10. To see what Naperville’s system looks like on paper, go to www.parksandrecbusiness.com and click on Forms.
“We identified each of the 816 line items in our capital forecast and ranked them 1-10 based on the priority ranking system. It sorted them by priority, but what it didn’t tell us was what was inside all of the numbers, so we went to a sub prioritization system that took into account the results of our community attitude and interest survey. For example, our community puts a very high priority on walking trails, so even though something like trails might shake out as a priority 4, it’s now 4.1,” explains Brissa.
“We’ll take those priorities, beginning with one all the way down until we spend our capital money and implement those capital projects. Our board retains a 10 percent discretionary fund so they can have input into some of our non-priority projects that they might have interest in.”
Again, says Brissa, constant and consistent measurement ensures the reliable collection of data through time, which helps prioritize and move projects through efficiently, while maximizing revenue generation.
“We have key measurements in all of our revenue generating areas called Vital Signs. Depending on the functional area — whether it’s Centennial Beach or our golf courses — we measure these Vital Signs,” says Brissa.
“For example, in 2002 our golf revenue performance was way down in comparison to our budget projections, so we implemented a new pricing structure for the rest of the year to generate more rounds and more revenue and looked hard at our spending. We got leaner with our scheduling, and when it was all said and done we slightly surpassed our rounds-played projections and goals. The only way we were able to do that was to manage our data through time and make good, solid management decisions based on that data so that we could turn things around.”
Naperville has also been quite successful with alternative revenue sources. Brissa says in 2000 he hired someone to help build an effective grant and sponsorship program. Since then, Brissa relates, the function has grown to fill four people’s time and has created a comprehensive sponsorship program for many areas of the park system.
“We bring in about $150,000 in alternative revenue, in cash and in-kind donations. We bring in well over $400,000 annually in grants. We’re also talking with our board about forming a foundation that would give us 501-C3 status, which would then make us eligible for other kinds of grants and donation opportunities. We’ve been innovative, aggressive and successful,” says Brissa.
“Figure out the things you do well and what kinds of organizations might like to be part of that. Figure out what the true value of that is — don’t undersell yourself and, even more importantly, don’t oversell yourself. Take advantage of alternative revenue sources out there.”
Naperville hired a firm to do a valuation assessment of its district, which gave the district a better idea of what sponsorships for its various programs were worth. Brissa says the assessment has paid for itself ten-fold.
One of the successful programs Naperville created was a park partner program, where a business makes a multi-year commitment to sponsor an aspect of Naperville’s park system.
“Mid-America Bank is the park partner for our athletic program. Every athletic program is sponsored by Mid-America Bank, and that’s proven to be a great revenue generator and relationship builder for the park district, Mid-America Bank and the community,” says Brissa.
“The bank commits a certain dollar amount per year for the three-year agreement. In exchange, they’re the park partner for our athletic programs — which includes things like signage, space in our program guide, logo placement at events and on program shirts, and they’re also able to use the fact they’re in this relationship as part of their marketing program.”