Sharing Ideas Spurs Growth

March 01, 2010 |


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Solve this problem: You’ve got an important public project that’s behind schedule, with liquidated damages of $8,000 a day. If you use structural lightweight fill for the roof, the wait time is 28 days for the fill to cure before roofing can begin, so you’re at risk for $224,000 in damages. What do you do?

If you’re a Walbridge employee, the answer is simple: You go to the Walbridge Lessons Learned database and find a recommendation from one of your colleagues to use cellular lightweight fill. The roofing work can begin in just three days, trimming 25 days off the project and avoiding a net $185,000 in potential liquidated damages.

That suggestion is just one of more than 3,200 such examples of idea sharing throughout Walbridge, a 1,200-employee construction services firm founded in 1916 by George B. Walbridge and Albert H. Aldinger. Based in Detroit with offices throughout the U.S. and in Mexico, Canada, Brazil and Dubai, Walbridge builds automotive, aviation, cultural, educational, govermental, healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing, office, power, residential, retail and wasterwater & sewerage facilities.

To grow the business, Walbridge essentially gives its employees a seat at the decision-making table, encouraging them to communicate ideas related to both projects and the corporation itself.

Through its Lessons Learned database, workers submit concepts developed from previous project experiences, viewable to members of other teams. Walbridge also built electronic discussion forums for brainstorming, and town hall meetings every two weeks give workers the opportunity to interact with board members.


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Each quarter, Walbridge teams gather to review their financial performance, discuss initiatives, and present their standings to shareholders and management at all levels. The annual employee meeting features a no-holds-barred Q&A session with corporate leadership, including Walbridge’s chairman and CEO John Rakolta, Jr. There are also group annual retreats to assess needs and set the appropriate strategic direction.

All of this open communication has paid off. Since the implementation of its Lessons Learned and Value Engineering database in 2004, Walbridge has saved itself and its customers $500 million—some of it in energy saving for projects—by putting employees’ ideas into motion.


Realizing that its employees are the key to business growth, Walbridge invests heavily in training programs. Its online Learning Management System is a portal through which employees can access courses that enable them to develop new jobs skills and sharpen existing ones.

They can also get technical advice from a full-time training manager, who adheres to ISO 9001:2008 accredited procedures.

Particularly helpful to the 80% of Walbridge employees who telecommute regularly are the 534 courses they can tap into online. Last year, the company installed a new streaming server and revved up its networks in order to broadcast video-based training programs, an online technical library, and media presentations to offsite employees.

As a result of this extensive training, Walbridge employees are often featured as guest speakers at universities and industry conferences, and business teams have become recognized as industry experts in 3D modeling, lean construction, environmental sustainability, and safety.

For seven consecutive years, the company has been one of the 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For in Southeast Michigan, with special recognition for training and communication. Walbridge has also won awards from the likes of the Associated General Contractors of America and the American Society of Concrete Contractors.

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The newly updated St. Frances Cabrini Clinic, a free clinic in Southwest Detroit which provides primary medical care, health education, counseling, and other health services, is a testament to Walbridge’s community efforts. With St. Frances in desperate need of renovation, Walbridge employees volunteered their time and helped raise $145,000 in design and construction services and materials, including a roofing system, air-handling units, and a fire-alarm system from building product manufacturers.

With Walbridge’s construction management team at the helm, St. Frances Cabrini Clinic was able to double the size of its older facility and become better able to serve local residents in need of medical assistance.

In 2009, Walbridge’s 268 Detroit-based employees put in more than 3,000 company-sponsored hours of volunteer time throughout the city. The company also donated book bags and 41 computers to local charities and schools, provided doors to a local boys’ camp, and distributed 500 ecologically friendly seed-paper-shaped hard hats for planting Michigan wildflowers.


Walbridge has also strived to lower its impact on the environment, starting with its headquarters building, which is LEED Silver CI certified. Inside, recycling stations have been placed in strategic locations, and the company encourages the use of reusable or recyclable supplies.

An even greater effort is the Walbridge Intelligent Sustainability & Environmental program, or GreenWISE, which was launched on St. Patrick’s Day 2009. GreenWISE has become the company’s textbook on how to achieve its lean-construction goals.


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GreenWISE is largely the brainchild of employees. Each business unit submitted suggestions for ways in which Walbridge could reduce construction and demolition waste and curb harmful emissions. The result was a set of 18 comprehensive guidelines, ranging from construction equipment fuel and temporary building lighting to information technology and office supplies.

Everyone at Walbridge gets GreenWISE training. The company holds live events specific to the program and has produced a recorded version of the GreenWISE training session available on demand. GreenWISE reminders along with the guidelines are also regularly posted on the company’s intranet site.


By fostering open communication and idea generation, and by offering a host of educational programs and benefits, Walbridge has created a work environment that shows it cares about its people. That approach reaches down to the most basic level. For example, because Walbridge employees are on the road so much, the company supplies them with Webcams so they can communicate with their families while traveling.

This caring attitude has been most evident during the current recession. Despite the turndown in the economy, no employees were asked to take reductions in pay or benefits, monthly medical premiums were held steady, and the company has continued to pay incentive bonuses to qualified employees. Walbridge has even offered employees free on-demand advice from outside professionals on how to deal with personal finances.

That devotion pays dividends in employee loyalty: Walbridge’s voluntary turnover rate is considerably lower than the industry average. —Andrew Baltazar, Associate Editor


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