Eye on Dallas -- 5 Questions with Freese and Nichols CEO Robert Pence: ?Lots to Do? Post-Baldrige

By Bruce Raben, contributor

Freese and Nichols, a Fort Worth-based engineering and architectural firm, last November became the first engineering and architectural firm to win a 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Sure, the national recognition was nice, but it's what you do with it. ...

The Baldrige Award promotes excellence in organizational performance. Applicants are evaluated in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement, analysis and knowledge management, workforce focus, and process management and results. The evaluation process included about 1,000 hours of review, so there had to be a bigger purpose for going through all that.

Robert Pence, president and CEO of the firm, sheds some light on the process of preparing for the award -- and implementing the all-important feedback -- with citybizlist contributor Bruce Raben.

1. What kind of programs had Freese and Nichols instituted that made you want to try for the Baldrige Award?
Actually, the process worked in reverse: The Baldrige process showed us how to improve our programs. For example, for a long time we have pursued growth with stability, even through economic downturns. ... One thing we've done is implement technology that improved our ability to share workload among our locations. When project work slowed in an office -- we have 13 offices across Texas -- we were able to keep our folks productive by sharing work from other offices.

2. What kind of benefits are you seeing as a result of your award?
The most significant benefit, and the reason that we pursue corporate awards, is the feedback itself. Their report -- 53 pages of detailed analysis -- gives us a specific blueprint for our continuous improvement process. ...
The Baldrige award process required us to examine and analyze all phases of our organization in light of the seven Baldrige criteria. Then we implemented our continuous improvement program. For the award, we completed a 62-page entry. After qualifying for a site visit, we hosted a team of examiners for a week. They visited most of our offices, roamed the halls, spoke with 70 percent of our employees, examined documents. ...

The continuous improvement program guided us in developing and improving tools like our one-page report, which is a regular project report to clients. ... What helps now is the recognition of processes we have in place to manage multi-year, multi-organization programs and projects.

3. Freese and Nichols University long has been singled out for excellence. Why was it started and what about it sets your firm apart?
Support of employee education dates back to John Hawley. Hawley founded Freese and Nichols in 1894, and he often paid for employee training because he thought it was so critical for engineers. When we formalized Freese and Nichols University in 2000, we were looking primarily at the kind of continuing education our employees needed to grow in their careers: project management and leadership development training, for instance, and always ethics. One feature important to me: Our corporate leaders teach leadership development here. I'm a great believer in leading by example. ...

We've opened many of our classes to clients and developed special topic workshops such as "Funding Mechanisms," "Drought Management Strategies" and "Dam Safety Guidelines."

4. After having been selected for the award, are there internal pressures to add more programs and training toward operational excellence?
Well, that's the "continuous" part of our continuous improvement program. It's not the award that applies the pressure -- we're not even eligible for the award for another five years. Our CI program, though, builds into every process a measurement and a review to see how it can be improved. Now that we have the feedback report, we are incorporating those findings into our program. We'll have lots to do.

5. Excellence is not perfection, so is there any program or benefit Freese and Nichols tried for which you'd like to have a mulligan?
We wish we had started the continuous improvement process earlier. It took a year in which we lost money for the first time ever -- 1995 -- for us to start toward developing and implementing a program.

About the contributor: Bruce Raben, a former journalist, owns ADvice, a Fort Worth-based revenue generator for businesses using creative marketing ideas. He laments that Freese and Nichols is not his client.

Also at citybizlist, see:

Eye on Dallas -- 5 Questions with Acme CEO Knautz: Warren Buffet's the Boss

Eye on Dallas -- Bell Helicopter CEO Garrison: ‘If We Don't Have the Best Talent, We Won't Win'

Bio from Freese and Nichols' website:

Robert F. Pence, P.E., BCEE
President and CEO
President and CEO of Freese and Nichols since 2002, Bob Pence has led his company through the difficult financial period that followed 9/11 and into a highly productive expansion that continues today. At the same time, Freese and Nichols has pursued a continuous improvement program that focuses on processes to yield consistent technical excellence. Bob Pence is directly responsible for incorporating client feedback into the continuous improvement program.

A water/wastewater specialist, Bob started at Freese and Nichols as a design engineer in 1978, following a four-year stint with the U.S. Army and two years as a research assistant as he earned his master's degree in civil engineering at Texas A&M University. Bob has championed and expanded corporate support for professional education, membership in professional organizations, development of papers and presentations, committee participation, attendance at meetings and conferences and community service.

Bob Pence is a familiar presence in community organizations. He has chaired the local United Way campaign and serves as an advocate for children and education in numerous endeavors. He was named 2008 Engineer of the Year by the Fort Worth Chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers.

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