There is a familiar motivational exchange that brings a smile to many overworked facility managers (fms). The question: “How do you eat an elephant?” The response: “One bite at a time.”
This humorous cliché expresses a simple, but practical strategy for undertaking some of the massive projects handled by the professionals in this field. And yet, only the top notch fms can eat the elephant from start to finish and make it look easy. James Driessen, director of construction and engineering services for Fridley, MN-based Medtronic, Inc. and the TFM 2009 Facility Executive of the Year (FEY), had the fortitude to request seconds.
As a mechanical engineering student at the University of Minnesota, Driessen originally joined the company nearly 30 years ago as an intern through his school’s co-op program. Even then, it was clear to the project managers at Medtronic that he had the skill set and the temperament perfectly suited for the facilities department—even if Driessen himself had no idea.
“Truth be told, I thought I was coming here to design pacemakers when I signed up for Medtronic, and I ended up in the facilities group. I have been here ever since, believe it or not. That was in 1980.
“I started out just doing odd jobs; everything from laying out furniture to moving it. That’s how it is with interns. They get involved with anything that needs to get done. So it was somewhat by happenstance that I got into facility management (FM). I fell in love with it, and I have been doing it ever since. Sometimes you need to be lucky and good,” he states.
In terms of luck, Driessen credits timing as one of the most significant factors in his longevity and success at the company. He reflects, “I was fortunate that Medtronic’s growth as a company was parallel to my career growth. As I needed bigger and better challenges, they were available here at Medtronic. I’m a living example of what can come from getting opportunities and experiences and proving yourself, and then getting bigger and better challenges and proving yourself again. I guess we’re proving ourselves every day.”
Once In A Lifetime, Times Two
Since those early days proving himself as an intern, Driessen has had the opportunity to work on two “projects of a lifetime,” including the company’s world headquarters (completed in 2000) and the massive Mounds View campus (completed in 2007). While the world headquarters was Driessen’s first significant project, it is his work on the Mounds View facility that excites him most these days.
As the largest Medtronic campus in the world, the Mounds View campus brought together multiple business units of the company that had been fragmented across many leased facilities. The new campus would encompass three separate eight story buildings including offices, electrical labs, and customer training areas.
To cut costs, Driessen constructed an on-site concrete plant (“Commendable!” says FEY Judge Pepe Alicea, corporate facilities director for Compassion International). He also relocated wetland areas and a creek (to the amazement of another FEY judge).
Because the campus straddled two counties, he had to work across state, federal, and multiple community agencies to obtain Tax Increment Financing (TIF) credits. Despite the complexities of the project, he Mounds View facility was completed ahead of schedule and under budget. FEY Judge Bill Coleman, assistant vice president for facilities at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania adds, “‘Ahead of schedule and under budget’ is a phrase often used in marketing but rarely accomplished. To bring a project of this magnitude in ahead of schedule and under budget is truly a major accomplishment.”
First Class Facilities To Last
As an organization focused on on restoring health to people around the world, Driessen mirrored that goal in the Mounds View project, particularly with regard to sustainable design and return on investment (ROI).
He explains, “If we have initiatives with a significant positive environmental impact but maybe slightly longer paybacks, I think that makes sense; it’s what I’m going to do. We hope the Mounds View campus, which was designed to achieve the LEED Silver rating, will be around for 40 or 50 years, so we are not so concerned about making investments that payback in less than 10 years.”
Attitudes towards sustainable design at Medtronic distinctly changed during the Mounds View project, to the point where, at completion, the CEO tapped Driessen to create an overview of the project for a presentation being made to the board of directors. Driessen notes that investors have already begun asking questions about the company’s sustainable practices, and he anticipates “it will be standard operating procedure for us eventually.”
Driessen feels strongly that green design—which he holds synonymous with good design—should not be more expensive. He asserts, “It’s our responsibility as fms to hold our design teams accountable to that. Anyone can come up with a great design on an unlimited budget, but the challenge is to come up with great designs within the given budgets that are established on a return we would like to see. ”
Support From The Top
Based on his team’s past accomplishments, Driessen had earned the confidence of Medtronic Vice President Steve Mahle for the Mounds View campus undertaking. Driessen recalls the following conversation with Mahle in the earliest planning stages for the Mounds View facility. “Mahle said, ‘You did the world headquarters project very successfully. What was the key to that?’ My response was, ‘The key is going to be you. When we need decisions, I’m going to need you to make them. You may not have time to get consensus or additional information, because we might have 400 guys in the field ready to work.’ He took that to heart, and we made those tough calls together.”
This partnership resulted in a relatively smooth process and a positive collaborative attitude among those involved. And while he personally made thousands of decisions regarding the Mounds View site, Driessen credits the entire team for its success.
“At one point, we had more than 600 people working on this project. We defined everyone’s roles and responsibilities, then we empowered them. I said, ‘This is a large project, and I can’t do it all. I’m counting on you to do your piece of it, and we’re going to hold you accountable for your deliverables. Collectively, we’re a whole lot smarter than any one of us.’”
As for enticing everyone to work together, Driessen offers this advice: check the egos at the door. “It’s all about collaboration. Owners, designers, and builders must all work together (particularly with the design-build approach used on the Mounds View campus). Fms need to lead and drive this process, not the architect or contractor.”
The undertaking, including a massive staff relocation into a completely different type of flexible, collaborative work environment, has earned high marks from employees on post occupancy surveys. Judge Tim Springer, founder and president, HERO Inc., adds, “Medtronic has high employee satisfaction and relatively low turnover. It is one of the jewels in the Twin Cities.”
Additionally, the company expects to reduce subsidies for food services across multiple leased facilities by over $600,000 annually, cut annual operating costs by over $20 million annually (by 2012), and vacate over 500,000 square feet of leased space as a result of this project.
In retrospect, Driessen is taken aback by his accomplishments. “It was my boss who asked, ‘How many decisions do you think you made? How many do you think there were?’ He realized I had been involved in all of them. When he put it in that perspective, I reflected—these were decisions we just made along the way. I wasn’t overwhelmed while we were doing it, but after the fact, it was a little bit sobering.”
As an fm who takes his job—but not himself—seriously, Driessen appreciates the importance of having fun. He asserts, “If you love what you’re doing, it makes it that much easier. You treat people with respect even in the heat of battle, and it leads to a better outcome.”
It seems as though Driessen, TFM’s 2009 FEY, could get almost anyone to eat an elephant.
This article was based on the nominee’s entry, submitted by Mark Losee, vice president, Workplace Employee Operations, Medtronic, Inc. It was supplemented by interviews with Driessen.
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