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Athens (Tenn.) Public Works Director Shawn Lindsey in kung fu mode. Illustration: Chris Ingram, GIS technician, City of Athens

To write this article I knew I had to rely upon some of the kung fu and aikido masters that have influenced me. One master, Morihei Ueshiba, said: “Cast off limiting thoughts and return to true emptiness. Stand in the midst of the Great Void. This is the secret of the Way of a Warrior.”

We often see money as a big limitation, which it is, but it shouldn't limit our dreams of what we want to accomplish. I often find when I dream, a path to it will appear. So when you get in a tough spot and the world is crumbling around your operation, you'd better have some good kung fu skills.

I think back to what Bruce Lee once said, “Empty your mind, be formless — like water. Put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can ‘flow' or it can ‘crash.' Be water, my friend.”

Public works departments have to be changing, responsive, fluid, and adaptable. We need to look at the tough times — this year and in the years ahead — as a challenge that can be met if we are like water. We must be flexible, creative, and responsive to our citizens' needs. We must sharpen our skills and find ways of doing our jobs with less. We must not see financial problems as insurmountable obstacles. We can flow around them. We can erode them away.

I always use a team approach and solicit ideas from everyone in my department and in other cities. A keen sense of listening is a warrior's greatest weapon.

Here are some thoughts and tips that may get you thinking:

  • Do you have to pave everything with 1.5- to 2-inch overlays or can most of your roads use 1-inch overlays? Then do you have to mill the whole road or can you get by with only milling the sides?
  • Spending too much on grinding brush? Partner with a grinder who wants to sell the mulch for broiler fuel. Or sell it yourself to offset the cost of brush grinding.
  • Recap nonsteering tires instead of replacing them.
  • Get more out of oil changes with synthetic blends that use fewer filters and less labor, and go from 3,000-mile changes to 5,000-mile changes.
  • Must unlevel sidewalk be replaced or can you grind it back to prevent trip hazards?
  • Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree I'd spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.” I say, “If I had less money to buy salt this year I'd build a salt brine system so I'd need less salt.”
  • Maximize grants and use volunteers to meet stormwater objectives.
  • Minimize mowing with growth retardants and weed spraying.
  • Every department has to develop its own kung fu techniques or smart management practices. Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, said, “If you are enlightened about a certain principle, you can put it into practice. After each practical application, reflect on your efforts. Progress continually like this.”

    We need to be constantly improving if we are to survive and flourish. The goal of perfection is never attained in this life, only pursued. When looking for ways to improve efficiency I look at the following:

  • Who, and what operations, are spending the most on fuel; and how can we reduce that figure?
  • Find a way to avoid landfill trips for trucks with load tickets that are only partially full.
  • Anywhere there's chronic overtime you have a chronic problem.
  • Look at what times employees really start and end work and minimize all down time.
  • Eliminate busy work.
  • Keep informed of the latest technologies and see how they can save you money.
  • Eliminate sources of water in the garbage collection system and maximize recycling to save on landfill costs
  • Bruce Lee also said, “If you love life, don't waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”

    We all need to look at what we're doing, particularly with our down time. If we face a hiring freeze then we must learn to do more with fewer people. We have to cross-train and use our time wisely with the people we have. We can shift labor around to where they are needed if employees are cross-trained.

    The pursuit of good kung fu is important. Often we can't see the solution because we've trained ourselves to think concretely, we fear failure, or we lack vision. Now is the time to strengthen our kung fu.

    — L. Shawn Lindsey (slindsey@cityofathenstn.com) is public works director in Athens, Tenn., and wrote our February 2005 “The quest for Mayberry” cover story. Article reprinted by permission from Tennessee Public Works Magazine.