innovation lab

Caltrans Innovation Case Study

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has 20,000 employees and a budget of $11 billion. Caltrans employees manage more than 50,000 miles of California's highway and freeway lanes. Caltrans also provides inter-city rail services, and permits more than 400 public-use airports and special-use hospital heliports. Caltrans carries out its mission of providing a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability through six primary programs: Aeronautics, Highway Transportation, Mass Transportation, Transportation Planning, Administration and the Equipment Service Center.


Interview Participants


Kome Ajise, Chief Deputy Director

Dara Wheeler, Chief of Staff

Julie Dunning, Office of Innovation, Risk & Strategic Management

Coco Briseno, Deputy Director, Planning and Modal Programs


1. Leadership


  • Innovation as a Core Organizational Value - Innovation is one of four agency-wide ‘values’ embedded at Caltrans in its 2015-20 Strategic Management Plan, alongside ‘integrity,’ ‘commitment,’ and ‘teamwork.’ The Plan is built around a mission and vision, together with five core goals and related objectives. Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and his senior team see their leadership role in terms of linking the Department’s core strategic direction to a push for innovation.

  • Spreading the Word/Walking the Talk - By labeling innovation as a core value and repeating this message frequently, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and his team make clear their public commitment from the top of the organization to building an agency-wide environment in which all Department personnel, external stakeholders, and the public are empowered to adopt an innovation mindset. Dougherty noted in launching Caltrans’ State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC) in 2015, for example that “California’s infrastructure is aging and our resources are increasingly becoming limited, so the need for innovation is essential.

  • Building Organizational Support Structures - Caltrans’s Division of Research, Innovation and System Information (DRISI) reports to the Director’s office, but rather than serving as an innovation niche, it seeks to play the role of coordinator for generating innovation across the agency. DRISI spearheads research, testing, development, and evaluation of transportation innovations that focus on safety, mobility and sustainability, improved management of public facilities and services, and protection of public investment in transportation infrastructure.


2. Empowerment


  • ‘Crowdsourcing Ideas’ Website - Caltrans uses a third party digital platform called Ideascale to help its 20,000 employees innovate. The Ideascale-hosted website give employees at any level a simple 24/7 way to submit, comment on, and vote for ideas. At Caltrans, the Ideascale system is used to select innovations with the most votes for further evaluation and implementation. The idea of crowdsourcing innovation came in part from efforts to learn from how innovation works at tech businesses in California’s Silicon Valley.

  • Ideas May be Big or Small – An important feature of the Caltrans innovation philosophy is that small ideas are innovations too.  Innovation might be something as simple as setting up a spreadsheet differently.

  • Lean Six Sigma Training - Caltrans is working to embed the principles and practices of Lean Six Sigma (LSS) across the organization as part of its approach for empowering employees to innovate. LSS is a widely used collaborative, team-based and data-driven business management philosophy for improving performance by systematically removing waste. Adoption of LSS requires extensive training with a ‘belt’-based system showing mastery of certain skills. As of December 2015, 15 Caltrans employees were trained as LSS green belts, with a plan to add 10 additional green belts every year through 2020. A Caltrans Green belt candidate is usually a top-performer who embraces the opportunity to drive transformational improvements in their work areas, while having excellent leadership skills and technical abilities. The Green belts are trained in the LSS tools and receive one-on-one mentoring from a trainer who is a Master Black Belt.

  • ‘$25k - Find a New Way’ Campaign - Caltrans is also seeking to empower the public through its ‘$25K - Find a New Way’ innovation contest, which was begun in 2015. The Department awards up to $25,000 annually and three first place winners for 2015 were awarded $7,000 each for their ‘Advanced Directional Sign’ suggestion to enhance safety and efficiency by using left and right markings on highway approach signs. The changes will provide an earlier indication of which lanes motorists need to enter for desired routes. A second place winner was also awarded $4,000 for their idea to develop an online travel app \ to encourage smart travel habits. Coverage of the innovation contest was posted on the Caltrans YouTube channel.

  • A webpage called “just do it” lets staff login and record innovations they have attempted at work.


3. Communication


  • ‘Just Do It’ Branding – The internal/employee only innovation crowdsourcing website is branded as ‘Just Do It.’

  • Innovation ‘I-Fairs’ – For the last several years, individual Caltrans districts have organized their own annual innovation fairs at which innovations the District has undertaken to address a wide range of issues including safety improvements, congestion reduction, efficient project delivery acceleration, higher quality requiring less maintenance, carbon footprint reduction and response to climate change are shared and highlighted. Caltrans leadership attends innovation fairs, and presentations from I-fairs are available online, so all staff are able to stay abreast of industry innovations.

  • Innovation Newsletter - Caltrans recently began an innovation newsletter, where content from I-fairs and innovations coming through the crowdsourcing website are showcased.

  • YouTube Channel - Brief videos on a wide range of topics, including innovation are posted publicly to Caltrans’s YouTube channel which also showcase select innovations.


4. Recognize & Reward


  • Caltrans ‘Medal of Value’ Award – Can be used to recognize top innovations and their creators annually.


5. Measurement


  • Lean Six Sigma Measures - Caltrans measures progress in employee training and cost savings as part of the Lean Six-Sigma program.  

  • Strategic Management Plan Measures - One of the strategic goals included in the Caltrans Strategic Management Plan is to “promote a positive work environment and implement a management system to maximize accomplishments, encourage innovation and creativity, and ensure staff performance is aligned with Department and State strategic goals.”  The measures associated with this goal that address aspects of innovation culture include:

  • Percent of Caltrans employees who agree, or strongly agree, that employees are encouraged to try new ideas and new ways of doing things to improve Caltrans - with a target to reach 75 percent by 2016 and maintain a level of at least at 75 percent through 2020.

  • Number of ‘Superior Accomplishment Awards’ and/or ‘Merit Awards’ given each year that specifically recognize innovation and creativity.

  • Percent of employees with performance plans that emphasize innovation and creativity, and that support organizational goals