New ideas make a better co-op

Culture of business improvement spurs more than $315M in cost savings, revenue

Located in the middle of North Dakota is Coal Creek Station, Great River Energy’s largest power plant. It depends on rail to receive supplies and send products to other locations.

The railroad tracks were placed in a low-lying area, which works fine for much of the year. There’s one time, however, when it doesn’t: after a heavy snow.

After some train cars derailed following a late-2018 snowstorm, it became evident that the situation needed to be addressed.

Business improvement 2018Employees at Great River Energy face a challenge like this one a little differently than at most organizations. Rather than accept the simplest solution, employees ask: “Is there a better way?”

In the end, Great River Energy teamed up with its partners at the Falkirk Mine, which has heavy equipment capable of moving massive amounts of earth. The two organizations reshaped the landscape in just one day. Now the tracks are elevated and located on flat ground, easily able to accommodate snow removal. They are also safer and more dependable, which saves money. And the risk of environmental impact due to a derailment is greatly reduced.

“This collaboration is a perfect example of the right team working together to accomplish great things,” said Todd Gehring, Great River Energy fuel system leader. “We found a simple and effective solution to a major problem and saved our members more than $200,000 in the process.”

These examples of innovative problem solving can be found everywhere at Great River Energy. It is known to employees as “business improvement.”

A culture of business improvement

“If you work at Great River Energy, you are encouraged to question status quo methods and continuously seek ways to improve,” said Great River Energy Executive Division Director Louy Theeuwen.

The cooperative supports employees finding new methods that save money, enhance safety and security, reduce environmental impacts and improve electric reliability.

“Over time, our employees collect more training, education and experience. When you put these extraordinary people in an environment that encourages innovation, you have a company that truly gets better every day,” Theeuwen said. “We call it our business improvement culture.”

This culture is central to Great River Energy’s efforts to keep costs competitive for its member-owner cooperatives.

“Rather than simply cutting costs, business improvements result in a more sustainable cooperative overall,” Theeuwen said. “Many of our business improvements continue to benefit our employees and members for decades.”