Try This at Home: MoDOT’s Innovations Challenge

The sixth round of Every Day Counts (EDC-6) was kicked off with a Virtual Summit that introduced the innovations that FHWA would be promoting over the next 2 years. The Summit also featured a National State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC) Network Showcase that highlighted some 245 innovations developed and deployed by agencies throughout the United States. This article is one in a series that takes a closer look at “homegrown innovations” implemented by state and local agencies to save lives, time, and money. 

During Innovations Challenge showcases, MoDOT employees are able to physically see potential new best practices and ask questions about them in a professional environment.

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) has promoted a culture of innovation through its Innovation Challenge contest, which showcases and proliferates improvements to MoDOT’s tools and processes annually. Spurred on by MoDOT’s commitments to performance management between 2004 and the present, and its expressed values that ”embrace new ways of doing work” (1), this competition enables employees at all levels of the Department to introduce innovations that generate measurable results and cost savings. Since its inception in 2007, the Innovation Challenge has given thousands of MoDOT employees the opportunity to share their office’s improvements to productivity, tools, and project processes with the wider agency.

MoDOT employees receive small cash rewards for the highest ranked innovations, in addition to formalized recognitions such as the Dixon People's Choice Award or the Directors’ Safety Award. Innovations are divided into three categories (2) to convey the nature of each potential improvement:

  • Tools and Equipment - Innovations to items that were fabricated or modified by MoDOT employees.
  • Project - Innovative project implementations that produce exceptional results for transportation users or internal operations.
  • Productivity - Improvements to office and field processes, materials, and product submissions.

After an Innovation Challenge showcase, subject matter experts evaluate the innovations to determine if they should be considered as best practices for MoDOT to adopt and promote. MoDOT has implemented over 300 showcased innovations to the level of best practices since 2007. The institutional benefit of rewarding innovation extends beyond the findings of the showcase itself; encouraging a culture of innovation through this event motivates MoDOT teams to consider how to improve their work throughout the rest of the year. Giving hundreds of employees the opportunity to learn from their co-workers in such a celebratory way also increases buy-in for new transportation technologies and methods. Additionally, MoDOT notes that providing a space for employees at all levels of the Department to share ideas “can result in employee retention and boost teamwork” (2).

Two recently showcased improvements at MoDOT’s Innovation challenge are a Camera Assisted Remote Sprayer (CARS) and a Signing Information System (SIS).

The Camera Assisted Remote Sprayer puts a greater distance between the vegetation control chemicals and the operator, making the task safer as well.

At a Southeastern District Innovation Challenge, a team from Qulin, Missouri displayed their development of CARS, a set of remotely adjustable vegetation control equipment that allows one driver to finish tasks that previously required two people. This reduction in required personnel was motivated by the need to reduce COVID-19 contact and presents efficiency benefits by cutting the required labor for the task in half. CARS is designed to be attachable (and detachable) to most flatbed trucks — meaning trucks can still be used for other tasks — and provides two cameras for the driver to remotely direct the dual nozzles and spray bar of the equipment. A video describing this Tools and Equipment innovation in further detail is available here.

The Central District submitted their SIS innovation to the 2022 Innovation Challenge Showcase for the Productivity category. The SIS keeps track of damaged signs across the district, and it records the date, caller, location, cause, and required repair type of the damage, among other information. Filtering row by row, SIS users can check the repair status of a particular road’s reports within a county. The physical repair status of signs is broken down into four recorded categories detailing progress for its dig rights, stub, post and the sign itself. The system is recorded in Excel, which makes it easy to edit, modify, and scale for other topics and jurisdictions. A video describing this Productivity innovation in further detail is available here.

The success of MoDOT’s Innovation Challenge illustrates the importance of leadership in the development of a culture of innovation within an agency. As previously noted, three of the Department’s stated values, “Be Bold,” “Be Better,” and “Be One Team,” encourage extra effort in evolving processes and products, even if it invites the potential for failure (see text box). By “empowering staff (particularly middle-management leaders), encouraging innovation, demanding measurable results and cost savings, and holding staff accountable for results” (3), MoDOT and its Innovation Challenge sustains an improvement-oriented mindset that is worth emulating. In the 2020 National STIC Showcase, FHWA recognized the Illinois Innovative Ideas Council, Illinois DOT’s annual innovation contest inspired by MoDOT’s, showing that this approach has potential outside of Missouri. Information on Illinois DOT’s sister initiative is available here (3).


Illinois DOT's "Innovative Ideas" Contest has recognized and promoted innovations such as a Mobile Plow Racking Emergency Stand System, Rotating Sign Holders, and an improved Payroll Calculator

Resources and References on MoDOT’s Innovation Challenge:

MoDOT Mission, Values and Tangible Results:  https://www.modot.org/mission-values-and-tangible-results
The MoDOT Innovation Challenge Homepage: https://www.modot.org/innovations-challenge
Innovations Showcase Homepage: https://www.modot.org/innovations-showcase-homepage
Southeast Missouri Innovation Contest: https://www.modot.org/seinnovationschallenge
Illinois DOT’s Innovative Ideas Contest: https://idot.illinois.gov/innovative-ideas

Further References:

(1) Caltrans Division of Research, Innovation and System Information. (2015, July 18). Fostering Innovation within State Departments of Transportation. https://dot.ca.gov/-/media/dot-media/programs/research-innovation-system-information/documents/preliminary-investigations/fostering-innovation-pi-2015-07-28-a11y.pdf
(2) MoDOT Innovation Explainer Page with Videos: https://www.modot.org/innovation
(3) Illinois Department of Transportation. (2022). Innovative Ideas Contest. https://idot.illinois.gov/innovative-ideas.

Examples of Promoted Innovations:

HERE Camera Assisted Remote Sprayer.  https://www.modot.org/se-innovations-camera-assisted-remote-sprayer
HERE Signing Information System. https://www.modot.org/signing-information-system

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