Employees are the Difference

A conversation with Lloyd Yates, President and CEO, Progress Energy Carolinas
By Jo Grogan
Progress Energy Carolinas is at the forefront of innovation. Its recent installation of state-of-the-art LED Street Lights in Raleigh, North Carolina is one example.

The installation is a part of a test to determine whether the LED lights are more cost and energy efficient for cities. If the test is successful, it could result in potential cost savings of 50 percent over traditional street lights for municipalities throughout the Carolinas and Florida.

Lloyd Yates, President and CEO of Progress Energy Carolinas, believes that the greatest innovations come from the employees of Progress Energy, and it comes through in every aspect of this conversation. “Difference makers for us (at Progress Energy) are less often in the area of straight technology, and more often in the area of how we leverage that technology and our employee experiences and skills to collectively solve challenges.”

He generously shared his thoughts with us, despite an extraordinarily busy schedule.

Jo Grogan (JG): In light of today’s global economic climate, what is the role of innovation? How is this role reflected at Progress Energy?

Lloyd YatesLloyd Yates: Innovation has always been important in driving technological and efficiency change. Innovation is going to be absolutely critical in accelerating the role of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, while continuing to meet the demand for reliable, environmentally sound and affordable electricity to energize our region and country. Currently, although there is lots of popular momentum for renewable energy sources, they are not capable of providing reliable electric service 24/7 (the way our customers use energy). We have to solve this issue if renewable energy is to play an increasing role in how we meet the region’s needs reliably.

JG: What is the most difficult problem you/your team have solved?

Lloyd Yates: Solving problems and challenges is a constant issue for today’s energy company. Our industry has solved a number of challenges over many decades. We have developed the safe and cost-effective use of nuclear energy, used technology to reduce emissions significantly from coal-fired power plants, developed numerous methods of shifting customer demand to delay the need for new power plants and made our system and practices more resilient, to minimize power outages and restore power quickly after major storms.

We’ve automated much of our customer service function without sacrificing service levels. We’re working on harnessing energy from the sun, wind and other renewable sources. The key is to move forward on all these fronts while maintaining the reliability and affordability our customers and regulators expect.

JG: What is the most exciting innovation you’ve been involved in developing? What factors made or make it so exciting?

Lloyd Yates: I have worked in numerous aspects of the electric industry—from nuclear plants to coal-fired plants to electric transmission and distribution. Innovations in each area have made our lives more productive and enjoyable, and have helped make the industry safer and more cost-efficient.

The current innovations on renewable energy are exciting. Harnessing the sun and wind, as well as biofuels, is going to be very important for a sustainable energy future. It is also exciting to see the potential for a nuclear energy renaissance in our country and our company. Nuclear power is safe, emission-free and dependable, and the new technologies should help to make sure nuclear energy continues to play a major role in electrifying the Carolinas and Florida.

JG: What if any, ideation/thinking/problem solving/creativity tools/innovation software do you use or are familiar with?

Lloyd Yates: Like most companies, we are in a continuous quest to find better, faster, safer, more cost-effective ways to produce and deliver electricity and provide customer service. Some areas of our company are using Lean Six Sigma, but not all problem-solving follows a formal, named process. We use focus groups, employee work teams, targeted initiatives, ideas programs and other tools to tap the collective intelligence and innovation of our employees.

JG: Do your innovations come from inside the company, from consults or outside sources, or a combination of the two?

Lloyd Yates: Innovations come from many sources, internal and external. But the majority of the innovations and improvements we have used to make our company safer, more efficient and more profitable have come from our own employees. Those who perform the work know it best. This can be a blessing and a curse, of course. The key is to tap into that collective expertise and value it, but also to challenge our employees to think of their jobs in new ways.

With that in mind, it also helps, at times, to have outside help to assist us in looking at our daily work through a different lens. But overall, ensuring there is a means of capturing and acting on employee ideas and recommendations is critical. Giving employees the opportunity to share great ideas, and then not acting upon them, is in many ways worse than not having a means for them to share ideas in the first place. To be successful, you need both.

JG: Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks such as IdeaConnection.com that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?

Lloyd Yates: I am familiar with the practice, but we have not incorporated this particular practice often enough for me to comment on it.

JG: What books, articles, blogs, or other media on the topic of innovation have you read? Are there any that you recommend to employees of Progress Energy?

Lloyd Yates: (Various Publications) Financial Week, T&D World (transmission and distribution), Wall Street Journal, Next Generation Power, Forbes, Power Engineering.

JG: When your teams are working on a problem, or developing a product, and hit a barrier beyond which they cannot move, what do they do?

Lloyd Yates: Generally, they ask for help. The help can take many forms, either through assistance from other company or outside resources, facilitated brainstorming and problem solving techniques, formal processes or other actions. Often, the solution lies in getting the right combination of experience and brain power in the room at the same time, and creating an environment in which all perspectives are welcomed and expected. It’s not rocket science, but it can be difficult striking the right balance. Often, it‘s a matter of trial and error in getting the right mix of people together.

JG: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about innovation at Progress Energy?

Lloyd Yates: In the electric utility business, companies generally use – or at least have access to—the same technology. We believe that our employees truly are the difference between Progress Energy and other companies. So we invest the time and money in developing employees and in ensuring a great diversity of backgrounds, experiences and thought within our work force.

Lloyd Yates is president and chief executive officer for Progress Energy Carolinas. He has more than 26 years of experience in the energy business including fossil generation, energy delivery, and nuclear generation. He was promoted to his current position July 1, 2007, after serving for more than two years as senior vice president-Energy Delivery for Progress Energy Carolinas. In that role, he oversaw the four operational and customer services regions in the Carolinas, as well as the distribution function.

Previously, he had served as vice president—Transmission for Progress Energy Carolinas. He came to Progress Energy predecessor Carolina Power & Light in 1998, and served for five years in the role of vice president for Fossil Generation.

Before joining Progress Energy, he worked for PECO Energy for 16 years in several line operations and management positions.

He is a mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and earned a master's degree in business administration from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He attended the Advanced Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and the Executive Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

He serves on the North Carolina Economic Development, North Carolina Community College Foundation, Triangle Urban League and High Five boards.

Feedback Welcome: If you would like to comment on the above article, please feel free to contact me. If you would like to suggest other innovation decision makers for me to interview, please just let me know.

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