On 21 January 2020, Ross Waugh and Heather Himmelberger held another Ask-the-Experts webinar titled, “Infrastructure Asset Management – How to Start.” Inframanage.com presents the webinar topics through a series of blog posts.
In the previous post, Ross shared a quick background on the asset management implementation in New Zealand.
In this post, Ross shares the lessons learned and best practices in asset management that they are doing in New Zealand
Don’t get too complicated
Ross emphasized that in terms of asset management plans, don’t get too complicated, I think, is the answer.
It’s really easy to produce a 3, 4, or 5-hundred-page asset plan with heaps and heaps of information nobody is going to look at.
But, what we found, if you force the discipline of simplicity on yourself, that’s harder than producing great globs of information. That also forces you to think about what’s important.
And as we’ve gone 3, 5, 6 or 7 cycles of this, our auditor general, which is like I guess the “federal auditors” in American terms, has said, with the asset plans, your community has to have what is called the right debate.
Know the right debate
So what is the right debate for that community?
And you ask even that simple question or that network. It’s not an easy question to answer. So it forces you to refine your thinking.
And you go, what is important? Ah, I don’t know what’s important. Okay.
Well, there’s a bunch of information and data I need to keep my head around that.
Maybe you’re getting so many problems that you know what’s important.
You’ve got to fix a whole lot of breaks, or you need some new wells or some new tanks or some new treatment. So that’s quite obvious.
But it’s getting this focus on communication, on what’s essential, on communicating that back to decision-makers and funders, so they can get an understanding of that—then going from there.
And sometimes, you’re an asset manager or an engineer, you think you know what’s important, but it will come back from the community. That’s what you believe, but we think something else is more important.
That’s part of that, just that service level definition and working out.
At the end of the day, communities will fund what they have to and what they think is important. And if they don’t believe that that thing is important, they’ll fight it all the way.
Are you going to be proactive or reactive?
Well, the issues we’re having, we had a significant water incident with 5,000 people made sick from a contaminated well essentially. It had a well, but it got some groundwater into it. And it was a big problem.
And we’ve had our equivalent of a congressional inquiry, I guess into that. As a result, we had a whole heap of legislation coming of it and a regulator and all of the things like that.
There are times when, and I think Flint here in the US is a good example, something goes badly, badly wrong, and all the standards change, and the legislation and the rules change.
And in that case, what your community thinks becomes irrelevant because that’s a new standard or legislation, and you just have to do it.
And so again, you have to incorporate that back into your asset management planning strategies and how you implement.
The question is, are you going to front foot that or are you going to be dragged into it?
And so are you going to be proactive in your management of these known issues? Or are you waiting for somebody who had a big stick over you?
And that’s I guess a management philosophy question.
Asset management is a journey, it’s not a destination
There’s one thing I want to mention about asset management plans that are super, super important in terms of best practices and lessons learned, and that is to not think of the asset management plan as your destination.
Asset management is a journey; it’s not a destination. And the plan is not your destination. That’s not where you are trying to get to.
The plan is a way to communicate what you are trying to do with others. So, your regulators, your community, your elected leaders. It is an essential component or can be if done right. But it isn’t where you are trying to go.
Once I’ve got the plan done, I have achieved what I wanted to and just stick it on the shelf. Because if you don’t do what’s in the plan, you haven’t accomplished anything.
So, what you want it to be is, like this is guiding you to the actions you want to take. And maybe it says things that you are doing well now, you want to keep doing those, or something that you aren’t doing and you want to start.
Things you have been doing but you didn’t the way it should have, so you want to change. You can have all kinds of things in it.
But the point is not to get this 300-page document like Ross was talking about. These beautiful and glossy pages and all your stuff in it, and then you put it on the shelf, and you forget about it. That doesn’t get you anywhere.
What you want is a plan that’s very succinct and tells you what it is you want to do and helps guide you there. But then you can implement it. You can actually make a change at your utility.
So, I look at it as a waypoint along your journey, but it isn’t the destination of your journey.
So, it’s not like I’m going to do asset management for the next year, I’m going to write the plan, and then I’m done. I can check that box. And that’s not what asset management is all about.
The importance of having a good asset management plan
It’s a good plan too when you write the information down, and you set it out, information and tables, and infographics in front of you.
Sometimes you go, let’s take an example, you’ve got a particular type of pipe, and you might have 500 miles of that pipe, and you know nothing about it. You barely know when it went in, and you started getting breaks on it.
And so you look at that, you go, well we need to know some more about that pipe. We’ve got some risks there, and we might need a program of replacing the pipe or fixing it or some actions.
And so you look at your plan, and this is, in New Zealand, we have this timeframe to get them done. And it’s always a rush in the end, and you don’t get that sitting back and have a look and go, you know I need to find out a whole lot more about that type of pipe, and I need to put in place a program to do that, and what’s the most appropriate program?
And I think when you’re using asset management planning well, you will take that step. Then you go, right, we’re going to have a three-year program that we haven’t had before about finding out about that particular type of pipe because of what we’ve just written about it in the asset plan.
So, then you go, okay, I think maybe I need to spend 300 thousand dollars finding out about that pipe, a hundred thousand a year. You need to put that into your budget. And that sort of process where you can forward identify stuff that is starting to change.
And go, okay look, we need to get on top of that. And we can’t do that with an existing appropriation or anything like that. That’s where you start getting the value out of it.
But if you just spit the thing out or consultant spit it out for you, you read it for two minutes, and then you put in on the shelf, you don’t get that discovery and that learning and that adjustment of programs to keep up with what’s going on with the system.
And I think you alluded to it there, Heather. This process, the most significant learning sort of knocking your way through and thinking your way through the issues you are writing about.
And sometimes thinking is hard because you don’t get the space to do it very often and you’ve got all this day to day things that are hitting you, reports you got to produce, or meeting you’re going to attend.
And the real value is around stepping back, looking at what’s there, going oh, something is not quite right over there.
Let’s go and find out some more about that, maybe talk to your supervisors; perhaps you’re going to do some engineering investigations.
You don’t have to do that in one week. Give it two or three years. But you are staying ahead of your problems, staying on top of them.
And that’s where the real value of the thinking goes on, and it’s a way of thinking, and it’s a way of examining as a framework for asset management stuff.
And when you get into doing that, you can then implement and improve your system performance and expenditure and not only waste money but also just have a more optimal expenditure profile.