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4 ways smart utilities improve water infrastructure

December 01, 2021

By Sharon Matthews and Chris Puccio

With proper change management practices, smart technology can improve a utility’s performance and resilience

We are firmly entrenched in a connected world where everything from our cars to refrigerators are labeled “smart.” It’s only a matter of time before our infrastructure catches up. While many may think smart infrastructure involves energy-efficient buildings and traffic sensors, utilities can also be connected to collect real-time data to support real-time controls. Supporting real-time controls is critical to implementing a smart utility. Smart utilities are not merely new sensors and gadgets. It is an interconnected ecosystem that is managed by people.

Without the proper training, procedures, and policies, the data collected cannot be put to work effectively. Ultimately, nothing will improve. Smart utilities require a holistic approach to make sense of the data and quickly act on it. Here are four ways that smart utilities improve water infrastructure.

1. Empowering people through process

Behind all smart technology are the people in control of them. Without properly trained managers of the system, you simply have a dumb system with a new gadget. But how do you go about changing a system that has been in place for decades? Or more importantly, how do you adapt your workforce to accept and introduce new procedures?

Effective change management is vital for communicating and educating your workforce to implement the utility’s new procedures. A common myth is that smart functionality will lead to automation and thus a smaller workforce.  Properly applying a smart utility will streamline the workforce by reskilling them to work in a more efficient manner. 

Properly implementing a smart utility will help the workforce operate in a more efficient manner.

Proper education and communication are critical. With it, the culture of the organization can shift so workers understand the changes that are taking place and how it impacts the system.

The Portland Water Bureau (PWB), for example, wants to become a smart utility. A major step is replacing an old work management system with a modern enterprise asset and maintenance management system. However, PWB quickly realized it takes more than simply installing new software. The bureau contacted our team for assistance with identifying business process improvements with their existing services and documenting improved future state business processes that uses the new asset and maintenance management system.

We worked closely with more than 60 PWB technicians, supervisors, and managers to understand their current processes. Working with this team, we captured current challenges and frustrations, as well as their ideas on improvements. We documented more than 200 opportunities for improvements in this process. Our team drafted improved future state processes with key performance indicators and continued working with PWB staff to revise and update as needed.

Even though we engaged with many PWB staff members, we discovered that the broader organization didn’t have a full grasp of the changes. They didn’t understand the reasoning behind the improved processes, why business processes that have been in place for years needed to change, and how the changes were going to impact each person’s role and job duties. Our team brought a structured organizational change management (OCM) approach to PWB based on the Prosci® ADKAR methodology and is currently working with the bureau on “preparing for change” and “managing the change.”

From these OCM efforts, we see increased discussions on the project, questions from staff that can be addressed, and an optimistic approach. 

Smart utilities require a holistic approach to make sense of the data and quickly act on it.

2. People drive financial improvements

The goal of a smart utility is to operate more efficiently, which drives costs savings. As we noted, people are behind these operations. That means people drive efficiencies.

An effective smart utility change-management process is measured by getting personnel to buy into the changes and culture shift. Once employees believe the changes in procedures will make their jobs and organization more efficient, then they can begin fulfilling those new roles effectively. Getting full buy in from the workforce is also important to ensure that people don’t circumvent the process—and return to inefficiencies.

3. Customer satisfaction

Ultimately, customers benefit the most from a smart utility. Having smart technology combined with the proper procedures and trained workforce enhances the customer experience. It allows the utility to be proactive. Since the system can detect problems and trigger action, response times will go down.

Predictive analysis can help a smart utility better prepare for challenging events. One example is having an improved system for rain events that may have a variety of impacts on a service area. The utility can use its sensors and predictive analysis to ready physical controls within its collection system and effectively deploy resources where needed ahead of fast-developing weather events. If the system is sensing a “capacity-limiting condition,” quick and decisive action can prevent overflows. Efficiencies like these greatly improve customer satisfaction. It also helps customers understand why future investments and rate changes are needed.

Smart utilities help reduce response times to customer issues by helping identify problems early.

4. Creating a more resilient water infrastructure

When it comes to the physical infrastructure, a smart utility will lead to an organization that is proactive instead of reactive. Implementing a smart utility leads to higher resiliency.

If the utility managers can properly engage the resources where needed and when needed, the system will be less stressed and have an increased lifespan. The utility can determine if it has the capacity to deal with typical events. That analysis leads to better identification of capital improvement projects, allowing the utility to spend more wisely on infrastructure. Finally, a smart utility will lead to better preventive maintenance by detecting issues before they become serious and costly problems. For instance, an unusual reading for a pipe could indicate a potential leak, allowing for swift action before a potential burst.

How do we make it smart?

A smart utility sounds good on paper, but there’s far more than fancy technology involved with creating the efficiencies that can drive cost savings. It’s great to have the data, but two vital questions must be addressed: 1) What to do with it? and 2) How can you make sure it’s being used to see the big picture?

The managers of the utility need to understand the data output to capitalize on the technology you have in place. This requires having a workforce culture that buys into the system and its use. And the workers must commit to operating the system leading to superior service delivery.  

  • Sharon Matthews

    With experience in planning, design, and construction management, Sharon serves as program manager for the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s (DWM) Program Management Services Team. This includes support in becoming a SMART Utility.

    Contact Sharon
  • Chris Puccio

    Chris is a recognized information technology and asset management consultant with 26 years of experience in IT leadership and operations, asset management consulting, program management, and consulting services delivery.

    Contact Chris
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