It’s always an interesting question: why do things arise when and where they do? Why Asset Management in Australia in the 1980s, when plenty of other useful asset ideas came from other places and times – reliability engineering in US commercial airlines post-war, for instance?
And when I explain where much best practice comes from, why is New Zealand such a paragon? There are very good reasons, when you ask about the when and the where.
There is something about fundamental ideas that makes understanding the specifics important. An approach that seems like such a good idea as Asset Management – why wasn’t it more obvious, earlier, to more people? A fabulous clue as to how what seems like an obviously sensible mindset, required something major to shift. A chink in older assumptions, even culture, that let someone, something start to question, to let a new light in.
I suspect a lot of us struggle about why people resist what seems backed by logic, evidence and good sense. But I don’t want us to go down the deep, dangerous rabbit hole that is conventional economics, making a simplifying assumption that people are ‘rational’ the way they define it – a definition which doesn’t really care why people do what they do, or how what seems ‘obvious’ in one situation doesn’t work in another, or anywhere.
And that is partly why I love physical infrastructure. One size really doesn’t fit all* – a good strategy for one kind of asset would be barking wrong for another, and even for an identical asset in a different context. And it all depends on what you are trying to achieve, specifically.
Physical assets are the opposite of idealised generalisations. Yes, there are generally good questions; but not universal good answers, at least not in my experience.
Infrastructure Asset Management is the epitome of the full appreciation of time and place.
Watch here for the publication of the first part of Penny Burns’ history of Asset Management, from its beginnings in South Australia….
*Thanks to a Bay Area shoestore billboard, and Robyn Briggs ex Pacific Gas & Electric, for this!
Appealing though it might be to be a secret hero*, like Fedora Perry – cool hat! – even this misunderstands platypuses. The internet has plenty of cute images of things that are labelled platypuses but aren’t.
In particular, many cartoons (like Perry) show them with a beaver tail*. They are sort of like an Australian beaver, so we assume they look like them. Even the robot platypus has a beaver tail. But platypuses have furry tails.
Once someone put a beaver tail on a platypus, it was easier for people to copy than check a photo of a real platypus*.
And I guess they were the inspiration for Fantastic Beast the niffler – and now nifflers show up in seaches for platypus images.
And since almost no-one has ever seen a baby platypus*, fake pictures circulate (and there’s a furious debate about what they are even called).
Yes, platypuses are widely misunderstood, when people have even heard of them.
What does a good infrastructure Asset Manager really do*?
*Hint: not a lone hero, not a construction engineer, not necessarily what people think, and they don’t spring fully formed from college…
One thing that puzzles me in the world is the desire of many to be more excited by what technology could do to emulate people than about people themselves. Why are Asset Management conferences packed with papers about data, and usually silent about what human beings bring to decision-making?
Even those who should know better (because they have been there) talk about ‘data-driven’ processes; and organisations pour far more money into dumb databases than getting a better understanding of their assets.
I suspect this is partly the fetish for capital over on-going costs – and, frankly, ideological faith that it’s better to invest in ‘innovation’ than labour costs. Anything that promises to cut staff is good, no matter how much it costs to try to replace them.
Now, I am a big sci-fi fan, which generally accepts the forward march of technology. But then again, it also warns about how it can wrong, at least in the stories I read. I am not at all sure replacing people with robots benefits anyone, and not the 99% of us that don’t control how automation is used. I am not especially optimistic.
However, there is one thing I am pretty certain about, even in embracing uncertainty about the future: no-one really has any clue about how we can replace experience in managing physical assets.
I remember when I first noticed that investment in things like work management systems, or even more basic computerised processes, could lose sight of how things really work. Big IT in the 1990s in asset-world was sold as replacing some administration costs – mostly part time, middle aged women, who cost almost nothing as they were paid very little, who managed the monthly reporting, knew where the data was, what it meant to asset decision makers, and what to do with it. And the local nerds who programmed in Fortran in their spare time, and wrote routines for their next door colleagues to do any analysis or maths required.
At least we might try to learn the lessons from the history of IT: where did it work, and why?
Which, to me, includes the question of how to think of technology as a tool to assist skilled people. Why would even want to see ourselves replaced?
In writing Building an Asset Management Team, Lou Cripps and I looked at the skills an effective Asset Management team requires – both technical and business understanding, good grasp of front-line experience, both system and structured thinking, a longer term perspective, emotional intelligence and communication skills, embracing uncertainty and the tools to think about risk, integrity, and enough leadership ability to get others to buy into a new way of working.
Good infrastructure Asset Management requires a tricky combination of attributes.
Lou came up with the image of the platypus, that is very rare and not to be found on most continents.
Instead of searching for an amphibious, duck-billed, otter-footed, egg-laying, venomous mammal that locates prey through electroreception, it’s easier to provide all the qualities we need through a complementary team.
But we still love platypuses. Watch out for more of them in the next ten days!
“The worst misunderstandings sometimes happen between different teams within the supposedly same ethnic group, particularly if they [come] from different locations or had different professional training (say, IT workers mingling with engineers)” – Gillian Tett
I have long been fascinated by differences in approach between engineers and Asset Management professionals – how AM is not just another variety of engineering. And, for that matter, why Operations managers don’t think like AMps, or how IT teams look at the world. For instance: what is it that motivates people in IT teams? (Not, I think, the pleasures of making users happy.)
In my own life, I seem to have sharply favoured working with maintenance, or ex-maintenance people, rather than Engineers with Capital E. Because they were very different experiences.
It is not that there have not been engineers who are massively important to me, such as my brother, or my parents’ best friend Ed – but then again, they never acted like typical engineers, and were not very polite about such ‘grey men’ (Ed’s phrase) themselves. That engineering does have its own cultural norms, some quite odd, has been a question for me for many decades.
So my eye was caught by the review of a book by Financial Times editor Gillian Tett, Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life. About trained anthropologists such as Tett who have found themselves working in businesses, such as Google or GM, or what they would advise governments on dealing with COVID-19.
She describes how anthropology is about both investigating what’s strange, other, exotic, and about the tools to see our own culture/s, to understand what is weird (or even WEIRD) about it. The book has plenty of interesting examples – about Kit Kats in Japan become an indispensable good luck charm for school exams, about dealing with Ebola or ‘CDOs’, as well as more effective advertising and work practices.
But it particularly made me think of how to understand the oddities of current engineering – why is so often tends towards the short term, to silos and uncoordinated stupidity, even resistance to data. Surely none of those attitudes are ‘logical’ – so what is really going on? I take it as given that, like IT, there is a coherent motivation, a vision of what it means to be a good engineer. So how come… that doesn’t play nice with Asset Management, so often?
And then again… what is the culture of Asset Management, developing before our eyes?
Because I also take it that if you don’t try to understand the water you swim in, you also don’t really understand what you are doing – how it might need to change or evolve – and why it gets up the nose of others who don’t share your basic values.
There is always culture, always weird to someone outside it, and managing infrastructure involves several different ones. So we must have anthropology in our Asset Management toolkits, too!
Next: Ethnographic approaches we might use in practice?
When I managed a small subsidiary company in the 1990s, I read a book by ex ICI chair John Harvey Jones on values. He said – and I am paraphrasing wildly – that any useful organisational value must have an opposite which would work in other circumstances, otherwise it’s so much mom-and-apple-pie stuff you can’t disagree with, but which does not motivate or drive very much, either.
When my team tried articulating our collective values, we all agreed on loyalty – which the marketing men said was not an appropriate marketing slogan, so I knew we were on to something. What could be (in other contexts) a useful opposite? Impartiality, for example. Loyalty was something we felt, and it also turned out to be something our clients could feel (and appreciate). Someone else could contribute impartiality.
As we face a puzzling current widespread refusal of North American infrastructure agencies to set clear SMART targets, we have wondered aloud if it’s because they don’t want anything they could fail at. I begin to wonder if it’s worse than this, a lack of clear purpose or value at all.
I think I have just spotted the worst yet: a transportation agency that’s adopted ‘We Make People’s Lives Better’. Their top leadership are very proud of it, since who doesn’t want to Make People’s Lives Better? The detail of what counts as better, which people, how we will do this – and what we do if one lot of people want something that would adversely affect another group of people? Well, don’t be negative, we can work that all out later. (And don’t even bring up all the critiques of naïve utilitarianism.)
Do we want a bus company to ‘make our lives better’, or do we just want them to concentrate on running an efficient and comfortable bus service?
For the moment, we asset managers can play the game of what, if anything, would not fit under this rhetoric. How could it even in theory rule out a bad option?
Yeah, it was a high-priced consultancy that facilitated this, but why does this even feel right to the executive, apart from being a meaningless feelgood statement?
Is it a triumph of the marketing men, or a complete dereliction of duty?
Every infrastructure project causes damage – to society, to the environment. We know this. A new road means loss of green space. It disrupts existing commerce and communities. Steel and cement are toxic to the environment. We accept this damage as a necessary cost of achieving a larger community good.
For too long, we have accepted this ‘larger community good’ to be the short term jobs that are created. But as shown in the last two posts, not only is this jobs gain illusory, it causes its own damaging distortions in the economy. Construction workers might gain, but other workers lose.
So if we are to support a new infrastructure project it must be because of the greater, ongoing benefits that the infrastructure will provide – after it has been constructed. For evidence based decision making, this is where we must seek our evidence.
How do we do this? What sort of evidence should we seek?
When a government runs a ‘balanced budget’ its spending (and the jobs that this spending creates) is compensated for by its taxing (and the jobs that this taxing destroys). It follows that the justification for infrastructure can never be the jobs it creates for it doesn’t create any – it simply shifts jobs from one part of the economy to another.
The job losses are not easily measured but they are real. As asset managers we see it all the time, when, following an infrastructure spending splurge, governments try to claw back the money spent by reducing funds for operations and maintenance. So that not only is there not only no net increase in funding and jobs but we are now left with distortions in the economy – more assets to maintain but smaller budgets with which to do it.
We can see this level of distortion when it happens in our own organisations. But impacts extend beyond those organisations that benefit from the infrastructure spending, to those many companies, associations, individuals that now experience higher taxes or lower government spending in their areas or lower demand because spending has been shifted elsewhere. This is difficult to see and where logic must apply.
How can we be sure that spending money on a new infrastructure project trumps spending the same amount of money on hospital staff or teachers, out-of-work youth, or any one of a number of other spending opportunities?
For the distortions to be worth it to the community, we must be pretty sure of the ongoing value of the infrastructure to the community – see Jeff Roorda’s comments to the previous post.
How often do you see arguments such as that spending, say, $100m will create Y,000 jobs? Rarely do we even question the logic, let alone the arithmetic. But we should do both. For if inserting $100m into the economy creates jobs – and it does! – then it must be equally true that extracting $100m reduces jobs. It follows that if the Government is running a balanced budget, then money into the economy through government expenditure is equal to money taken out of the economy through taxes to finance this and there is no net increase in jobs. The situation is worse if the Government is aiming at a budget surplus, for then more jobs are lost than are created.
The jobs created are nicely gathered together and visible for the project at hand, they are even amplified by media exposure, but what you don’t see are the jobs that are lost, for these are spread across the economy.
Let’s face it, to keep its budget under control it will either have to cut back on other expenditure or raise taxes and charges. (Think back to the last ‘stimulus’ bill, is that not what happened a year or so later? The government encouraged construction then later reduced funding affecting maintenance amongst other things.)
And as to the secondary round of expenditure – by which those receiving the first tranche of largesse are expected to go out and spend, thus creating more jobs, what about the secondary effects of the jobs that are lost?
Yes, we want to believe that we are making the world better by building infrastructure and creating jobs but are we in danger of letting wish fulfilment overcome logic?
Moreover, when we are losing jobs all over the country in order to put up a new infrastructure project, how can we be sure that we are gaining, in real community benefit terms, more than we are losing? Maybe we are not?
Some days, it all feels quite hard. We know that infrastructure Asset Management requires a change in attitudes, in culture, and that’s no fun to anyone who just wants to get on and manage assets well. I teach AM, and always say that the tricky bit is attitudes, using co-operation and longer-term thinking as two culture shifts we need if we don’t have them.
But some days it seems more than this. Why does IT think IT assets are special, and so shouldn’t be subject to the same AM planning and prioritisation processes? Why doesn’t engineering care about information – not just as-built, but the need for any evidence for their decision processes. (“How do we know what benefit we will get from better information?”, an engineering department wrote recently in opposition to a data improvement initiative.) Why is Urban Planning not interested in any conversation about the current state and utilisation of the physical assets, and how did they come to despise maintenance (why does anyone despise maintenance)? Why do operations, executives think they don’t need KPIs? What do they think they are arguing for?
AM is on the side of good, evidence-based rationalism: wanting to do the right thing based on logic and facts. It is very hard for us to deal with people who are not.
Some days it feels rather like attempting to argue with an anti-vaxxer, or a Trump supporter.
Obviously, when they look at us, they don’t see champions of logic and good sense. Maybe they see a threat – but what do they tell themselves? Answers, please….