The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, Lee Vinsel and Andrew L Russell (September 2020)
Is this the first ‘popular’ book on Asset Management & Infrastructure Decisions? You wouldn’t necessarily know from the title.
But maintainers and asset managers are the, well, not heroes here: Vinsel and Russell describe ‘infrastructurers’ as something better than heroes. ‘The people who care about things’, as Lou Cripps puts it. And infrastructure in terms of human rights.
The book is a sustained attack on ‘bright, shiny new things’, especially when they really are not worthy of the name innovation, and when they will land communities in debt and ‘deferred maintenance’ for many years.
“Although you wouldn’t know it from histories that fixate on innovation and inventors, much of human history is, in fact, stories of stability: of how societies coordinate labor to maintain the large-scale public systems we’ve relied on since ancient times.”
But the authors are not simply academics, or popularisers. With Jessica Myerson, the authors have set up The Maintainers, https://themaintainers.org/connect. Their vision is:
“Through collaborative efforts across an interwoven network of communities, we pursue our mission of maintaining self and society through reflection, research, and advocacy in the hopes of achieving a more caring and well-maintained world.”
The book itself is a good read, using the current ‘popular’ non-fiction style of stories around individuals: everything you’ve ever worried about with poor rail track maintenance and failing water systems, and some good people trying to sort them.
I suspect it’s generally true that, when you know the inside story, things are not always quite as simple as written. I was a ‘fly on the wall’ at PG&E over the time of Camp Fire, and I don’t buy that wildfires should be blamed on ‘somebody else’, or one company’s profits alone, for example.
But, with honourable mentions for reliability engineers, Ursula K Le Guin, Melinda Hodkiewicz, and even ISO 55000 – and even computerised maintenance management systems! – this is my kind of territory.
Your reviews of it are most welcome here.
And what do you think about essential infrastructure as a basic human right?
Collaborative, considered, weighing up the consequences: infrastructure does not sound typically heroic.
Looking at the language around front-line working during Covid-19, we slip very easily into ‘NHS heroes’ in a ‘fight’ against the virus. I never cease to be impressed by the dedication – on low pay, at least in England – of nurses, and of course I clapped for them along with my neighbours. My stepdaughter is an A&E paediatric nurse, so her job is reactive and high-pressure, sometimes overwhelmed.
But a conventional military image doesn’t sit well for us AM practitioners, whose role is precisely not to react. We need a cool head, not only in crisis but in the mundane everyday – not driven by the excitement of a mega project or the latest technologies.
One thing that has always appealed to me about Asset Management is how many people in infrastructure interact with their assets. ‘People who care about things’. They do not generally think of themselves as wresting victory from hostile systems, but of working with them. Understanding them; respecting them. It was an asset colleague at RailCorp in Sydney who said we are lovers, not fighters.
Public service, as nurse or asset manager, doing what we do for the sake of our communities, is what keeps society working. We need some word for it – to celebrate its worth, and praise those who do it well – but militaristic ‘heroism’ isn’t quite right. We are not ‘fighting’ anything.
Terms like ‘noble’ or ‘honourable’ appeal, but are perhaps more military than suits me, as a (frankly) physical coward who sees nothing attractive about wars.
‘Really good people’ probably doesn’t have the right ring about it. But that’s what we mean.
Why should we encourage diversity among Asset Managers? This is not just about access, equity and inclusive working environments – although there is a way to go, still, on that, even in our fairly young area.
As Janet Yellen, the USA Fed’s first female chair put it: “Beyond fairness, the lack of diversity harms the field because it wastes talent. It also skews the field’s viewpoint and diminishes its breadth.”
Asset Management is all about how people with different skills and perspectives work together to a better solution, about seeing wider than any of us can do as individuals.
What different perspective did you bring that made the difference?
I work in a group of fantastic North American Asset Management practitioners called Women in Asset Management NA, and this is the question we are tackling. We would love to hear from you.
People like us who are responsible for managing public infrastructure assets always leave a legacy. Good or bad, that depends on how well we do our jobs now.
Famously politicians, along with billionaires, are attracted to the idea of a shiny new asset with their name on it. They see themselves remembered and honoured every time anyone drives down a road named for them. But this is often not true.
Firstly, if the road is poorly designed and badly maintained, no-one will be honouring your memory.
Secondly, if this puts the community into long-term debt, or wrecks other community benefits such as a stream or potential for other services – anything that will prevent them from doing what is needed in future: this is a poor legacy. Even if not everyone remembers it was your doing, they will not think kindly about whoever was responsible for such short-sightedness.
Thirdly, by definition, it is a poor public servant who puts their own ego against the needs of their community.
What would be a good legacy?
What would you like to leave for future generations?
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’*
What do envy and the attitudes of some people responsible for infrastructure at this time have in common?
Wishing things were different, instead of getting down and actively working to change things.
This was prompted by a conversation last week with an Asset Manager struggling to get their executive to stop moaning about how unlucky it all is, and start planning for what’s going to be needed going forward from Covid-19. People paid a goodly amount of money to take responsibility, who instead are acting like victims: everything would have been ok, if only….
Wanting the world on your own terms is not a strategy. Managing assets is for life, not just for Christmas, not just the good times.
It made me think again how vital the principle of honesty is for good infrastructure management. Chris Lloyd and Charles Johnson in their Seven Revelations of Asset Management (Assets, May 2014) put it like this: Asset Management demands openness about past performance. We have to face up to what’s gone on before, how well (or how badly) the assets are doing.
But we also have to honestly face up to change – even when it looks calamitous. That is what responsibility means.
Even discussing the deadly sins soon comes round to Asset Management!
The serious point is how we build up that sense of responsibility, in ourselves and in top management, to do our level best with what we have taken on. To commit to be better informed, better trained, to learn from best practice and to live it.
No-one forces anyone else to involve themselves in crucial infrastructure. You do not have to apply to be CEO of a public service, or run for election to the Council – but, having made that choice, it’s not a cushy number.
I woke up with a start last week thinking: good Asset Management is all about time.
We tend to think of managing physical assets being about space – things, in systems and networks, on sites. But this is what we inherit from Engineering. Engineers manage space, things in space. But we do not train them to consider the fourth dimension: what these things in space will look like, or deliver, in ten, or fifty, or a hundred years’ time.
I mean, it is hard enough to design a functioning system: to think beyond individual assets or components, to how they all work together. Our engineering training is not always that successful in getting us to think in systems, and how the whole adds up to something other than all the pieces: to deliver the services our organisations and our communities require. We still have some way to go to this ‘alignment’ from assets to output, let alone outcome. And system interactions can be difficult, especially if they cross discipline and silo boundaries.
But, unfortunately, we have to go even beyond this.
Lou Cripps of RTD Denver describes a good Asset Management practitioner as a time traveller. Managing for the future, based on where we are now, and informed by historical experiences and data. With physical systems, we always have to start where we are now, to be grounded in the physical realities, not floating free in blue skies. And we need the historical experience to be able to project forward, through modelling in its widest sense.
The first engineering manager I worked for described smart engineers as wanting to make leaps unfettered by whatever mess we were currently in. “With one bound, he was free!’ (This also reminds me of some strategic planners I have met…)
A good Asset Manager, I suspect, may be no less ambitious, but focused on something else: the challenge of working from where we are now, whatever that may be, to a sustainable infrastructure future. Not pinning too much hope on magic to come that might change the basic physical realities, or people, but thinking how the next step could lead to the step after that, how one consequence can lead to another, thinking about time and through time.
What kind of tools do we need to assist us in this?
What kind of education do we need for our Asset Managers of the future?
Is it our job to defend resources and projects for the things we fancy doing?
Two encounters in the past month got me thinking about business cases. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
One was being asked by a team to prove they need more resources; the other was from a team desperate to defend the resources they have, post Covid-19. Both are perfectly understandable impulses. But not, I think, necessarily good Asset Management.
In the first example, a small group had been putting in place some good, basic AM foundations – sound techie things, like proactive maintenance. They want to go further, but they are having trouble persuading top management to support them. “All the exec cares about is finance, so we have to make the case by showing how much operating cost they can save immediately through Asset Management.”
They wanted us to give them hard evidence of maintenance savings, based on fully quantified examples from not only their own sector, but from organisations exactly like theirs. And full details of how those other organisations had achieved them.
I’m not complaining here about the argument about maintenance – I have moaned enough about that often enough. What struck me was this group’s belief that only immediate opex savings would convince their top management, because ‘everyone knows’ top management only thinks about money. But the AM team itself was not interested in any case based on the medium and longer term.
When we asked them if they had any reason to believe their organisation was currently wasting money on the wrong maintenance, or had more maintenance people than they needed, the team was very offended. They did not, themselves, care about costs; they just wanted to do some more cool AM-y things.
They wanted to be handed a business case for what they already wanted to do.
Without looking at the data in their own organisation; without being made to think about the real business priorities, which didn’t much interest them.
The other example was a capital projects department putting forward their reasons why the team – developed to design and construct major growth assets – should stay the same as their organisation cuts back on any growth in response to a calamitous lose of income from Covid-19. I was amused, if that is quite the right word, by how they used the language and principles of whole-life Asset Management to justify no cuts to engineering. When what they really care about – is building shiny new things.
As I said, I can understand both motivations. But – I believe – it’s focusing on what you want to do, fun techie things, and then coming up with a justification for it afterwards in whatever ‘business’ language you can find to hand, even if you personally don’t believe it, that plagues our infrastructure decision-making.
And exactly what good Asset Management should not be doing, right?
Photo from commons.wikimedia.org, Escaping the jaws of a Banzai Pipeline wave
In the third part of our audio series on the Waves of Asset Management, we move on to talking about time.
Because effective Asset Management practitioners are time travellers, working with past, present and future: understanding where we are now, using historical experiences and data, in order to model the future.
What can Asset Management bring to better future planning? What must we bring? And what tools do we need to do this?
Part 3 of a discussion between Penny Burns, Ruth Wallsgrove, and Lou Cripps, in our new Thinking Infrastructure Aloud series. Please let us know what you think!
The wonderful ‘Big Picture’ animation from the Institute of Asset Management ends on a fascinating note:
Once we have optimised all our asset decisions to deliver our organisational goals – we can move on to asking about “the very reasons for the organisation’s existence”.
In part 2 of our audio series on the Waves of Asset Management, we explore alignment, a core principle of the Second Wave, or, Strategic Asset Management.
Hard as alignment is to achieve in practice – all those 1000s of asset decisions that have to add up in a co-ordinated, integrated way, now and into the future – it can raise an even bigger challenge for Asset Management practitioners. What are we aligning to?
What is the real purpose of my organisation?
And how can Asset Management help define it?
Part 2 of a discussion between Penny Burns, Ruth Wallsgrove, and Lou Cripps, in our new Thinking Infrastructure Aloud series – enjoy!
In 2018 Penny Burns and Jeff Roorda suggested we describe our history in revolutions; a month ago, Penny proposed the history of Asset Management is more like Waves.
The First Wave of AM was to establish an asset inventory. We needed to know what we had to manage before we felt we could do anything else.
The Second Wave was to do something useful with this information: Strategic Asset Management, or better decisions to get a better answer in terms of cost, risk and performance. Of course, once we started actually using the data, we became much more aware of data quality and coverage. The need for good information didn’t go away. The best Asset Management practitioners are mostly still in Wave 2 – but already looking beyond it, for example in response to Covid-19.
The coming Third Wave is what Talking Infrastructure is all about.How to use what we have learned – all that data, sure, but more what’s involved in making better asset decisions – and look ‘up and out’ to the questions of what infrastructure our communities really need now, and into the uncertain future?
In March this year, after lockdown began, three of us – Penny Burns, Ruth Wallsgrove, and Lou Cripps of Denver Area transit agency RTD, across three continents – took the framework of the Three Waves and explored what this means to us in practice. Talking Infrastructure is happy here to deliver Part 1 of the recording, the first in an on-going series called Thinking Infrastructure Aloud that we intend not merely as audio downloads but public podcasts.
You get to be the pilot for this, and so: it is even more vital that you comment, and give us feedback on our move into sound!