The Platypus Posts 4: Learning from specific times and places


Dreamstime.com/ 191317844 © Lefteris Papaulakis

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!

The Platypus Posts 3: But who understands a good Asset Manager?


© The Walt Disney Company

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…

The Platypus Posts 2: We haven’t been replaced by robots yet


Dreamstime.com/ 38357225 © Bogdancaraman

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?

The Platypus Posts 1: Why Platypus?

Design by Matt Miles, AMCL, 2020

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!

Asset Management as Anthropology

Yin-yang platypus, from platypus.clothing

“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?

Value-Less Feelgood?

Hakuna Matata Platypus, from platypus.clothing

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?

And when we say AM culture, does it have to be a culture war?

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….

And now IRL…

Building an Asset Management Team is now available as print on demand – a glossy paperback – from Amazon. All proceeds to Talking Infrastructure.

“A practical and lively guide for anyone who needs to do infrastructure Asset Management. It tackles who you need and why you need them.”

“This should be a pocketbook series” – Tina Ignat, Chicago METRA RailRoad

“It isn’t like anything I have ever read on asset management. I wish it was available when we started out on our AM journey!” – Krista Halayko, Manitoba Hydro

Is this the right question?

Hello Ruth,

We are currently working to justify the spend for improving our AM program. We would like to utilize other utility benchmarks for efficiency, productivity & other improvements from Asset Management implementation. We would use this to estimate what monetary value we can expect from improvements to operations. Thanks!

Joe.

Dear Joe,

Always glad to hear from you, and we can send you the benchmark data we have.

However… looking to long-term, integrated, whole life cost-based Asset Management for short term operational savings is maybe not the place to look for benefits, unless you can already see inefficiencies in maintenance spending. Thinking more in terms of planned, proactive maintenance rather than depending on reactive maintenance may save a lot of trouble, but it is not guaranteed to save on budget.  The benefits of being more proactive are more likely in terms of better customer service and managing risks so they do not cause you issues down the road.

Asset Management might be more realistically promoted as better customer service with the limited resources an organisation has; optimising effort so you target capital where it is really needed (and not wasted where it is not needed); better community, regulator and government trust in the capability to deliver what is required now and into the future. 

That an organisation seeks immediate operational savings can be a symptom of pre-Asset Management thinking – thinking in terms of today’s budgets rather than service, risk & the longer term.  The problem is that people may not see that poor customer performance, stakeholder mistrust and high risks actually do cost a lot of money, but they aren’t always accounted for.  (Until, suddenly, in a crisis, it’s obvious how very much they cost…)

Happy to support in any way we can – I hope this might be useful!

Warm wishes

Ruth

Benefits of good Asset Management can include higher profits and share value, lower insurance premiums, getting out of a catastrophe intact – but does it ever save on next year’s budget?

Maybe through analysing the data and realising how inefficient you are – anyone actually done this?

And – while we’re asking – did anyone ever save money on implementing a work management IT system (as opposed to making it easier to organise maintenance tasks)?

The Maintainers Fight Back

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?