“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?
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….
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!
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!
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 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.