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 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?
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?