Infrastructure angels and demons

Last known photo of St Francis Dam before it collapsed, © scvhistory.com

You know when you hear something you never noticed before, and then hear about it again the very next day? (It’s known as the Mandela Effect.)

I mean, I saw Chinatown many years ago and so understood that there was a rotten heart to Los Angeles’ water supply, but I never thought about where the water comes from – or understood how it trashed a valley and its communities in the 1920s.

Originally called Payahǖǖnadǖ, meaning ‘place of flowing water’, Owens Valley is a now dry valley north of LA.

I work with enough hydro dams to be curious about dam failures – there have been a few catastrophic failures in the 20th century – so wanted to watch a PBS documentary about the total failure of St Francis Dam in the valley. It failed because of hubris. It did not make it past its first day in operation. But the documentary was about much more than the immediate collapse and the hundreds of people who died that day.

Los Angeles basically stole the water, buying up water rights surreptitiously and sometimes illegally.   For some reason I can’t comprehend, it even memorialises the engineer responsible for the dam failure (and the overall aqueduct, which does still exist): Mulholland, of the Drive.

And the day after I watched the documentary, I read a review of a book titled Dust, by Jay Owens, using the Owens Valley as a 20th century example of humanity creating arid dust bowls where there were once thriving ecologies.

Metropolitan LA is a funny old place. I have spent plenty of time there as my brother moved to Azusa in the late 1970s, and retired to Orange County to the south. It was hailed as the city of the future once, but water is the big question mark, still. You would have to conclude that the LA basin is well beyond its carrying capacity, and perhaps always was.

Owens Valley, and St Francis Dam, seem suitable reminders of the challenge of sustainability. enshrined in the original BSI PAS 55 definition of Asset Management. The valley and its people – original and immigrant – paid the price for the development of a vast city region.

Not the first and surely not the last example, but a sobering reminder that water engineering is both hard, and not always on the side of the angels.

Ecommonics

Thanks to Chad Dulac of Chelan County PUD, WA, for this steam-punk platypus

I just dutifully waded through a dismal history of the last five decades of British economic policy.  Plenty of government mistakes, and nothing that really got past missing an empire. (The Tyranny of Nostalgia, by Russell Jones.)

Despite a less than adequate grasp myself of the mechanics of money supply and exchange rates, I wanted to learn lessons for we should be doing in future. And try to keep up more with Penny Burns, of course.

The book itself focused most on economic stability, and how that encourages good things to happen. Or at least doesn’t scare the horses.  And something beyond short-termism and political self-interest.

But, at the very end, the author did have to conclude that successive British governments have done less and less on what truly underlies the ‘economy’: on developing skills, encouraging new ideas, and supporting infrastructure. On how to enable people to do interesting things, really.

And here is where talking about infrastructure comes in.

The physical infrastructure of water and waste water, power, transport and telecommunications isn’t something in its own right, assets for their own sake.  It’s about enabling us to do what we need and want to do. Along with agriculture, education and health, it has to start with supporting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No-one too hungry or cold or isolated or poorly educated to reach for self-realisation.

In a country increasingly of “private wealth and public squalor” – used originally to refer to the United States – I come back to the sheer waste of potential in Britain, along with the heartache of poverty and lack of opportunities. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of really interesting challenges to apply our collective energy to. 

Obviously no-one in the current British government has any kind of vision for community beyond their rich mates.  

But what is our vision?

Tech and/or Care

© Pexels SpaceX 23764

The peculiar antics of Elon Musk in late 2022 prompts, once more, the question of whether tech billionaires are really the best model for our heroes.

During Covid, plenty of people realised how dependent we are on carers, paid perhaps a millionth of what Musk pays himself. We clapped for a very different kind of heroics during lockdown. 

Infrastructure is an intriguing mixture: it’s technology to keep our societies going, not primarily to make money. Managing it well involves caring for stuff.  We are not carers in the traditional sense – and many of us are paid better than nurses or teachers.

Of course, technology innovation and looking after other people are very heavily gendered in our society: stereotypically, techies are male, carers are female.  Making an obscene amount of money from exploiting innovation is masculine heroics; working till you drop caring for someone else is feminine heroics. (There are plenty of men in caring professions, but that doesn’t stop the stereotype.)

Sometimes I feel we’re trying to work out what kind of heroes we want to be in asset management. There are plenty who fancy the innovation techie route, getting all excited about ‘digital transformation’ (cf. the call this week for papers by ReliabilityWeb on the subject, for example) and, probably, the well-founded belief this is an easier way to make money.  There are others, more equitably spread between women and men, who are sure it’s mostly about people.

We shouldn’t be particularly surprised to see crude stereotypes echoed in our own profession. A colleague recently described the problem of dominance in AM by “fat middle aged white men” (he said he was talking about himself, and the fat bit was a joke) – a dominance that doesn’t thrill me. I find myself more alarmed by the failure to learn our own lessons about what it takes to manage infrastructure, and rush into anything techie. As though, this time, technology innovation will sort out all the problems. Including the tiresome need to think about people.

But, then again, it’s surely the mix, the dynamic tension, between technology and caring which actually appeals to many of us; that brought us into asset management in the first place.

In their excellent book The Innovation Delusion, Lee Vinsel and Andy Russell challenge both innovation and heroes as ideals – and propose instead the maintenance mindset and how to sustain our “human-built world”.  I think this is partly what they mean, this interesting mix.

PS Their Maintainers are still going strong, by the way, with some assistance from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Siegel Family Endowment – see www.themaintainers.org

A career in Asset Management?

I have known – and quite probably, so have you – many who have fought their way to the end of their studies, perhaps in medicine, law or teaching, only to find that their chosen field is something for which they are quite temperamentally unsuited and they need to start all over again. Fortunately, for those who wish to make their career in the management of physical assets, this fate can be avoided. 

In Leadership Assets, Dr Monique Beedles takes you through four stages of an asset management career – from an Apprenticeship role where your task is to learn and you are leading yourself, through the next stage as Advisor where you lead others and your task is to establish credibility, and on to being an Advocate where you are now ‘leading people who lead people’ and your role is as an influencer, and finally, if you wish, a role as Ambassador where you represent an industry and lead a community.  

You don’t need to be at the beginning of your career to benefit greatly from this book, although if you are, you are lucky indeed.  Even those considerably advanced along a particular pathway will be encouraged by seeing how much further they may still progress. 

Whatever spot on this spectrum you choose for yourself, you will not only find here a clear outline of the key ‘smarts’ you require: ‘tech’ smarts, ‘biz’ smarts and ‘people’ smarts, but also, and importantly, how to develop your strength in the ones  you need.  This is the main core of the book.  It is brightly written, brief, to the point and immensely useful.  

This is one of those books that when you find it at the end of your career, as I have done, you are left with a great desire to start all over again – and do it properly!

TIki goes lively

To coincide with our presentation on the Waves of Asset Management at the IAM Global Conference on June 15, Talking Infrastructure launches: TIki. The wiki for strategic Asset Managers.

To being with, while we build up the content, it’s read-only, but we invite you to join in with further development.

Organized by Wave, we aim to build up an unrivalled knowledge base on Strategic Asset Management, including access to the best of… Strategic Asset Management, Penny’s biweekly newsletter from 1999 to 2014, as well as more on Building an Asset Management Team, and through DAN and other networking with AM leads in North America and beyond. And don’t miss an episode of The Story of Asset Management, which for Penny was always about being strategic.

On Wave 3, Infrastructure Decision Making, we are using TIki to capture thinking on future friendly assets – better questions, some of them hard, particularly in this era of ‘Build Back Better’ trillions.

For Wave 4, we aim to start to nibble away at how to integrate infrastructure and planetary health, starting with the initiatives at Blue Mountains City Council.

TIki already has many pages, and many more to come. It’s easy to follow your curiosity, as well as backtrack via the trace.

Click on TIki in the top menu bar, and start your exploration now!

What are our boundaries?

Dreamstime 87619691 Hedgerow © Peter Titmuss 

An Asset Management friend recently emailed me that her CEO had challenged her view of the importance of AM to their whole business strategy.  “So asset management is improving our passenger experience? Asset management is improving employee engagement?  Asset management cures cancer?” 

While, on the other hand, even plenty of people with ‘Asset Manager’ in their job title act like their job is to manage the list of assets in an IT system.

ISO 55000 makes bold claims, that I think it cannot substantiate. That the same principles we apply to managing physical assets hold true to managing anything else of value, like financial assets, or people. I suspect that the good folks who wrote ISO 55000 may have no idea what that even means – or, put it this way, would you necessarily go to an engineer to tell you how to manage people?

So I do in practice think there’s a limit.

However, managing physical assets clearly is a huge part of running an asset-intensive organisation such as transit or power, or even a city. It’s certainly most of their budget and resources. If you can get that right, many good things should follow, like profit, customer service and, yes, engaged workforce.

But perhaps the real point is that to manage the physical assets well, you have to think about profit, customer service, and engaged workers.

To me, it’s obvious that it matters – it matters hugely that we do manage our essential infrastructure well, that not merely our economy but quality of life and planetary health depend on it. So we need a wider vision, an understanding of interconnections and dependencies, ‘the bigger picture’.

Asset management will not cure cancer. It has boundaries.

But managing the physical assets that underpin our society effectively is probably wide enough scope to be getting on with, don’t you think?

We are the In-Between

Thinking about Waves 3 and 4 of Asset Management, this quote from a recent novel struck me:

It is difficult for anyone born and raised in human infrastructure to truly internalize the fact that your view of the world is backward.

“Even if you fully know that you live in a natural world that existed before you and will continue long after, even if you know that the wilderness is the default state of things, and that nature is not something that only happens in carefully curated enclaves between towns, something that pops up in empty spaces if you ignore them for a while, even if you spend your whole life believing yourself to be deeply in touch with the ebb and flow, the cycle, the ecosystem as it actually is, you will still have trouble picturing an untouched world.

You will still struggle to understand that human constructs are carved out and overlaid, that these are the places that are the in-between, not the other way around.”

– Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot Book 1), 2021

Curiouser and curiouser

Internet meme, no credit visible – so thak you to whoever photographed and posted this!

I teach people about Asset Management – up to 1000 a year – and I get to see a wide range of reactions.  Best is when someone in class decides Asset Management is what they have been looking for their whole career, its mixture of technical and people and business challenges exactly right for them. Or the maintenance guy who, by the end of the course, was explaining to everyone else to “do the math” for optimal decisions.

For some, on intro courses, it’s mildly interesting, at least as long as their leaders tell them it is.

Sometimes, however, people resist.

I taught a class of design engineers a few years ago, who argued the toss on everything, and failed the exam afterwards.  I think we can take it that they didn’t get it because they didn’t want to. (I have also taught a class to project engineers who had understood AM was the way forward for them personally and had got together to sign up for it.)

Recently, I was working with an organisation – an early-ish adopter in the USA – where they were keen enough on AM to create a series of jobs for ‘Asset Manager’. Not necessarily what I, personally, would call Asset Managers, but rather engineering roles to develop priorities by asset class for replacement capital projects.

The way we teach AM, following the lead of Richard Edwards and Chris Lloyd (two very smart UK pioneers) is top down.  If strategic AM is aligned to organisation priorities and levels of service targets, we start with what those targets are, with external stakeholders interests, the role of top management, and demand forecasting. In other words, context and goals. I warn everyone about this right at the start – and also make it clear that nothing else matters if we don’t understand what we want the assets for in the first place.

I was struck, this time, by the lack of curiosity the class had. No-one knew what their level of service targets were, they stumbled to think about who their key regulators were, where demand was heading, even who might have a legitimate interest in what assets were being replaced, outside of engineering and operations. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know, they also didn’t much care. They were not stupid.

I was struck by how weird it is, really, that we have to teach anyone about alignment. That smart people working with assets don’t stop to ask what their organisations are really doing with those assets. 

What a good Asset Manager really needs more than anything is curiosity – asking all the questions about why and how and how we can do it better in future.

But some people just aren’t very curious, for some reason. They are not much fun to teach!

The Platypus Diaries 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 Diaries 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…