Buying Into Progress

Data provided by field crews helps the Bellevue Utilities Department run better, and brings employees more job fulfillment and satisfaction

The old maxim about “garbage in, garbage out” holds true for many things, including the continuous process-improvement program run by the city of Bellevue (Wash.) Utilities Department. The program, which tracks hundreds of performance measures to benchmark against other utilities, is only as good as the data collected.

As such, water and sewer crews in Bellevue are much more than just repair people or inspectors. They are walking, talking data-collection centers who document their activities daily as part of a broader effort to deploy resources as effectively as possible, says Joe Harbour, operations manager.

“Like many utilities, we face constrained budgets and flat staffing levels, plus regulatory issues that require us to do more work,” Harbour says. “So we’re trying to get more out of what we have. Performance measures are just one of the tools in our toolbox that help us understand how we’re doing and make the best use of resources we have.”


Many measures

The department’s performance-measure program recently won a Platinum Award from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies. The measures cover operational functions from macro-level items such as the number of water service interruptions per 1,000 customers, to micro-level measures like the average time it takes to repair a broken waterline.

“Some measures are highly visible and readily understandable by the public, like how often does our water stop flowing or how often does sewage overflow into a lake,” Harbour explains. “Others are less visible, like the average footage of sewer mains we can jet per hour. But they all let us know over time how we’re doing against other utilities nationwide, and against ourselves.

“At the end of the day, our performance measurement is only as good as the data we put into the system. Effective measurement and asset management hinge on our staff’s ability and commitment to support that through good field work documentation.”


Crews supportive

Field crews’ participation in asset management has become more formalized since the early 1990s. Over the years, employee buy-in has been complete, thanks to strong communication about the program’s benefits.

“Over time, inputting data has become part of our culture,” Harbour says. “And the best way to get employees to buy into it is to explain why we’re doing it. To make it part of your culture, it’s essential to explain why you do what you do. Once they understand what we need and what we get out of it, they buy into it.”

New employees are introduced to the program as part of their orientation. As they learn field work procedures, they also learn how to enter information into the utility’s maintenance-management system. “From day one, they’re inculcated into the culture of performance and asset management,” Harbour says. “To operate our systems in the long term, we need to understand and track where failures occur and what it takes to fix them. We can’t do that without accurate data.”


Daily routine

Employees are required to enter information into the database at the end of their daily shifts. They note what they did, what parts or how much material they used, and how much time it took to do it. “The impact on the crews is significant in the sense that we depend on their ability to remember what they did and what they used so we can track materials and cost,” Harbour notes.

Some employees use laptop computers to track their activities, while others use a pen and a notebook. Not all employees are initially adept at using a computer to input data, but they get used to it.

“A lot of folks just want to turn wrenches and fix things, so coming back in and inputting data may not be their favorite activity,” Harbour says. “A lot of these employees are action-oriented, and they don’t see tracking widgets as action-oriented. In some ways, it’s incidental to their main focus at work. But we don’t have to nag them or remind them to do it.”

Compiling and analyzing the information from the field helps the department track the cost of work orders. It also helps department leaders understand failures, where they occur, the kinds of assets on which they occur, and how much effort it takes to maintain those assets. “By understanding our system better, we can target work on the areas where it’s most beneficial,” Harbour says. “We’re very data-centric, and that allows us to make fact-based decisions.”


Empowerment and fulfillment

One side benefit of involving field workers in asset management is a stronger focus on thinking strategically about their jobs – looking at the big picture and suggesting different ways to do things. The department also strives to push decision-making down the line to staff whenever possible.

“Our field crews do more than just fix things,” Harbour says. “They’re also asked to bring back recommendations on how to run things better. If they see opportunities to change a system, they’re encouraged to make suggestions.

“For example, say there’s a pump that breaks down often. We want them to consider whether it is getting serviced correctly, or whether it’s the right-sized pump for that location. They’re doing more than just turning a wrench or exercising a valve. They’re thinking strategically about asset management.”

Assuming those responsibilities also lead to a less tangible but equally important benefit: job satisfaction and personal fulfillment, leading to less turnover. Field workers feel better about their work when the organization they work for clearly values and respects their intellect and abilities and empowers them to make decisions.

“We have many long-term employees who have made careers out of working here,” Harbour observes. “That’s important because they develop experience that they can pass on to younger employees. They view their jobs as careers, as opposed to something they just come in and do on a day-to-day basis. That’s major in terms of buying into the program.”


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