Effective asset management starts with effective people management, a Utility Week roundtable decided. Lois Vallely reports.

Getting the right balance between experience and creativity is essential for utility companies when it comes to successfully managing assets. Collaboration is key to making partnerships work and finding innovative ways of solving problems. These were the conclusions of Utility Week’s roundtable, “New Approaches to Asset Management: Merging Operational Technology with IT and Big Data”, held in association with Fujitsu, which took place in London last month.

The conversation around the table between executives drawn from utility companies from across the UK quickly settled on Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known knowns” speech as a perfect description of the difficulties facing utilities. Speakers said that often what ends up being talked about is how to solve a known problem with a known solution. However, the real problems facing the utilities sector are the “unknown unknowns” – the problems that companies don’t even realise they have.

The way to fix problems is by working collaboratively. Participants were in agreement that working together is vital if a systematic approach is to be developed to problem-solving. Water and energy companies, along with their supply chains, must “get together and start talking” about the best ways to manage their assets.

What’s more, diversity must be kept in asset management teams. Knowledge is indispensable to any firm, but the right balance must be struck between experienced staff and creative minds. Out-of-the-box thinking should be used by companies to identify and solve problems they did not known they had. But what’s the flipside of innovation? Companies must not forget that technical experience is as important as innovative thinking. The right employee can “do the clever stuff” as well as the creative, said one attendee.

The overarching focus should be on customer satisfaction. Delegates heard that it is not just a case of “fixing the asset and leaving”, but of making sure customers experience minimal disruption in the process.

Data is the fundamental foundation for everything. But how do you rely on the data when the engineers collecting it haven’t been properly trained to understand what it will be used for? Speakers agreed that there is very little incentive for making the data accurate, because they are often “disconnected” from the organisation. Incentivising the inspectors to collect and enter accurate data could be done through techniques such as “gamification”, which has worked well in other sectors.

Participants concluded that companies in both the energy and water sectors must work together and share knowledge in order to come up with innovative ways of maximising their existing assets. They must encourage their workforces to collect and analyse data in a more accurate way, or else take the human element out entirely.

 

Views from the table:

Euan Burns, chief engineer, Carillion Services

“A lot of things that we end up talking about with clients are about solving a known problem with a known solution. Where I really want to work is in unknown unknowns and drive them out, so we actually say: ‘Don’t worry about the problem, we’ll work together collaboratively or in silos and say what’s the next thing we can do?’”

John Kingdon, framework director, Costain

“We’re all in this together and must collaborate to provide a service to the ultimate customer. If we do that then we will succeed and, along the way, be profitable. So that’s got to be your ultimate game.”

 

Mike Sewart, director of digital services, Fujitsu

“Ultimately, leveraging a diverse group of people through a supply chain is a way of introducing new thinking into the operational process. You can’t go to one extreme or the other, it’s about balance in the middle; the knowledge that’s in operational teams is phenomenal, however it is always good to have a fresh pair of eyes to look at something in a different way.”

Jim Storm, programme director, Northumbrian Water

“It is incumbent upon everybody to make sure that the [gas and electricity] grid is in good shape. With water, the distribution network is in the hands of the licensed operator.”

 

Graeme Wright, associate director energy, utilities and construction, Fujitsu

“The problem with totex is that the majority of [companies] are already running existing contracts that are based on a capex regime and now totex is here, but you’ve got to wait until you renew contracts before you make an effective move to totex.”

Ian Butler, distribution strategy manager, UK Power Networks

“I think collaborative working is key – having a common process or a common goal. If you’re part of one team working on a common goal, I’ve found that works really well. If you don’t work together then you don’t have that comradery, which I think is really key to making partnerships work.”

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