Driving Utility Performance through People, Process & Technology

treatment tank

By Scott Haskins

Over the last several years, 22 water utilities and more than 100 utility participants have been engaged in a major collaboration to improve utility capabilities and performance. As part of the Water Research Foundation (WRF) project, entitled Utility Analysis and Improvement Methodology (UAIM), the scope has included development of documented business processes; sharing of material between peer organizations; development of maturity and assessment models; incorporation of leading practices; and creation of a knowledge base that complements Effective Utility Management, benchmarking and other utility and industry efforts.

Thus far, areas of focus have included: CIP planning and development, CIP prioritization; Business Case Evaluation; CIP Delivery; Risk Management; Asset Management Plans; Workforce Development and Organizational Culture; and Change Management. A more permanent and expanded program will be continued under the Water Environment Federation (WEF), expanding participation and topics areas in support of a constructed water sector value model. It links business processes, technology and the “people-side” of utility operations.

Governance and Team Structure

Under this WRF project, a Steering Committee was formed, comprised of participating utilities, and led by Mark Polling, from the Clean Water Services utility. A project team was selected to coordinate development and execution of the effort. The project team is comprised of: Principal Investigator, Zdenko Vitasovic, 9D Analytics; Co-Principal Investigator, Mike Barnett, Smart Cloud, Inc., and Co-Principal investigator, Scott Haskins, Haskins Strategic.

A diverse group of participants signed up to participate in this project. The effort is funded from cash contributions from the participants themselves and additionally, their substantial in-kind commitments have enabled weekly peer to peer meetings and periodic workshops.

Unlike most other applied research projects, the utility partners became the leaders of teams and teams have performed most of the work, as compared to a traditional project where the consultants perform the work and just receive reviews and feedback from utility participants. In this instance, with leading organizations being assembled, each with many examples, guidance documents and processes to share, our experience is that leading practices are represented on the teams of assembled peers who are most anxious to learn and share with each other.

UAIM Utility Partners:

UAIM utility partners map


  • Baltimore Department of Public Works (MD)
  • Charlotte Water (NC)
  • City of Grand Rapids (MI)
  • Clean Water Services (OR)
  • DC Water
  • Environment Agency, Team 2100 (UK)
  • Great Lakes Water Authority (MI)
  • Gwinnett County (GA)
  • Kansas City Water (MO)
  • King County Wastewater Division (WA)
  • Loudoun Water (VA)
  • Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (KY)
  • Metro Vancouver (CAN)
  • Metropolitan Council Environmental Services (MN)
  • Orange County (FL)
  • Portland Water (OR)
  • Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (OR)
  • San Francisco PUC (CA)
  • Tacoma Water (WA)
  • Toho Water (FL)
  • VandCenter Syd (DEN)
  • Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (MD)

Topic Area Teams and Leaders

Over the course of the project, a number of teams were created with utility leaders providing the guidance for a topic area, assisted by project team staff and other peers. Shown below are most of the teams and organizations leading their group of peers.

Topic Area Leaders

Business Process Modelling, Testing, Training and Standards City of Grand Rapids (MI) and Orange County (FL)

Risk Management

Portland Water (OR) and Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (MD)
Asset Management Plans
Metropolitan Council Environmental Services (MN) and Environment Agency (UK)

CIP Planning and Delivery

DC Water, Kansas City Water (MO) and Environment Agency (UK)

Workforce Development

Metropolitan Council Environmental Services (MN)
Organization Culture Clean Water Services (OR) and Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (KY)
Change Management Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (OR)

Framework, Attributes and Methodology

At the center of this effort is the development of documented business processes, using a standard methodology, ultimately covering the entire value chain for water and wastewater organizations. Business process documentation is absent or deficient in most utilities. Producing such documentation in a standard business process model, consistent with an ISO standard, captures defined details of “system” characteristics and enables sharing of practices and business processes across organizations. It includes:

  • Roles and responsibilities for organizational functions that are part of the business process;
  • End to end workflows;
  • Decision points in the process and who makes them;
  • Resources (e.g., time, staff, equipment) needed for this process;
  • Metrics used to measure performance; and
  • Data, technology and tools used to implement the process (and make decisions).

As applied in the UAIM framework and methodology, business process modelling and documentation is prepared, depicting an organization’s current state, desired future state and improvements needed to bridge gaps and achieve desired outcomes.

The methodology for improvement includes five steps, as shown below; and completion of these steps advances the maturity level of the organization.

As part of this project, there were generic business processes prepared for each of the major topic areas shown earlier, as well as individual utility case studies, where they have tailored these business processes or components for their organization. Also, each organization shared additional artifacts, including guidance documents, facts about their own processes/practices and journey, power point presentations, and related tools and technologies they have used. These are placed on a platform for project participants and this information has also been shared with peers in the regular project calls and workshops conducted.

Finally, documented work processes and related material are being placed on the common platform within a Water Sector Value Model. Below is the high-level depiction of that current model, covering all the work conducted by the utility. Additional levels house more detailed activities and functions, including various business processes in the asset life-cycle, finance, planning, customer and other management functions.

At the end of 2019, a large group of project participants gathered in Portland for a weeklong workshop to review and enhance business process models and practices, set priorities and plans for 2020, and exchange ideas and utility specific information. The group identified challenges for each of the major topic areas. One revelation was that 47 percent of the challenges faced by utilities were people related, 46 percent related to business processes, and only 11 percent were attributed to technology. As a result, three additional teams were formed relating to people issues — one for organizational culture, another for workforce, and a third for change management. These teams have had very active.

Participation in 2020 and 2021 from subject matter professionals, leaders and others attempting to apply learnings. Initial work products will be completed by the end of May. Included are maturity and assessment models, rating scales, a change management process, an employee survey instrument, guidance documents, and artifacts from research and utilities. This work will continue, with further enhancements, case examples and wider application of the models and tools that have been developed.

WISE value model graphic

Benefits to Participating Utilities

Considerable feedback has been received from the many utility participants throughout the course of this multi-year effort. Some of the identified benefits are listed below.

  • Development and sharing of team-produced business processes and artifacts.
  • Utility case studies
  • Opportunity to collaborate with peers across industry
  • Learn, develop and apply leading practices.
  • Improvement of individual utility work with demonstrated cost savings and standardization.
  • Creation of a maturity models, assessment tools and employee survey that address workforce and organizational culture.
  • Applying assessment methods that help identify “as is,” future “to be” state and the improvements and change processes necessary to improve.
  • Integrate people, processes and technology at a strategic, operational and tactical level.
  • Establish a platform that is available to participating utilities and the industry.
  • Migrate from an applied research project by WRF to a platform managed by WEF that encourages growth, refinement, and additional utilities to participate.

Next Steps and the Future

The future is bright for continuing this effort, soon to be under a WEF banner. It will include further refinement of current topic areas; multiply the number of individual utility case study examples; include new topics and work processes that can further populate the Water Sector Value Model; enhance collaboration among peers; offer learning opportunities for the industry at large; refine and streamline the platform for better functionality and benefit; make the sign-up and onboarding processes more user-friendly; and include an aggressive outreach and marketing plan to attract more utilities, industry-wide support, and scalable opportunities for participation. As current participants are saying, this project is becoming a movement.

Finally, with WEF support, the overall system model is being re-branded with WEF and Steering Committee support to be the “WISE” Initiative: “Water Intrapreneurs for Successful Enterprises: A Vision for Water Utilities.” The enhanced framework will follow a model, supported by research, summarily shown below, soon to be published in greater detail by WEF and International Water Association (IWA), that builds on work accomplished thus far– integrating people; business processes; technology; maturity and assessment methodologies; and the external community, its policies, goals, context and impacts.

Scott Haskins is CEO of Haskins Strategic LLC. He previously served as deputy utility director at Seattle Public Utilities, responsible for utility systems management for drinking water, surface water, wastewater and solid waste functions. He has more than 30 years of experience in client engagement, asset management and strategic planning.

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