Avoiding the Trap of Teams with “All the Gear but No Idea”
We’ve come a long way.
In the words of Fatboy Slim “We’ve come a long, long way together, through the hard time and the good” and the water industry today is almost unrecognisable when compared to the bodies privatised in 1989. Investment has been huge by anyone’s standards, currently nearly £160 billion over the 30 years since privatisation.
The results of that investment are tangible: water companies’ customers are less likely to suffer from sewer flooding, discoloured water, supply interruptions or low water pressure and are consistently able to enjoy access to world-class quality drinking water. At the same time, the water companies’ performance in relation to leakage has improved significantly with industry leakage figures down by a third since the mid-1990s.
However, this metamorphosis of the industry isn’t the only change that has taken place. Water companies’ customers and their expectations have altered significantly since 1989 also.
Water companies today, more so than ever, have an implied social contract with customers. This contract allows water companies to serve in exchange for providing wider benefits to society and the environment. Unprecedented challenges created by climate change and population growth mean that water companies are, and are increasingly likely to be, coming under pressure to act faster, behave more innovatively and be much more effective tackling high profile areas such as leakage.
The climate emergency means that water leakage will be increasingly focused on by customers, regulators and industry stakeholders as they witness the environmental cost of abstracting, treating and distributing water into networks that eventually allow that precious product to go to waste.
Research by CCWater has shown that “three quarters of consumers in England felt that companies do not do enough to save water, and 72% would do more to save water themselves if they could see tangible evidence that water companies were also doing more”.
So, as an industry our journey of improvement is far from over. The proposals in water companies’ business plans for AMP7 are both challenging and ambitious across the board. As a case in point, the proposals include arguably the most stretching industry leakage reduction programme in over 20 years together with a stated goal to go further and triple the rate of leakage reduction by 2030.
It is possible that in future years even greater pressure created by climate change on the social contract may require ever more stringent leakage targets as public concern increases. Most industry observers would agree that achieving even these AMP7 leakage targets will be extremely challenging and will require a step change in performance by water companies and their supply chain partners, and in particular for the people involved.
Alignment of the Workforce and Goals
It is true that advances and deployment of technology and leakage methodologies will play a large part in moving towards delivering this step change however, in most of the AMP7 business plans, a piece of the picture seems to be missing.
There is a general failure to make the people connection; that explicit strategic linking of objectives to the skills required which often appears poorly understood in the UK water sector. Getting it right however can tip the balance in an organisations favour making long term upskilling decisions truly strategic rather than simply tactical and effectively decisive rather than tending towards reactionary.
What the industry is going to need is competent, skilled people to oversee and implement, technology alone cannot, by itself, achieve the stated reductions.
Increased use of smart technologies for monitoring, analysing and communicating data from the water network, together with the technological solutions for better handling and understanding that data will be key to achieving operational efficiencies and driving down leakage.
Pressure transient monitoring and thermal/spectral imaging drones will play a part. Permanent acoustic monitoring on a network-wide scale, using the Internet of Things to handle and understand ‘big data’ and ‘leak before break’ concepts to drive investment in strategic infrastructure all have contributions to make too.
Portable flow meters that meet challenges of flow measurement in large mains, pressure reducing valves with new control concepts, using corrugated stainless-steel pipes to minimise corrosion and provide longevity, non-intrusive leak repair technology will all add value.
However, these technologies won’t go all the way to delivering what will be needed and it is clear we will not achieve these targets by technology alone.
Leadership, Innovation and Collaboration
Key to achieving these targets will be an organisations people and the successful organisations will be those that invest in their people AND their kit.
Investment in people in the frontline teams, those communicating with stakeholders, the team members, and especially the managers and the leaders will return dividends. Simply investing in the technologies that will help deliver AMP7 leakage targets without investing in the learning and development of the individual members of the teams that will Lead, Innovate, Deliver, Collaborate and Manage those technologies will not unlock their full potential. It will be the quality of the teams and the people that manage them that will make the difference between those companies that achieve their targets and those that do not.
Just investing in technological solutions runs the risk of having teams with “all the gear but no idea” when it comes to enabling the type of broad synergies required to meet increasingly difficult goals. Ensuring the strategic alignment of the workforce to the goals should be as clear a target as any other.
Managerial competence and understanding are critical as that will enable them to drive performance through their own improved understanding of the challenges. Actively developing managers and leaders that an organisation can be confident understand the legislative and regulatory landscapes together with the company’s business plan on how to navigate those landscapes; developing team members that understand the drivers, targets, dependencies and obstacles plus understand how they can add value and contribute, alongside technological best practice will be critical.
It is not over emphasising it to say that enabling learning and development of individuals and teams provides an organisation the opportunity to define the future and to reinforce that the future is something that an organisation and individuals have power over.
Effectively delivered learning and development enables an organisation to ensure their teams consistently have the right skills, knowledge, managerial and individual competence and, perhaps more importantly, the confidence to achieve the organisation’s vision.
Regulators recognise the need for developing and embedding competence. The Drinking Water Inspectorate in particular have been explicit in setting out their expectations for all water companies to put in place the workforce competence and behaviours necessary to protect public health and deliver a continuous supply of safe drinking water.
Effective learning and development programmes result in teams that not only understand the current tools and practices available in their area of work, but also understand how to innovate, how to keep abreast of new developments, keep up to date with developing best practices, provide opportunities to share what has and hasn’t worked elsewhere and understand what innovation looks like and how it can be encouraged and nurtured.
Arguably it will only be effective learning and development coupled with technology which will equip managers and their workforce to rise to and meet the challenges that the aggressively ambitious AMP7 leakage plans are going to present.