Business Experience Helped This Texas Operator Build a Stellar Career in Clean Water

LaTia Jutan used experience gained in the public and private sectors as fuel for a rapid rise to a leadership role in the clean-water profession.

Business Experience Helped This Texas Operator Build a Stellar Career in Clean Water

LaTia Jutan, superintendent of the City of Baytown Wastewater Division, next to a clarifier at the Northeast Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Perhaps no one has gained more from experience than LaTia Jutan.

Taking advice from her mom, developing management skills in her own cleaning business and learning about wastewater treatment as an operator in training, Jutan rose to superintendent of the wastewater plants and lift stations in Baytown, Texas, in just 12 years.

In 2022, she received the William D. Hatfield Award from the Southeast Chapter of the Water Environment Association of Texas, recognized in particular for her work in asset management and preventive maintenance. Sterling Beaver, assistant director for public works and engineering, says Jutan is coachable and takes a professional approach to problem-solving.

“Before she got here, we did not have a good preventive maintenance program,” he says. “It was a different culture. But she and I have focused on PM, scheduling, budgeting our capital improvements and operations and developing long-term plans. She is open to suggestions and eager to improve herself and her team.”

GETTING STARTED

Jutan sees her mission as “bringing new and innovative ideas to the wastewater field and promoting positive upward change.”

Her working career started more modestly. After earning a degree in business management from Amridge University in her native Montgomery, Alabama, she got a job working in a warehouse. But she wasn’t satisfied and, on advice from her mother who had experience working in the municipal field, she took an operator-in-training position with the City of Houston.

“I was familiar with hands-on work, and the position suited me,” she says. She saw the job as an opportunity to become educated in the wastewater profession and start a career: “I was motivated. I thought, ‘This is my niche.’”

She earned her certification in 2009, and the plant where she was working received a Peak Performance Platinum Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. She was proud to be part of an operation that reported no effluent permit violations.

She moved up quickly, earning her Class D and C certifications within the first year. After that, she was promoted to inspector in the wastewater department where her responsibilities included reviewing treatment processes, making them operate more efficiently while maintaining the required water quality.

But as important as the position was, it offered none of the management upside that Jutan was looking for. “It wasn’t a family,” she explains. “There was no advancement beyond the inspector position, no way to move up.”

TO THE PRIVATE SIDE

So, she decided to give the private sector a try and test her management skills. In the middle of Houston’s oil and gas industry, she started an industrial cleaning business, focusing on the petroleum sector.

While she stayed with the business for just over two years, she found the experience valuable, enabling her to train team members and focus on customer satisfaction. “We had several offsite crews,” she says. “I was able to develop management expertise. We had a service we were proud of, and we focused on whether our customers were happy or not. It not only taught me how to run a business, but what different people needed and how to accommodate that.”

Her passion for excellence was nurtured there, too: “It taught me what our customers needed and what our competition was doing. I was able to mentor each employee and enable them to get better, buy into our goals and ultimately to become great.”

She returned to the wastewater profession, serving in Houston for three years while running her cleaning business at night. As if not busy enough, she received a master’s degree in public administration from Ashford University. Then, with a host of superintendents and assistants retiring at the Baytown utility, she joined that city’s team as an operator and was quickly promoted to wastewater coordinator, and then superintendent.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

She immediately prepared to lead a complete overhaul of the wastewater department’s preventive maintenance program, while focusing on what she calls the “Competency Model”: “It refers to gaps in training. People learn in different ways and it varies from person to person. I didn’t believe a blanket approach was the best way to go.

“There are different ways of learning, depending on the individual.”

She says that too often managers tell employees how something works but without fully explaining the important operating details to them. “As a result, employees develop their own ways of operating or maintaining a piece of equipment, and it’s not always operated as intended. Errors occur and things are missed.

The solution is to make sure everyone understands a particular process. She recommends small, standardized tests that everyone takes so that all equipment and operating procedures are understood universally. “Start at the lowest level,” she says. She finds standard operating procedures on video to be an innovative and effective training approach.

MANAGING ASSETS

Some challenges she faced came from outside forces. “Because of Hurricane Harvey (2017), we lost some of the O&M manuals,” she says. Her staff had to research equipment, re-create the documents and put them all on the networks.

“We developed an SOP for everything,” she says. “And we created a preventive maintenance book that we updated daily. We wanted to be proactive, not reactive, so we’ve developed O&M spreadsheets that include on-site as well as warehouse replacement parts and supply chain information.”

Baytown has also adopted Cityworks public asset management software to inventory all plants and assets and document life expectancy. The program has improved the ability to manage and plan. The program contains a work order system that lays out everything her crew needs to do to keep Baytown’s plants and lift stations running smoothly.

“It builds on what we have and contains everything we need to do,” she says. “We are building a program that withstands staff turnover.”

MANAGEMENT SKILL

Jutan’s ability to manage a broad range of assets and a large team can be traced to her business experience. At least that’s the opinion of Sterling Beaver, her manager. “Running a business requires that you juggle different tasks simultaneously,” he says. “It has similarity to her current role.

“She has 30-plus people reporting to her, plus she manages four treatment plants and 86 lift stations and must be able to keep track of operations and maintenance and a budget of several million dollars.”

In Jutan’s view, it’s a quest for excellence. Just as she’s shared her company’s mission with her team, she wants her colleagues at Baytown to embrace greatness. “I’m passionate about what we do,” she says. “I want us to be great.”

She refers to team-building as pouring information and inspiration into her staff. “It’s getting everyone to see the whole picture,” she says. “It’s training, motivation, identifying problems and working together to solve them.”

She sees her work and that of her team as building a legacy: “It’s how we carry ourselves, and it’s not just management; it’s out in the field as well. This is not just a job. There’s no new water. What we do keeps our water and our community safe for our kids, grandkids and neighbors. We want to leave something behind, so that when we leave here, we can say, ‘This is what we did.’”  



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