5 Keys to Water Utility Management Success

From effective leadership to strategic business planning, these five elements are critical for effective utility management.

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The American Public Works Association and seven key water associations — American Water Works Association, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, National Association of Water Companies, Association of Clean Water Agencies, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators and Water Environment Federation — in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have released the Effective Utility Management Report during the National Water Policy Forum in Washington, D.C.

The report, titled "Taking the Next Step: Findings of the Effective Utility Management Review Steering Group," identifies refinements to the EUM framework, which includes these five keys to management success:

1. Leadership
Leadership is critical to effective utility management, particularly in the context of driving and inspiring change within an organization. Leadership refers both to individuals who can be effective champions for improvement and to teams that provide resilient, day-to-day management continuity and direction.

Effective leadership ensures the utility’s direction is understood, embraced and followed on an ongoing basis throughout the management cycle. Leadership has an important responsibility to communicate with the utility’s stakeholders and customers. It further reflects a commitment to organizational excellence, leading by example to establish and reinforce an organizational culture that embraces positive change and strives for continual improvement. Organizational improvement efforts require commitment from the utility’s leadership.

2. Strategic business planning
Strategic business planning is an important tool for achieving balance and cohesion across the attributes. A strategic plan provides a framework for decision-making by:

  • Assessing current conditions, strengths and weaknesses
  • Assessing underlying causes and effects
  • Establishing vision, objectives and strategies

It establishes specific implementation steps that will move a utility from its current level of performance to achieving its vision. Preparation of a strategic business plan involves taking a long-term view of utility goals and operations and establishing a clear vision and mission. When developed, the strategic business plan will drive and guide utility objectives, measurement efforts, investments and operations.

A strategic plan can help explain the utility’s conditions, goals and plans to staff and stakeholders, stimulate change, and increase engagement in improvement efforts.

After developing a strategic business plan, it is important that the utility integrates tracking of progress into its management framework.

3. Organizational approaches
There are a variety of organizational approaches that contribute to overall effective utility management and that are critical to the success of management improvement efforts. These include:

  • Actively engaging employees in improvement efforts (helping to identify improvement opportunities, participating in cross-functional improvement teams, etc.);
  • Deploying an explicit change management process that anticipates and plans for change and encourages staff at all levels to embrace change; and
  • Utilizing implementation strategies that seek, identify and celebrate early, step-by-step victories.

4. Measurement
Measurement is critical to management improvement efforts associated with the attributes and is the backbone of successful continual improvement management and strategic business planning.

A measurement system serves many vital purposes, including focusing attention on key issues, clarifying expectations, facilitating decision-making, and, most importantly, learning and improving. As one utility manager put it, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” Successful measurement efforts often are:

  • Viewed as a continuum starting with basic internal tracking, and, as needed and appropriate, moving to more sophisticated baselining and trend analysis, development of key performance indicators, and inclusion of externally oriented measures which address community sustainability interests;
  • Driven by and focused on answering questions critical to effective internal management and external stakeholder needs (e.g., information needed to allow governing bodies to comfortably support large capital investments); and
  • Supported by a well-defined decision framework assuring results are evaluated, communicated and responded to in a timely manner.

Deciding where to start and what to measure can be challenging. Measures can also be taken out of context. Therefore, while an essential tool in the self-improvement process, measurement is not the only tool and should be approached, structured and used thoughtfully. Section V includes sample performance measures that can be used in conjunction with utility-specific baselines and targets.

5. Continual improvement management framework

A continual improvement management framework is usually implemented through a complete, start-to-finish management system, frequently referred to as a “Plan-Do-Check-Act” framework. This framework plays a central role in effective utility management and is critical to making progress on the Attributes. Continual improvement management includes:

  • Conducting an honest and comprehensive self-assessment to identify management strengths, areas for improvement, priority needs, etc.;
  • Conducting frequent sessions among interested parties to identify improvement opportunities;
  • Following up on improvement projects underway;
  • Establishing and implementing performance measures and specific internal targets associated with those measures;
  • Defining and implementing related operational requirements, practices and procedures;
  • Establishing supporting roles and responsibilities;
  • Implementing measurement activities such as regular evaluation through operational and procedural audits; and
  • Responding to evaluations through the use of an explicit change management process.

This “Plan-Do-Check-Act” continual improvement framework is quite effective when applied internally. It can also be enhanced by using gap analysis, establishment of standard operating procedures, internal trend analysis and external benchmarking, best practice review, and other continual improvement tools. The framework can help utilities understand improvement opportunities and establish explicit service levels, guide investment and operational decisions, form the basis for ongoing measurement, and provide the ability to communicate clearly with customers and key stakeholders. 

About APWA 
The American Public Works Association is a not-for-profit, international organization of more than 29,000 members involved in the field of public works. APWA serves its members by promoting professional excellence and public awareness through education, advocacy and the exchange of knowledge. APWA is headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, has an office in Washington, D.C., and 63 chapters in North America. 


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