Guest Column | October 6, 2016

Prime Time For The Water Sector: Time To Reconsider 'Best Practice'

By Casey Freeman

Of all the industries my colleagues and I work in, some of the steepest challenges we see are in the water sector. As Water Online readers well know, scarcity now looms larger than ever in the U.S., with water organizations constantly confronting issues ranging from dwindling supplies to aging infrastructure, chemical contamination, and limited financial resources.

At the same time, there are indications of great opportunity, with community and consumer awareness on the rise. As Water Online editor Kevin Westerling observed in a recent column, a 2016 survey by MWH Global showed that 48 percent of those polled said that "not having easy, low-cost access to water is an issue facing U.S. communities" — a sizable increase from the 39 percent voicing the same concern in the 2015 MWH survey.

With water scarcity on the minds of many Americans, seizing that opportunity — making changes such as infrastructure improvements while also translating public awareness into lower water usage rates — will require water organizations executing approaches that reach far beyond status quo “best practices.” And here’s the thing about best practices: They are largely based on the past — and often the failures of the past.

Most responsible organizations tend to consistently look at their history and draw conclusions about how to do things better the next time around — avoiding the issues, pitfalls, and obstacles encountered in previous projects. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But is there enough that’s right about it? I assert that this focus on risk avoidance feeds into a classic pitfall: developing systems and processes are the result of failures in the past. This kind of approach can block people and organizations from reaching as far and high as they can as they take on great challenges.

Sure, there’s a certain value in vigilant thinking. But it amounts to establishing best practices based on a fear of extraordinary failure, as opposed to a commitment to extraordinary performance. Can you imagine an NFL team playing to “not lose” versus to win?  Do you think they would make the playoffs?

My colleagues worked closely with a rural water corporation in Australia that was really stuck in a holding pattern as it emerged from the Millennial Drought. There were too may cost overruns, leaky systems, a new irrigation infrastructure project in jeopardy, and a flawed tariff system. There was also tremendous public scrutiny, and a less-than-inspired workforce. This was a situation that known “best practice” was not going to rectify. By playing “not to lose,” they were on a trajectory for continual failure.

So the newly-appointed managing director of the utility came in and took a stand, declaring that the organization would reduce operating costs by $20 million, deliver the massive infrastructure project, and rewrite the tariff system. Jaws dropped and people said he was “dreaming.” But less than a year later, all cost savings had been identified, the infrastructure project was on track for delivery, and a coalition of citizen water committees was rewriting the tariff system. There was no best practice precedent for what they did. In a sense, the managing director was indeed dreaming — thinking really big and taking the organization somewhere almost no one believed he could.

Of course, it was an involved process and there was no shortage of pain along the way. It started with the managing director pulling together 30 key players from across the business, and through a series of leadership forums, establishing a shared vision of what they could accomplish. Doing so required setting aside some legacy ways of doing things and addressing several top priorities head-on, all at once — rather than in well-paced silos. Collaboration was also an essential aspect of the effort — both within the organization and outside, with working expert partners to develop new technologies as well as local communities to drive public awareness about water conservation. There were many obstacles and the public pressure was immense, but ultimately the organization prevailed.

Too often, my colleagues and I encounter projects in jeopardy where people feel resigned because they’ve fallen too far behind the pace dictated by best practice and conventional wisdom. And if they follow all of the rules, doing everything in a precise order and keeping to established timeframes, there is no way for them to succeed. People feel powerless in the face of the pre-ordered process, bracing for the horrible failure that best practices were designed to prevent.

The only way to succeed in such instances is to innovate, and to take next steps with freer thinking and greater agility. We have worked with clients who decided to veer from best practice in measured ways with risk awareness, and ended up delivering on time and on budget after all — even ahead of schedule and under budget. In one instance, the leaders of a capital project decided they could safely move into construction in certain areas before engineering was near the best practice percentage complete. In another, they allowed themselves the flexibility to make just a few — but critical — design changes late in the game in order to resolve unexpected supply issues. In another project, key players on a project cut the time frame for procurement by more than 50 percent, allowing the project to catch up to the pace needed to finish construction of a new energy plant on time, even after falling seriously behind.

In each of the examples I’ve mentioned, the unexpected best performance came as the result of people’s thinking and performance — not systems and work processes. It’s not that caution was thrown to the wind. But the people involved decided that a balance between risk management and opportunity is what would lead them to an unpredictable win, versus predictable defeat.

I’m not suggesting that water organizations adopt an outright irreverence towards best practice — but rather, approach best practice as a set of guidelines from which to deviate if circumstances demand it. Succeeding in critical endeavors is ultimately about not only avoiding risk, but also capitalizing on opportunity. Yet while risk is relatively easy to quantify and is managed rigorously on projects, opportunity isn’t — so the scales frequently weigh in the balance of mitigating risk rather than seizing opportunity.

In the best of all worlds, you lay out your whole project inside your best practice paradigm, then you execute accordingly, without exception. In the real world, there are variables and unexpected challenges. Rather than be loyal to best practice rules to a fault — to an extent that we’re willing to fail — it’s important to remember that there are options. In fact, when we’re failing “on paper,” when our backs are against the wall, is exactly when many people rise to the occasion and accomplish things that observers didn’t think were possible. In such instances, “new practice” can win the day for water organizations as they redefine best practice — rather than in a context of failure, one of success.

Casey Freeman of JMW Consultants works with leaders and their teams to approach critical objectives in new ways — from significant cost savings to dramatic quality and productivity improvements and new ways to take on capital projects. He supports clients in industries ranging from real estate and finance to natural resources and oil and gas, engaging in one-on-one leadership coaching as well as the design and delivery of programs tailored to the developmental needs of organizations. Casey is based in Houston, TX and holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Southern Methodist University.