Quality issues tend to fan out within the distribution system of most water utilities. It never truly starts or belongs in one place. That would be too easy. With the zebra mussel problem in Austin TX in Q1 of 2019, residents had to call in to inform the utility of where they lived and what the condition of their water was when they smelled the foul odor coming out of their taps. Residents could also call into the TV station to report. In a world where most devices are networked, the water utility is still relying on analog approaches to issue identification and then using a centralized system to solve a distributed problem. In a networked world where companies can see exactly what is going on with their assets, and upgrade those assets, thousands of miles in the ocean.
When ‘Push’ Decision-Making Worked
A centralized command and control system worked at a certain time in the life of entities like utilities. There was a need to allocate resources, scarce resources, from one central location to ensure resource management. This management style, a vestige of pre-internet days, relies on layers of management and a clear hierarchy of decision-making. The key role of management was to push out instruction and allocate resources to projects as needed. A technician lower down in the hierarchy could not choose to address a problem, say a leak, even if it was two streets from where (s)he lived even if the technician had the requisite skill to address the leak. This approach of pushing out resources, which stifled decision making at the ‘edge’ of the system, is unhelpful in a networked world and downright disastrous in an emergency situation. Push decision-making hampered the ability of the technicians at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima to address conditions that were different from what the manuals, and instructions, presented.
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‘Pull’ Decision-Making In a Networked World
In a networked world, the best approach to decision making is ‘pull’; using what and who is needed where they are needed most and letting the technician (in the case of the water utility), who is on the ground, to make the necessary decisions, in real-time, to address the issue. The ‘who’ then informs the rest of the network of what the decision was, what action was taken and what lessons can be learned from said action. In real-time. Enabling other resources on the network to learn and adjust as necessary. Pull decision-making requires two things i) Transparency and ii) two-way flow of information in and out of the organization
In the case of the water utility, a tool like OpsEase provides the framework that is necessary and allows a utility to embed the two underlying conditions for making informed pull decisions in a networked world
Transparency: The utility industry is known for its culture of opacity but that needs to change to enable network edge pull decision-making. But transparency requires employees to be equipped in the language of the networked world. With connected devices and user interfaces that are user-friendly, the utility is now able to share and communicate any and all information that anyone within the organization requires to make an informed decision. Transparency actually accelerates decision-making and leads to the second requirement towards good decision-making in a networked world.
Two-way flow of information in and out of the organization: Utilities, have always preferred the one-way flow of information to control conditions. While this might have worked to ensure good quality water before, it is no longer the case in a world where (energy, health, etc) systems have collided and more consumers know what is going on. Especially in crises like water quality issues, the ability to gather information from within and outside the water utility/system improves the utility’s ability to address the situation promptly. The utility will have to adopt tools that provide customers with the ability to report issues (unlike the zebra mussel phone call which is a data point but does not lead to insightful decision making), issues that feed back into the system to enable the resources (technicians) to triangulate the issue and self-allocate to address issues in real/near real-time.
How The Police Uses ‘Pull’ Decision-Making.
Let’s look at a government entity that absolutely needs and uses networked pull decision-making technologies to enable the resource at the edge to make decisions in real-time: the police. The expectation is that a beat cop/policeman can address a situation right on the spot — spotted as they cruise along the streets- so it does not become a larger issue. With tools like Shotspotter and CFS Analytics, police departments across the US are taking all their disparate sources of data, combining it with real-time data coming from sensors/IoT, and generating insights that help bring
“transparency piece of IoT will help connect the unconnected, illuminating the issues that do contribute to crime, delinquency, and the public safety experience in America. While budgets restrict organizations, data expands our reach, and no public safety organization will be as effective as they can be without it.”
Yes, there are times when this will go wrong and there are other times when the decision-making will come from the control room/dispatch. But the benefits far outweigh the downsides as we see less crime than we used to in most cities where this ‘edge decision-making’ is allowed. Two things are required to ensure this works though i) a commitment by the individual making that decision to do the right thing ii) the training or expertise to equip the individual to do the right thing.
Taking the disparate sources of information that currently exist within the utility — email, pdfs, sensors, work orders, financial plans, etc.-, combining that with new data (unmeasured before now) to generate insights that enable the technician to address an issue and make the decisions with all the information necessary to ensure it is the best one. The edge resources will have to be trained, of course, and tracking to ensure best practices will be maintained has to part of the cultural shift that the utility has to make to move to this future state of ‘pull’, and more efficient, decision making. To continue in a world where the technicians at the edge have to wait for a manager in the office to tell them what to do or where to go to prevent a contaminant outbreak is bordering on negligence. Customers deserve better than that…