Asset Management Across the United States in Thirty Days: October 2016

In the last thirty days the Uberlytics team has had the remarkable experience of being able to talk about asset management through three very different events. The conversations spanned a wide geography, crossed multiple sectors, involved different levels of government and many people in a variety of roles.

We kicked off October on the West Coast at the League of California Cities Annual Expo, speaking with mayors, council members and city managers, who are facing immense challenges with aging infrastructure and financial and economic constraints in their cities.

In the middle of the month we crossed the country to the East Coast for the 3rd Annual Federal Asset Management Week in Washington, DC, with the Asset Leadership Network. Here we met with an amazing cross-section of government agencies and branches, both civilian and military, tasked with various responsibilities in the management of trillions of dollars of federal assets.

Finally, we wrapped it all up back in Phoenix at the American Water Works Association (AWWA) Water Infrastructure Conference, meeting with water and wastewater utilities and engineering firms from across the country who are working to understand and apply asset management principles to protect our country’s water supply.

It has been a real privilege to listen and learn across all these different sectors, regions and roles. Here are a few of my observations about the current conversation on asset management across our country.

  1. The conversation is uneven.

There are widely varying degrees of awareness, understanding and application of asset management principles. There are pockets of excellence and there are vast opportunities for growth.

We spoke with people who are teaching asset management, working to define asset management, advocating for it in both industry and government, practicing it, trying to implement it, just trying to understand it, and seeking guidance about it. We also met people who have never heard of it but recognize they desperately need something.

As we are seeking to help organizations with their asset management and put best practices in place for successful programs, in many places we have to start with education about what it is in the first place. But awareness of the benefits of effective asset management is growing and it was exciting to be a part of the Federal Policy Forum in DC and the discussions around how to promote the adoption of ISO 5500X principles in the management of federal assets and to see the eagerness for this to happen.

  1. We are mostly agreed on the problems that need to be solved.

In DC the American Society of Civil Engineers presented their report card on the dire situation of the nation’s infrastructure. Across the country we saw cities, utilities and government agencies that are actively trying to figure out how to do more with so much less and to manage assets better. Everyone is under pressure and in the same leaky boat.

However, in his keynote address at the National Academy of Sciences, Admiral Thad Allen observed that in this country we can be very good at “admiring the problem.” It’s time to move from describing and cataloguing the problem to action and solutions.

  1. There are multiple entry points to the conversation and many areas of practice.

As we participated in these events, I was reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men form their opinion of what an elephant is like based on the part of the elephant they touch. The man touching the trunk concludes an elephant is like a snake, while the man holding the tusk says it must be like a spear and so on.

In the same way, depending on our entry point to asset management, we can believe that it is all about what we know and do in our role. For some, asset management is all about asset accountability and making sure every asset is tagged with a unique ID, knowing where every asset is, how much it costs and how it should be depreciated. Or for someone in lifecycle delivery, asset management is about operations and maintenance, managing failure modes and work execution. Whatever our role and domain, we are each touching a different part of the elephant.

The danger is that we come to believe that the silo we operate in is everything, or simply the most important thing.

The opportunity is to learn from each other and to work together cross-functionally to achieve the aims of the bigger picture.

  1. Asset Management doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes the principles are being applied or pursued without the actual AM label.

I had a conversation with a commander in the Coast Guard, who described himself as invigorated and excited about applying what he had learned at the Federal Policy Forum. “But,” he said, “I didn’t know we had to create a system to apply common sense.”

It’s true – asset management is fundamentally about common sense. It’s something we actually do quite easily when managing our own selves and our own affairs. But when you start adding in multiple stakeholders and layers of complexity with vast numbers of assets, common sense isn’t necessarily so obvious – or common. David McKeown of the Institute of Asset Management said it well in his address opening the forum: “Asset management is simple. But it’s not easy.”

  1. Important things are getting done.

Committees are working to better define and promote the principles of asset management through ISO 5500X and as well as through ASTM standards and other standards organizations.

Agencies and associations are advocating to change regulations, statutes and public policy to make it easier to do the right things, for the right reasons, to get the right results.

And some agencies, cities and utilities are just rolling up their sleeves and pushing past existing roadblocks to do the right thing anyway, the best they can.

Progress is being made.

For example, the Asset Management Decision Making Panel that I facilitated during the Federal Policy Forum put forward a recommendation that government funding of projects be conditional on demonstrating that an asset management plan is in place. The specific example was put forward that State Revolving Funds (SRFs), which finance water utilities, should make asset management accountability a criteria for awarding funds.

Two weeks later, at the Water Infrastructure Conference, we heard that the New Jersey SRF did exactly that. The challenge now is for organizations and regulators to define and agree on what a sufficient asset management plan looks like.

The same thing has taken place in the transportation sector with the Transit Asset Management System Final Rule, which requires every transit system that receives federal funds to have an asset management system in place within two years.

The national conversation on Asset Management is advancing. More and more stakeholders are coming to the table, more organizations are asking for it, and solution providers are sharpening their ability to help deliver it.

It’s simple but it’s not easy.

There’s infinitely more to be said and shared from the experiences of these past weeks, but I’d love to hear what your experience is and your observations from where you are. Please share in the comments below.