Stepping Up to the Plate, at Home and WEFTEC

December 10, 2013

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George S. Hawkins is the general manager of DC Water (Washington) and a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.). Photo courtesy of DC Water.

George S. Hawkins is the general manager of DC Water (Washington) and a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.). Photo courtesy of DC Water.

The year’s annual Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC®), attracting more than 22,000 attendees, sparked an unexpected reaction from me. I was intimidated.

Each session I attended featured presentations by some of the best in our industry describing technical and policy marvels. Even at the helm of DC Water (Washington), one of the larger utilities represented at WEFTEC, I still frequently felt that we were inadequate by comparison. Thus, for my final presentation on sustainability, I wrote down eight steps to get started and not be intimidated — as much for me as for the audience. These steps might apply to any subject.

  1. Don’t worry where you are now; focus on where you are going. While every utility shines in certain areas, all have weaknesses. If we recognize an area that needs improvements, don’t be held back by comparing how far it is  from world-class. I try to use the best performers to set my navigation for a sense of direction, then pull back and start focusing on the practical small steps that can get us started. Once we start, progress will come.
  2. Focus on immediate, visible wins. There always are critics and naysayers resistant to change, no matter what the subject or objective. The greatest risk with introducing change is setting initial goals that are too high. Identify some objectives that are meaningful, visible, and can be attained within a reasonable time-frame. Gaining early wins can be the best response to the naysayers and will help generate momentum for future larger or tougher changes.
  3. Look inside first. Before we launched a comprehensive effort to change DC Water’s relationship with our external customers and stakeholders, I spent almost a year listening and working to improve the inside of our organization. I wanted our folks to know I had heard their concerns before suggesting change. We implemented a few high-profile ideas directly from staff and field-tested many of our external ideas on the inside first. Staff who live and breathe our work need to feel these changes are their own and feel pride when we shift to sharing our work and ideas with the public.
  4. Go outside hard, fast, and fun. Once we pull the trigger on some of the larger change efforts, shouting about these efforts from the mountain top is as important as the substantive work itself. Asset management is not sexy, but it saves money and makes pipes live longer. Recovering resources from biosolids can sound strange until explained in the context of massive recycling, energy savings, reduction of our carbon footprint, and perhaps, a fun and cheap way to help expand the tree canopy of a city. The first three steps I’ve outlined often take a year or two of preparation, but once you are ready to go, go big and go bold. Share with everyone and make it fun.
  5. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. All of our improvements help us enhance the delivery of clean water, protect the environment, make our cities safer, and save money. These are objectives that political leaders are likely to embrace. Let them! Bring in the mayor, council-members, and neighborhood leaders. Allow political leaders to lead the press event. Showering credit on others who will be needed in the future will help you.
  6. Discuss money, jobs, and economic vitality. Mostly we tend to talk to our ratepayers about the cost of projects. This is right. We must be honest and transparent about the cost of our projects, so no one can accuse us of trying to hide difficult financial issues. Yet always remember and highlight the other side of the coin, which is the economic and civic vitality that is nurtured and, in most cases, fundamentally enabled by our work. Try to measure and highlight the economic growth that is triggered by improvements in our infrastructure. Explain how the vitality of a waterfront is critical to any great community, and how environmental and natural resources are what attract the best talent in a workforce to come to your town and build a business and a home.
  7. Build systems, focus on people. As leaders in our enterprise, we are responsible for building systems that can generate the change and improvements we seek. Yet, we should describe the need and importance of these systems by talking about people. What process do we use to identify and reward innovation? What process do we use to communicate with our customers? What process do we use to assess the conditions of our assets and implement proactive maintenance? It’s important to focus on the people behind these processes and systems. We all respond well to stories. Telling the tale of an employee who has done something well will allow everyone else to understand what we are doing and why, and how they can join the fun. We want a system that generates a succession of fantastic stories about how people have improved our work.
  8. Look up and reach out. Daily operational needs are so great in our business that often it is hard to take time to look up and see what others are doing. I have found that the best ideas we have implemented at DC Water have come from one of our compatriots. I have learned that by reaching out I gain a helping hand. Although it is hard, taking the time to participate in WEFTEC or other association programs, or to host similar regional or local meetings, is an absolute priority. Fantastic people in this industry are doing fantastic things. We should learn from one another to make our own way easier.

Each of these steps — and certainly all of them together — require a sense of purpose and perseverance. I am absolutely convinced that this industry is stocked with a special type of person who buckles down to get the nearly impossible accomplished. Following these eight steps with a strong dose of purpose ultimately will ensure that your utility is on the podium at WEFTEC, and more importantly, is delivering superb and constantly improving service to your customers.

—    George S. Hawkins, general manager, DC Water

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