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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Hawkins

World Water Day: 7 Steps to Innovation in the Water Sector

George Hawkins speaking at Professor Thompson's "Business of Water"​ Class at Stanford Law School

I love World Water Day - highlighting the element that is essential to every life form and every job on our blue planet - even if I also tend to think that every day is a world water day. Yet it is hard not to be worried about the state of water in our time and wonder about the change that is needed to ensure everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, has access to clean water.

So to honor World Water Day, I thought to take on that topic - not the what to change in water, but the how to drive change in water. I was reminded of the seven steps that have guided me on leadership and innovative change while teaching a class of bright young minds in Professor Thompson's "Business of Water" class at Stanford Law School. I taught what I have learned from 35 years of hard won experience, principles that form the basis of our peer-based assistance model at Moonshot Missions.

What do we know?

  • Water challenges we face are growing in scale - too much, too little, new contaminants, red tides, lack of access - all made worse by climate change, affordability limitations, and at least in the United States - the retirement of many water professionals who started their careers just after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

  • Even in the United States, let alone many less wealthy countries, there is not enough money to spend our way to a solution if we simply continue to invest in doing what we have always done. The need has been estimated in the trillions of dollars over many years of dedicated investment. While current funding is at a generational peak, we are not close to meeting this level of need.

What is the path forward?

  • The answer for most of us is to invest money in innovations that enable solutions to water challenges that change that overall number - reducing the total need by permanently reducing operating and capital costs. We simply must reduce the cost of updating and improving water systems, and in some cases providing water services for the first time - if we have any hope of solving the water challenges of the day.

  • The corollary challenge is why then are innovations that fit this bill - field tested, improved performance, lower costs - not adopted more readily? Many lament the slow pace of innovation, as do I, although I also recognize the rational reasons for this outcome.

Why the lack of innovation?

  • All water utilities do not have the luxury of being wrong in the delivery of clean water. Whenever innovators talk about failures and mistakes - that is understood. But if failing means putting people and the environment at risk, we hesitate to change what we know works.

  • Many water utilities do not have the human resources to assess their current conditions, evaluate the many opportunities for improvement, select and procure new services, design and implement new services, and then train and commission the outcome. Most charts demonstrating a wonderful return start by assuming all this pre-project work is already done.

  • Many water utilities do not have the financial resources to fund all the steps just highlighted. Even if the new process ultimately saves money, there is a significant up-front investment needed to get there.

  • Most utilities, and in my experience, most organizations - do not know how to encourage innovation from their people. So even when human and financial resources are available, innovation is often inhibited by the workforce itself.

Seven Steps to Innovation! I faced each of these issues when I stepped into the job as CEO of the DC Water and Sewer Authority ("DC WASA") in 2009. Our budget was limited, we were understaffed, we faced billions of mandated capital projects that absorbed any available funds and our day-to-day operations had not changed in decades. We still used paper records for almost everything and by one measure, it took more than 180 days to replace a needed part using the formal process - which meant that staff headed to a nearby hardware store with a credit card instead. I was told that change would never come to the DCWASA, and certainly not from me, an outsider and lawyer and regulator to boot.

Several years later, DC Water was a hotbed of innovation - with so many ideas and projects coming forward that we could hardly keep up. What worked for us, and what can you learn from that experience? The answer: seven simple steps that can generate a magical response.

  1. Listen First! This is both the most important and easiest step to overlook. Please, please - and particularly for an organization that needs change - listen first when you arrive. So many leaders, particularly those highly talented, energetic and motivated, arrive with a change agenda already well developed. Yet imagine how the people who have been working hard for years in an organization feel when you arrive and propose to change how they do things before ever hearing what they do, how they do it or why. Without listening first, change is coming at them and being done to them. There is no partnership, no shared sense of purpose and direction - and resistance is almost guaranteed. I started by meeting with everyone in DC WASA in small groups - listening to the history, culture, strengths, complaints and challenges of the group. I learned important language, gained understanding and started to develop a change agenda that started with ideas from the team.

  2. Start Inside! Born directly from the first point, initiate a change agenda from what you have heard. Then at the onset the change agenda is being undertaken with and for your team, not to and at them - steeped in language and sensibilities that are familiar. By starting with ideas from your team you demonstrate you have listened, you respect their perspective and ideas, and that their welfare is your first priority. For DC WASA, we started change by a initiating a safety program driving a range of improvements identified at every site and division. Our team understood that change started from them and for them. Plus, a safer work environment is almost always more efficient and effective too. Your staff will respect you and your approach and momentum starts to grow.

  3. Operational Improvements! After improving safety, we initiated a strategic effort to improve our operating efficiency. We asked staff to tell us what they found most inefficient in their work and how they would suggest we could improve. We immediately started fielding requests to replace paper records for utility infrastructure with laptops with up-to-date GIS based information. We did not use the language at the time - but our first project was to digitize the locations and condition of storm drains, fire hydrants and valves. Staff helped us configure Ipads that were located in the General Foreman's truck - and eventually provided to Fire Captains. This started a revolution in how all our work was done which led to new diagnostic tools, pipe lining techniques and eventually, smart meters and on-line leak monitoring. Our team was always at the table identifying needs, collaborating on strategies, and testing solutions. "Team Blue," as we called our crews, were and are proud of the advances they helped design and implement.

  4. Highlight Staff! Too often when an innovation is undertaken, the technology deployed becomes the story. To encourage a culture of innovation, make sure the people leading the innovation are the story, with technology playing an important and supportive role. We highlighted a staff team doing innovative work at every Board meeting, in every staff newsletter and in every customer bill insert. I greeted every new employee in person and challenged each one to come up with the next great idea. In my experience, almost all people want to be proud of their work. People want to be recognized for their commitment and ingenuity. People will compete to be highlighted....righteous competition to do our work better, faster and cleaner. By now, the culture of change has roots and is growing fast.

  5. Share Victories! While highlighting the role of your team, share innovation victories with all your partners. We also highlighted key contributors, key technologies, innovative strategies and collaborative partnerships. I enjoyed creating videos about how we deployed a new technology or relied on specialized engineering and planning skills. Become a utility of choice in part by raising the visibility of those who work with you. I had a simple rule for our consultants: help us find what is best in the world, and then working with our team, help us deliver at that level for our customers and region. We want everyone's best game. In return, you will be well paid for sure, and, with the next step, we will help put your name in lights.

  6. Tell Your Story! Most public agencies do not tell their story. Some think they don't need to because they have a monopoly and are not competing for customers. I disagree. Public agencies compete every day for the support and respect of the people and institutions they serve. Developing a strategy to tell the story of your people, the new directions you have embraced, and how these steps are saving money while improving essential services needs to be a daily commitment. We need to prove that the money people are sending to us, which is precious to them, is well invested in services that matter. We need to show what we do, since it is otherwise usually hidden. I found the media was fascinated by the stories: fascinating underground installations, huge facilities and machines, cutting edge technologies, and committed public servants ready to tell their stories. Sing your story from the mountaintops - you will be surprised how many will listen.

  7. Create a Scheme. Then, you are ready for the innovation program. Often, consultants on innovation will start here - developing and recommending a complex innovation program with stage gates and evaluation committees and more. I agree that at some point this scheme is needed - but suggest that it come after the momentum for change has already started. Do not saddle an innovation program with lots of mechanics at first - it should be governed by excitement, creativity and a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Once the innovation effort has gained momentum, then developing the procedures makes sense. How will new ideas be captured? How will they be evaluated and selected for resources? How can savings achieved in a division be returned to that division, at least in part, to create a financial incentive for change? The key is for the scheme to elevate all the steps that have come before. Then hold on tight!

As in all things, everyone will find their own way to leadership and innovation. I do guarantee, however, that adopting elements of these seven steps - maybe in a slightly modified order, but always starting with listening first, will deliver magical results. Once the change begins, then we have hope to solve the world's water challenges. Happy World Water Day my friends.


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