Whether it’s a drinking water or wastewater treatment system, the ultimate goal for water utilities is always optimum performance. Most operators generally know where the problems are, and may even know what is needed to fix them. The challenges are prioritizing and then obtaining the necessary funding to make the required changes.
When funding is available for infrastructure repair and development, government agencies at all levels prioritize infrastructure replacement projects and are in turn demanding that utilities demonstrate relevant performance measurement numbers in order for decision-makers to make more informed choices. As well, the need for clearly defined metrics is increasingly evident as the general public and various agencies demand more concrete demonstrations of compliance with water quality management standards using accepted performance indicators (PIs).
According to Duncan Ellison, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, “All of those who are responsible for responding to requests for money to improve infrastructure or invest in water or wastewater treatment facilities are increasingly demanding proof of what benefits are to be expected and achieved, and in what timeline. The performance indicator is an internationally recognized method of demonstrating that and providing the essential arguments to win support.”
An invaluable tool for measuring a utility’s current status and progress, performance indicators (PIs) have been commonly used by the larger utilities in Canada working through the National Water and Wastewater Benchmarking Initiative (NWWBI). Ellison notes that while larger utilities are well-versed in PI practices, small and medium-sized utility environments may not be. “Many larger utilities participate in NWWBI initiatives to benchmark their performance and compare themselves to other operations. Smaller utilities however, might not have the time to develop indicators that would be meaningful to themselves in terms of continuous development or reporting to their appropriate immediate political authorities.”
“The fact is, in order to manage something you have to measure it,” confirms David Main, director of asset management for AECOM in Burnaby, British Columbia. “Without PIs, management is based on intuition and hearsay. If you’re going to council to request a 20 per cent budget increase, you need more than that. You need numbers.”
He adds that while all utility operations understand the importance of PIs and management processes, larger centres operate at an advantage. Larger cities have dedicated departments working on water/wastewater issues so it is relatively easy to determine how much time is spent on planning,” he explains. “Most small centres are not separating costs into activities, since public works staff may be responsible for a number of areas. A manager may be looking at capital programs, while clerical is dealing with the administrative side. This could leave a gap in terms of planning and management since it is all too easy to have those activities overshadowed by more urgent daily matters.”
Another challenge for smaller utilities lies in their data collection resources and capabilities, Ellison explains. “The condition of underground pipes—especially if they date back many years—is not always completely known. Consumption data is not completely reliable without the extensive use of metering. And in very small services the number of staff available to routinely collect and verify accuracy of the data is limited. But the questions that must be answered by those utilities when applying for infrastructure funding are: what is the condition of the infrastructure, how is it performing, and what is its residual life? PIs can answer all three of those.”
PIs are measures of performance commonly used to help an organization define and evaluate how successful it is, typically in terms of making progress towards its long-term organizational goals. They are used in the monitoring and assessment process, and are designed to help simplify an otherwise complex evaluation of the management of an organization. Each performance indicator is defined by a clear process rule, but in order for it to be meaningful and useful, the data used has to be properly collected and accurate.
While the PI exercise is familiar territory for large utilities, there is a growing realization that performance indicators are essential for utilities of any size. PIs can serve a number of purposes, including:
- Identifying strengths and weaknesses within the utility;
- Improving water quality and availability;
- Investigating the need for changes or corrective action to improve procedures and productivity;
- Monitoring the effect of changes;
- Measuring resource use;
- Providing key information to support proactive decision making; and,
- Facilitating internal and external benchmarking.
Performance indicators are specifically designed to address three main performance aspects. The first is effectiveness, which applies to the consistency with which the utility meets its defined goals and objectives (for example, protection of public health or protection of the environment). The second is efficiency, or the extent to which the utility manages itself in a sustainable manner and uses available resources to meet its defined goals and objectives (for example, materials, energy, financial resources and human resources). The final performance aspect is quality, or how well the utility meets its defined goals and objectives (for example, how clean is the water produced or effluent discharged).
To fully assess performance of a utility, a set of PIs applicable to each aspect of its performance—effectiveness, efficiency and quality—has to be designed, calculated, and evaluated. While it’s possible to work with one or two PIs, it is better to create a system related to the utility’s objectives.
The role of ISO in a PI program
Given the complexities faced by small- to medium-sized utilities in measuring performance, a good starting point is the guidelines established by the ISO (International Standards Organization). Since these are international in scope, they provide a general set of practices that can be adapted to suit specific country/community requirements and goals, and help utilities to determine objectives and then set goals related to each. Simply put, the ISO’s process helps to “break up” the complexities for operators and allows the utility to prioritize their needs more clearly and effectively.
The objectives outlined by the ISO include protecting public health; meeting user needs and expectations; providing service under normal and emergency situation; sustainability of the water utility; promoting sustainable development of the community, and protecting the environment.
The ISO published three new standards addressing assessment of performance and management of water utilities in December of 2007: ISO 24510 (guidelines for the assessment and for the improvement of service to users); ISO 24511 (guidelines for the management of wastewater utilities and assessment of wastewater services); and ISO 24512 (guidelines for the management of drinking water utilities and for the assessment of drinking water services).
A guiding hand
In 2008, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) formed a Technical Committee to work on the adoption of new ISO standards in Canada, and a year later, the new ISO standards were formally adopted in Canada with a few revisions addressing specific national issues. During the process, the Technical Committee saw the potential value of PIs to operators of small and medium-sized water utilities. As such, it has worked to develop a practical, usable, and easy-to-understand performance improvement guide for utility owners and operators to help them meet public and regulatory demand efficiently and cost-effectively. This new CSA Technical Guide, Performance Improvement for Small and Medium Size Water Utilities, is based on the ISO 24500 series of standards, which cover the drinking water, waste water, and public service aspects of utility operations.
“Whatever the association, everyone agrees on the basic subjects that need to be measured. However local factors can vary significantly,” Main says. “CSA has aligned the metrics to make sure that PIs are practical to the Canadian utility market.”
In simple terms, the Guide provides a tool for water utility managers to aid constructive planning, implementation and assessment of performance improvements. It also explains the concept of PIs and their use in the performance improvement effort. Operators can learn how to choose and design performance indicators for specific utility performance aspects, as well as how to collect, calculate and interpret the obtained data. Organized around the principles of plan/do/check/act, it now brings the practices currently applied in larger utilities to smaller facilities in a practical and understandable form.
Small to medium utility operations recognize the fact that effective time, resource and development management are critical to infrastructure support moving forward. While PIs can seem an overwhelming challenge for operations with limited means, there are now resources available to help reduce those complexities without the need to invest in sophisticated management systems. Ultimately, the ability to establish meaningful PIs will play a key role in acquiring the financial and technology resources needed for future sustainability.
Jeffrey Kraegel is the project manager of the Canadian Standards Association’s healthcare and community safety program.