If someone handed your company a million dollars, would you hide it under your mattress or use it to invest in future growth and a more sustainable future? It’s an easy and obvious choice when the offered resource is money; it’s less obvious when given a chance to invest in the benefits of data. However, if you’ve implemented new technology with no strategy of how to take advantage of the deluge of data that comes with it, you’re shoving a gold mine of potential under the proverbial mattress.
Benchmarking is that gold mine. Benchmarks create guideposts that keep an organization moving forward on the mission-driven road map. Data management provides you the tools to use data to benchmark organizational efficiency. These insights, when effectively communicated to key stakeholders, are how you demonstrate the ROI of innovation adoption.
More specifically, benchmarking is looking at what others are doing and comparing your efforts to theirs to continually improve. In a recent podcast interview, former DC Water general manager George Hawkins spoke about DC Water’s vision to be world-class. “Look at who’s really good, benchmark, and set the practical steps to get there,” Hawkins explains. “We know by doing those things, and the mission comes alive.” AMI systems provide an extensive amount of data that water utilities can use as benchmark resources. Here are a few points to keep in mind as you begin.
Measure what matters
Begin by identifying the metrics that mean most to your organization. What is your mission? What are the goals that move you in the direction of that mission? What are the council priorities or objectives you have to speak to during budget season? How does AMI align with these goals and priorities? Be strategic in this alignment, and it will connect your programs to the overall mission of the organization and demonstrate your impact. Is a council priority improving the quality of life for residents? Point out the role AMI plays in a person’s quality of life by focusing on how it can empower residents with more control over their finances (i.e., water bill) and saves them time by allowing them to troubleshoot from their phone.
Measure from the inside out
Identify benchmarks that matter to both internal and external audiences. Internally, bring all the right people to the table and discuss the metrics that have the most significant impact on efficiency and productivity. Get input from staff from across the organization at all levels. Knowing the real effect of chasing metrics for the boots-on-the-ground staff helps identify what benchmarks truly drive improvement and which ones look good on paper. Asking for this kind of input and legitimately using the feedback builds organizational trust, buy-in, and morale.
External stakeholders want to see benchmarks that demonstrate a return on investment. Keep in mind this means not only financial but the quality of life. Technology adoption can have positive impacts on customer satisfaction. Establishing a benchmark that demonstrates these impacts should not be forgotten.
Measure apples to apples, with a splash of orange
Benchmarking can be challenging in the water industry. There are so many variables to consider from the size of the utility to the treatment process to the geographical location. Start local and expand from there. What are neighboring utilities doing? What are utilities of a similar size and structure doing across the state? What utility across the nation most closely mirrors your utility and what can you learn from them? Which one do you aspire to be?
Don’t be afraid to throw in at least one outlier. Maybe you can’t compete directly with their efforts, but focusing only on entities that are like you can stifle the creativity necessary to innovate and grow.
Communicate your efforts
Putting benchmarks in place isn’t enough. Stakeholder buy-in and funding support don’t happen in a vacuum. You have to communicate your efforts. Share your successes and your failures. Falling short on a benchmark is ok as long as you come armed with the proposed solutions you and your team have developed to address those shortcomings.
Remember your audience.
City management and elected officials aren’t buried in the day to day operations of a water utility. The metrics that mean most to a director may not resonate with a city manager. Use metrics that demonstrate position within the industry as well as the progression towards increased internal efficiency when communicating with stakeholders outside of the utility. Communicate the metrics that help connect your goals to the goals of your stakeholders.
It’s estimated that 90% of all data in existence was generated in the last two years. Data management is a hot topic, and with the advent of more and more AI technology to glean better insight from that data, the issue is only getting hotter. If data isn’t used to benchmark organizational efficiency, we’re spinning our wheels in complacency. If benchmarks aren’t communicated to stakeholders in a manner that demonstrates a return on investment, utilities risk getting left behind. AMI is a tool in the benchmarking toolkit that utilities can use not only to increase efficiency and productivity but also communicate a tangible value of water message to stakeholders.