Taking your utility to the next level in five steps

Authors: Darin Thomas and Townsend Collins

Doing more with less is the reality for today’s water and wastewater utilities. Across the country and amid increasing regulations, increasing public expectations, and an ever-increasing list of emerging contaminants, public utilities are working to maintain their affordable services while protecting public health and the environment with very little financial wiggle room.

The struggle is all too real. How can utilities meet these challenges, which often require new skills and competencies, and even more important, new thinking, with the people and resources they have today?  Agencies that succeed are doing the following five things:

1. Adopt a Change Mindset

Utilities that want to drive their organizations forward and meet 21st century water management challenges are going to need to evolve from 20th century thinking and approaches. Business as usual simply won’t suffice. Though many utilities have engaged in strategic planning, they often lack the critical structure and support system that ensures true execution success. Achieving that success requires agencies to adopt a change mindset. Putting processes in place that enable utilities to react quickly to changing conditions will prepare them to succeed under circumstances they cannot anticipate or control. Change doesn’t come about easy, and some significant new thinking is required to really evolve.

2. Build Capacity to Execute

Willingness to change and innovate is not enough. Agencies must have the internal capacity (the right people in the right roles, empowered to focus on the right things) to do so. Raftelis assists agencies with this critical work, using the four-step SCIP process, (Strategy, Change, Innovation, and Performance). SCIP is an enterprise-wide approach for optimizing organizational performance by prioritizing internal capacity building and change management so utilities are positioned to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving industry.

When the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) became a regulated utility under the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC), they needed to build their internal capacity to meet the new regulatory requirements. In response, PWSA created the Watermark program, which is an internal program for training and development, administered by PWSA employees, to help them identify and implement change management methods and tools so they are more equipped to recognize and seize opportunities to improve business operations.

3. Prioritize Innovation

Meaningful change is only possible with innovation. This can be tough, and even intimidating for some, but it needn’t be. Utilities are experts in what they do, and the highly analytical and problem-solving nature of utility staff is a real asset for this type of work. They can and should serve as the front line in leading innovation. Internally for the organization, this means creating the kind of environment and space that rewards and empowers staff to think differently, try new things, and take some calculated risks.

From Anchorage, to Memphis, to Miami, municipalities are prioritizing innovation by creating and filling positions such as a Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Performance Officer to assure someone on staff is not only leading, but accountable for ensuring their city’s annual work plans incorporate data-driven best practices in municipal government management. Utilities can do the same.

4. Mine the Data

Utilities that optimize their performance are collecting and leveraging their data in meaningful ways, so that the most important services contributing to the agency’s strategic success are resourced appropriately. A key component of PWSA’s Watermark program is focused on communication of performance within the organization. The effort is aimed at ensuring PWSA is establishing sustainable measures of performance and then making business decisions based on that performance. Tracking and communicating their overall organizational performance is critical to PWSA realizing the results of its ongoing focus of enhancing performance.

5. Embrace Failure

Change – and building the sort of internal capacity required for change – isn’t quick or easy. It requires an organizational shift in thinking and a shift in its approach to operations, and this can be scary for some. A key component for success is being open to failure. Yes – you read that right. Failure is not only an option, it plays an important role in the organization’s growth process. Utilities must overcome their fear of failure and instead, embrace it as an important part of developing a culture of learning and continuous improvement. Failure is an essential component for driving the innovation and change that will prepare the sector to face its challenges head on.

“Failure is an option. Fear is not.”
– Academy Award Winning Director, James Cameron


The challenges confronting utilities today are many and complex. Those that do not take the time to examine their internal structures, thinking, and processes will struggle to meet these challenges. Those that recognize the need to evolve, who work to build the capacity for change internally, who prioritize innovation, use their data well and do not fear failure, are the ones who will succeed.