Across Canada, cities and municipalities are grappling with infrastructure challenges. Now, with the federal government committed to injecting significant capital into infrastructure over the next 10 years, municipalities need to be ready with their next wave of projects. In this context, training employees in asset management can be a strategic move for organizations seeking to prioritize their infrastructure spending.
Whereas asset management once referred simply to maintaining the condition of assets, it is now understood as a much broader concept, framed by a higher-level goal. The new international standard ISO 55000 defines asset management as the “coordinated activity of an organization to realize value from assets.” Organizations implementing formal asset management programs, aligned with ISO 55000, have been seeing a full spectrum of benefits from improved service performance to reduced capital and operating costs.
“It’s about understanding how you deliver value to your customers by optimizing the decisions made regarding your asset base,” explained Gareth Lifton, global practice lead for strategic asset management with CH2M. “This throws up a number of challenges and unknowns for infrastructure-owning organizations.”
Training can help organizations to better understand, define, and address these challenges, building the skills to take stock of their infrastructure situation, understand where they’re exposed in terms of risk, categorize levels of service and performance, think about how the assets will be used in the future, and set priorities in a structured and defendable way.
The 2016 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card concluded that “all communities, particularly smaller municipalities, would benefit from increased asset management capacity.” In this article, we look at the Town of Oakville, Ontario, where formal training in asset management has recently begun, and the City of Winnipeg, which has a well-established corporate asset management program and is now supplementing external training with its own in-house courses
Town of Oakville
The Town of Oakville, located in the Greater Toronto Area, has a population of roughly 188,000. In terms of major infrastructure, the town is in charge of roads, stormwater management, and public transit, while the Halton Region oversees the distribution, collection, and treatment systems for drinking water, sewage, and waste. The town’s assets include an environment network of nearly $202 million net book value (storm mains, catch basins, et cetera) and a road network of about $293 million (roads, bridges, sidewalks, lights, et cetera).
In 2008, when it became mandatory for all municipalities to include tangible capital assets on their balance sheets, the Town of Oakville decided to leverage the initiative with a comprehensive asset management plan. Since then, the organization has been slowly changing the way it does things, putting more formalized, integrated and auditable processes in place. “Cities have always done asset management, but now we’re trying to get competencies throughout the organization and align ourselves with the new ISO standard,” explained Shawn Boast, manager of asset management for the Town of Oakville.
This past fall, Oakville hosted a three-day asset management training session provided by external consultants. About 10 of its staff attended—a cross-section of employees from different departments and levels—as well as personnel from several neighbouring municipalities. “Everyone’s been silo-trained and is looking at the situation from their own perspective,” Boast said. “We needed a training program that would bring everyone together and coordinate the timelines and objectives into a common vision, so they could see how everything is connected, and how information gets pushed through the various departments so the bigger decisions can be made.”
Participants learned about assessing risk, life-cycle costing, and planning, looking at their assets in terms of performance and level of service, factors to consider for optimal decision-making, how to collect and retain data, financial and business impacts, and much more. On completing the final exam, participants received IAM (Institute of Asset Management) Certificate Qualification.
Boast said the biggest challenge is getting people to change their habits and adhere to formalized processes in a timely fashion. In the past, for example, the capital planning sections within the departments would plan and build the assets, from playgrounds to bridges, and put them into service while the operational departments played catch-up to get the details added to the necessary inspection programs. Now, as soon as a new asset is built, it has to be added to the town’s corporate information system and all the components and specifications listed so that work orders can be automatically generated for the operational staff.
Oakville is planning to train 30 more employees this summer, and another 30 early in 2017. “Changing the culture of an organization takes time, but the best way is through education and understanding,” Boast said. “Ultimately, our goal is for everyone to have a core competency within asset management. We feel it’s part of every job, because being in government, most services are provided on an asset.”
City of Winnipeg
Ron Amann is manager of the City of Winnipeg’s asset management program. He works closely with Georges Chartier, manager of infrastructure planning. They characterize asset management as a system defined by governance, processes, and people all working together. “Training is an important component of this system,” Amann said.
Serving a population of over 700,000, the City of Winnipeg oversees water, sewer, solid waste, transportation, and other services. About six years ago, the city brought in external consultants to help develop its asset management capacity and tackle its infrastructure maintenance deficit. An initial assessment revealed two main weaknesses, and since 2010, these have been the focus of their training: investment planning, and more recently, project delivery.
Despite the city’s decentralized nature, Winnipeg opted for a city-wide approach to asset management training. “This decentralization adds some complexity,” Chartier noted. Each department has its own asset management office and is responsible for planning and delivering its own services and projects. In 2012, the city created an infrastructure planning division to achieve consistency across departments; the asset management program is part of this division.
External consultants provided initial training in each department. “They did a one-shot session on level of service, how to do a risk assessment model in each department, they set up our business case template and a multi-criteria prioritization model,” said Amann. At first, Winnipeg had to use business case examples from other cities. Then, the city began developing its own materials and business cases, and delivering training sessions in-house. They have since developed an Investment Planning Manual and a Project Management Manual.
“We call it ‘how-to’ training,” Amann explained. “We look at how we do business in the City of Winnipeg, how we develop business cases, using real examples of our own investments. We’ve developed our own templates and models.” The long-term strategy is to deliver training that includes all aspects of asset management and, eventually, to set up a system of internal training requirements.
A common language
One of the key benefits of asset management training comes from having people at all levels involved, from engineers and utility operators to project managers, contract administrators, city planners, and financial directors. Winnipeg has also held seminars for its city councillors. As a result, everyone is starting to use the same terms of reference. “It’s a huge benefit when you get people in the organization, horizontally and vertically, all talking the same language,” Amann said.
The training has already helped to standardize how city staff do investment planning and project management. “Before, there was lot of variation in how people did the work in the different departments,” Chartier said. “Now we’re getting a more consistent approach, following the proper methodology, looking at risks.” In recent years, he added, Winnipeg had struggled with some large projects that went over time and over budget. “Now there’s more thoroughness, more analysis and due diligence, better front-end planning.”
At a higher level, Chartier said this process will help the city better prioritize its projects. “All cities are facing pressures to do more with limited funding,” he noted. “It’s important to correctly assess not only what to do but when. For example, if you can get another five to 10 years out of a bridge by doing maintenance work, that should be considered. So part of our business case analysis is looking at the best option according to the whole life cycle of the infrastructure.
“We’re getting more information, more data, and making better decisions as
Eve Krakow is a freelance writer based in Montreal.