From Esri's Where Next Magazine: Change Management Smooths Path to Millions in Savings

WHUD is currently featured in Esri's Where Next magazine for it's successful transition to a GIS-centric organization. Here is an excerpt: 

Bill Thompson was anguishing over an ever-deepening problem that threatened the ability of one of Tennessee’s largest water providers to effectively serve its customers.

As general manager of the White House Utility District (WHUD) just north of Nashville, Thompson had always prided himself on being a practical executive—one who didn’t blindly follow the latest trends or conventional wisdom. He saw himself as a leader open to change and one who wanted employees to be empowered to make decisions without relying on layers of supervisors.

But he wasn’t just open to change; Thompson had always tried to anticipate change. In 1992, when geographic information systems (GIS) were a rarity in the water industry, Thompson recognized the potential of the technology and began the implementation of GIS. He hoped the location-based system—in conjunction with the customer information system (CIS) that governed WHUD’s day-to-day operations and billing—would give his workforce the information and confidence they needed to make decisions.

That’s when Thompson realized that the issue was not simply managing the growth—it was how WHUD was managing the growth. Technology had become a hindrance. The tools intended to empower employees were instead creating roadblocks, holding them back. So he did what he had done so many times before. He began exploring innovative ways to solve the problem by thinking outside industry norms.

Thompson researched new CIS platforms and held discovery session with vendors, seeking a solution that would help the utility district manage the growth it was facing. Thompson quickly found that none sufficed. The type of solution he had envisioned was not available.

“I kind of got ill about the whole thing,” Thompson says. Still, he kept turning the problem over in his mind.

Then, suddenly, the fog cleared.

Iconoclastic Insights Spur Company-Wide Change

Thompson had two insights that would change the dynamics of the organization.

First, he realized that despite his hopes for sharing data across departmental lines, WHUD had developed silos of information. The text-based CIS billing software was on one side and the map-based GIS—containing information about the location and status of pipes, pumps, personnel, and other assets—was on the other side. Information exchange between the two systems rarely happened. Employees tried to work around the issue, but their instinct to solve problems was stymied by a lack of connectivity and communication.

“The systems have to be working for the people, not the people working for the systems,” Thompson says. “You don’t want to hear, ‘We can’t do this because the system won’t allow it.’”

The problem was affecting everything, starting with the utility district’s ability to effectively manage growth, and extending to how it served customers. Thompson knew that the WHUD representative answering a customer’s phone call was the face of the organization. “The person you get on the phone—that’s the only person you know. That’s the person who should be able to solve any service question or issue. In most instances, however, the customer service department is so detached from other parts of the organization they can’t make decisions.” As a result, employees felt limited in their ability to help customers and make decisions.

“Our GIS and our CIS were basically incompatible,” Thompson says. “That meant you had to extract data out of one, analyze it, then use it to make a decision over in another. And by the time we did that, we lost a lot of time and frustrated too many customers and employees.”

His second insight emerged when he looked at the system from the customer service point of view.

“All of our employees need real-time information about the operating conditions occurring in the system, as well as the physical location of our field crews,” Thompson says. “And then it hit me: we’re really going about this backwards. Everything we do is location based and asset based, so it only made sense that GIS should lead the way. It should be the driving force.”

Going against the Grain Yields Huge Gains in Efficiency and Savings

For most utilities, the customer information system is the dominant database—whether user-friendly or not. But customer service reps need to know more than the current billing status to solve most problems. They should see a map of the customer’s location with details of its maintenance and repair history, as well as the location of field service reps in the area and when they will finish current appointments.

Field technicians and other personnel, who had been waiting hours for information before attacking potential problems, would be able to gather relevant data on equipment status and maintenance history in minutes. New leak detection software would integrate with the GIS maps, helping the utility discover small leaks and quickly fix them before they grew into large problems.

It took about three years to create and implement the user-friendly, GIS-centric system. Business executives who have overseen an enterprise software implementation understand the demands of such a transformation: sound planning, patience, and a dedication to change management.

For Thompson, WHUD, and the comunities they serve, the effort paid off handsomely. With the new technology in place, WHUD no longer needed to consider an urgent overhaul of the physical assets or the issuance of debt in reaction to the growing population. That bond has been postponed for at least 11 years. Interest payments on it would have topped $6 million during the same period. Perhaps more important, through the integration of these systems, WHUD gained data continuity across the organization, which enabled Thompson and team to perform more-proactive strategic planning.

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