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Stanley’s Leaning Pole

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
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Bill Meehan's picture
Director, Utility Solutions Esri

William (Bill) Meehan is the Director of Utility Solutions for Esri. He is responsible for business development and marketing Esri’s geospatial technology to global electric and gas utilities.A...

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  • Jan 21, 2020 7:15 pm GMT
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Stanley was one of my favorite employees during the time I worked for the power company.  He was the area manager for transmission and distribution maintenance and operations.  Before that, a former line worker, then crew chief. Now the boss. Tough and gruff.  Took no crap from the union crew members. Yet, they loved him. He demanded excellence from them and he got it.  

Every day for a month, he would strut into my office, to give me a briefing on status of the prior day’s work. On his way out, he would stop, turn around and say, “We gotta do something about that damn leaning pole.” In turns out that on his way to and from work, he would pass a pole that was leaning toward the street.  It was driving him crazy. His crews could only replace broken poles that break during some emergency, like being hit by a car or felled during a storm. Replacing a leaning pole would require a capital authorization from downtown.  From Stanley’s view, the engineers downtown didn’t have the deep knowledge of the grid he did.  When Stanley would contact the engineering manager, he always seemed to get the standard answer - they would investigate it.  Yet no work order appeared. He gave up calling.

I got tired of hearing about the stupid pole as well. I took a ride out of see exactly how bad the leaning pole really was. Stanley was right, it leaned quite a bit, but in my view, it did not represent an immediate hazard.  That is unless we got a severe wind storm. Finally, Stanley pointed his figure at my nose, and warned me that we must do something about that pole. Fine, I told him, replace your damn pole. I had the authority to create an emergency capital improvement project.  The next day Stanley walked into my office and was actually smiling. That was not his typical look. The pole was now as straight as an arrow.

A week later, we received a capital work order to do what we called “make ready work” on a section of line. Stanley’s section of line. “Make ready work: involved making the pole line ready for some new equipment, in this case a new fiber optic line. The work involved replacing the existing 40-foot poles with 45-foot poles to make room for the fiber optic cables.  That meant that Stanley’s brand new shiny (poles are not shiny) pole would have to replaced under the new work order.

Wasted time, wasted money.

Why did this happen? Misalignment of desired outcomes.

Stanley only had his point of view. The engineers had theirs. The financial people had theirs. I detail this concept in a recent blog

In effect Stanley was tying to perform asset management at a very micro level. He didn’t have the big picture. The engineers as well ignored Stanley’s concern from the field. To quote John Woodhouse, a leading thought leader on asset management:

"One of the biggest challenges in asset management is the injection of long-term thinking (strategic goals and sustainability) while under pressure to deliver short-term results.”

At a utility, there are many conflicting goals around asset management. Operations people focus on the immediate. Planning and engineering employees worry about the longer term. Finance is single-minded around business success or even survival. What do the assets have in common?

Location.

That’s why a modern GIS can provide the needed transparency among all stakeholders for effective asset management. In the old days, GIS was basically a system of record – documentation of what assets exist and where. Utilities would build a data base of their assets and print out maps every so often. The maps were mostly out of date. Today, GIS underpins nearly every aspect of asset management from long term planning to short term work order management to maintenance.  A modern GIS includes a system of engagement. This provides real time collaboration of all stakeholders throughout the company. Further it provides that sharing of data on any device.

Had the planners and engineers used their GIS as a system of engagement, Stanley would have immediately understood when those poles were to be replaced. Sure, maybe the leaning pole needed to be replaced early, but it would have been with a taller pole, consistent with the longer-term plan. Had Stanley used the GIS as a system of engagement, he could have documented his concern about the leaning pole as well as other field issues that could have alerted the engineers to issues that may have been hidden to them.

Finally, a modern GIS is also a system of insight. Simon Sinek, the great thought leader states, “more information is better than less.” As utilities move from passive to a strategic asset management practice, they need as much information as possible at a much faster rate. Getting data from the field, from drones, from planners, from managers, from machine learning and from customers is essential.  In this way, all stakeholders get a glimpse of what really is going on and what patterns and trends that had been invisible are uncovered.

Stanley was right in locking into what may have been a serious problem.  Yet without a means of looking at the big picture in relation to the short-term issues, the outcome was less than ideal.

For more information on the use of GIS for Asset Management, visit our webpage.

 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 21, 2020

Stanley only had his point of view. The engineers had theirs. The financial people had theirs

A tale as old as time, eh?

Seems like it can be so incredibly frustrating, but the 'more information is better than less' approach appears to be the right way to fix this. Was the old thing holding this approach back previously the lack of technological capability?

David Svarrer's picture
David Svarrer on Mar 12, 2020

Seem to me that information was there in plenty, but nobody except Stanley cared. 

They did not even care to tell Stanley about the upcoming change of poles.

It's likely they ignored it. 

And.

In most cases, Stanleys work would successfully have prevented a greater damage.

From my experience in Africa, though, you won't believe how much a pole can tilt or slant while still remain "standing", hanging in the now stretched wires and overloaded isolating porcelain knobs.

Due to the statistical spread I guess, the poles tilt such randomly so that one pole generally balances the other via the wires.

The looks, though, makes one believe that some powerful storm must have passed. 

Stanley would,  here in Africa, either have gone mad, have started a moonlighting company of straightening them up, or had created a specialist company doing exactly that straightening job.

And here them masts don't wreck havoc. Even very small kids knows that these wires will kill you if you touch. Without causing death.

So, the overprotective society we have in the West is largely costly and not necessary. Because. People are smart.

Or?

Linda Stevens's picture
Linda Stevens on Jan 22, 2020

At a utility, there are many conflicting goals around asset management. Operations people focus on the immediate. Planning and engineering employees worry about the longer term. Finance is single-minded around business success or even survival. 

Siloed groups and priorities mean siloed data. GIS can help integrate these siloed data through location! Great article. 

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Jan 30, 2020

Hope all is well - thanks for your comment!

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jan 24, 2020

I don't have much to add here but I just love this story.  A great example of what can happen when departments within a company do not have a mechanism to share communication.

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Jan 30, 2020

Thanks for commenting - great to catch up at DTECH

David Svarrer's picture
David Svarrer on Mar 12, 2020

What is also missing, Bill, is the right strategy and implementation of the same.

Imagine a strategic statement such as:

"All departments must work together as a cohort for the betterment of quality of service and reduction of unnecessary spending, while providing timely,  due care"

Now imagine a professional top management who are professionals in terms of execution? 

A wet dream?

No. Just plain interest in doing ones job, such as Steven, would have been enough.

Very interesting story indeed. Thanks for sharing. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 20, 2021

Bill, great anecdote, and a lot of helpful insight from other responses here.
No doubt GIS would help on both ends of the management power structure. It would help discover problems in the field  in the making, and allow them to be corrected before they became big, expensive ones. But as a project manager in software development, I recognize a problem in the office, summed up in the statement "Stanley only had his point of view. The engineers had theirs."

The problem is communication. More than GIS, more than comfortable platitudes like "more information is better than less" - frank, face-to-face meetings between management, finance, and field workers would have made effective line maintenance a much smaller hill to climb than it needed to be.
No emails, no text messages - too much room for misunderstandings. Stanley may have been tough and gruff, if put in a room with upper management who gave him the opportunity to explain why leaning poles had to be dealt with, management would listen. And something tells me that if finance explained why "we don't have the budget for that" Stanley would listen.
Managing the dynamics of meetings like this - turning adversarial relationships into cooperative ones - is a skill I've picked up over years of practice, and deserves more than one semester in business school. It takes more listening than talking, but also drawing the line - handing "my way or the highway" employees their pink slip on their way out the door, and making sure it's understood no one will walk out the door with the exact resolution they wanted.

Bill Meehan's picture
Bill Meehan on Oct 21, 2021

Hi Bob, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I couldn't agree more that communication is the key to breaking down barriers. Bringing the tactical, financial, and strategic workers together in a room and have it out is a great idea. I have found that another way is to rotate middle and upper-middle managers. There always seems to be tension between the field and the office. "They just don't understand," is a common mantra. Showing is a great supplement to talking. 

Having tools in place that add to that personal touch is a great help as well. In the old days, there were few systems that could communicate both long and short-term plans and issues to everyone, top to bottom.  To borrow a common phrase about Las Vegas. "What goes on in the field, stays in the field." Having tools that create field situational awareness helps a lot. 

 

Thanks again for your great comments.

 

Bill

Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Oct 20, 2021

Bill this one would be great for Utility Lessons learned - it is one of my favorites! 

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