Avoid Damaging the Engine – How Coordination Makes Infrastructure Asset Management Work

By James Jorgensen – Senior Manager, Infrastructure Planning and Asset Management

Our public infrastructure – including water, wastewater, roads, and bridges – needs looking after. Since humans first started creating public infrastructure for towns and cities to grow, we have needed to maintain and improve those assets. Sometimes, we wait until the asset breaks and then fix it (reactive). But, other times, we have fixed them before the asset broke (proactive). I know through experience, that being proactive is often less stressful, less costly, and less disruptive to our communities. Both the reactive and proactive approaches to fixing public infrastructure are what we mean when we refer to ‘Asset Management’ and, to some extent, our choice of which approach we select is up to us and communities across North America are choosing their paths as they strategically plan for their needs in the years and even decades ahead. Your community may be wondering how to be more proactive in your journey. Read on to learn more about the keys to developing a strong asset management program.

The international standard definition for asset management gives us the following:  “the coordinated activity of an organization to realize value from assets.” In turn, assets are explained with the following definition: “An asset is an item, thing, or entity that has potential or actual value to an organization.” (ISO 55000).

An example of the concept of asset management that most of us can relate to is car maintenance. You buy a new car and then after so many kilometers, it needs an oil change and service and at other milestones. Other components will need to be replaced based on their estimated service lives. If you don’t do the services and oil changes, you risk damaging the engine – a much more costly, reactive, repair than the proactive maintenance. The brakes on a car have a metal tab in the brake pad, which makes the familiar grinding noise that acts as an indicator to alert you that they need replacing. This concept in the world of asset management is known as performance monitoring, another key concept.

Our public assets are looked after by organizations, many of which use tax dollars or user rates to fund the activities that build and maintain our infrastructure assets. For example, roads generally last about 20 years before major renewal is needed. Along the way however, various treatments such as patch repairs, crack sealing and microsurfacing prolong the life of roads and ensure premature failure doesn’t occur. Identifying the most cost-effective time to do these treatments, whilst maintaining a minimum level of service, can be complex, even without coordinating the needs of other assets at the same time, such as sidewalks, signs, and traffic lights. Most of us assume that those organizations are coordinated and are striving to ensure we all get the most value, and the best service at the lowest cost. Most organizations believe they are doing that. However, just like the reactive and proactive approaches, the coordination of these activities can vary wildly.

Tablet being held by consultant in field

Large organizations look after many types of asset coordination, and this is challenging. When a road requires renewal, it makes sense to check if the water, wastewater, stormwater, communications, electrical, street furniture, and traffic management assets beneath, on, or next to the road need any repair or renewals at the same time. Strategically planning this coordination can create efficiencies, but it also makes work. Consider all those assets, looked after by different departments, jurisdictions, and companies constantly checking to make sure the chance of efficiency isn’t lost. There appears a tipping point where the endeavour to coordinate reduces effectiveness, so the choice of how much coordination is up to us.

Asset management is a journey, with endless, literally infinite, possibility to improve our approaches. As asset owning organizations implement new tools and approaches to increase our ability to predict asset failures, they can increase the planned, proactive workload. This proactivity in turn decreases the reactive failures they have to deal with, allowing them more time and resources to fix more assets before they fail; it’s a beneficial circle.

As owners implement common frameworks, technology, and software solutions, making information accessible by others, in a timely manner, without extra work, they will make the coordination of complex and numerous activities more efficient. Refining these approaches increases the value generated by all organizations when managing our assets.

Organizations implementing asset management should strive to maximize the amount of coordination that can be achieved by recommending business processes and implementing technological solutions that allow them to do more for the same or less effort.

Our team has created custom corridor planning tools to integrate the needs of all assets within the same street and implemented enterprise-wide software to manage asset data and predict and forecast infrastructure costs for thousands of assets. The journey never stops and the potential improvements drive us to find new ways of working and innovative solutions for our clients.

You may be wondering about climate change and how that integrates into an asset management strategy. That is a topic that evolves daily. But it’s also a topic for another blog. If your community or organization wants to get started on asset management planning, contact me. Our team supports the practices, procedures, and policies to develop a robust asset management strategy.

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