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During the past ten years, Water and Wastewater utilities in North America have spent sizable resources and much time in order to become competitive when compared to the private utility sector. These efforts have resulted in a variety of successes, but generally, medium to large American utilities have become more efficient and customer oriented during this improvement process. A wide range of techniques has been utilized by these utilities, some more successful than others. Early on, more successful utilities began sharing their success with other utilities through workshops, paper presentations at conferences, and research projects. The Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) have played a pivotal role in improving the level of management expertise among utilities. QualServe, initially developed by AWWA and later embraced by WEF, offered a peer review process to assist utilities in the improvement process. Private consultants soon realized that utility competitiveness represented a need to be filled and began developing programs tailored to individual needs. Many utilities have improved their competitive performance by utilizing one, or more, of the techniques for improvement. A number of challenges have evolved during this process. One of the biggest challenges is that of creating an environment of assessment and continuous improvement. Building on successes is an evolutionary process that can result in enormous gains if the utility develops a disciplined approach and is faithful in performance.

Beginning in 1992, Columbus Water Works initiated its first ever effort of strategic planning. A consultant, Management 21, was hired to lead this effort and Columbus Water Works’ first vision statement was developed. The vision “ ….to be the nations best water and wastewater utility by the year 2000 ” presented a lofty goal for the organization and would require considerable effort in order to be realized. Unfortunately, the basic fundamentals of change were not in place and this effort looked doomed for failure. A major obstacle to overcome was how to determine when, or if, the goal was accomplished. To this end, a new consultant, EMA Services, was hired to provide guidance on becoming competitive as a utility. EMA's effort resulted in a major re-engineering effort resulting in a 20% reduction in the workforce and over 1,000,000 in annual savings. Even with this success, it was apparent that there needed to be more if the program was to succeed on a sustainable basis. To date, the successes were due to only a small number of people within the organization.

Simultaneous with EMA's involvement, the AWWA QualServe program was developed and Columbus Water Works became the first utility to be evaluated through this valuable management tool. This program, through its Self Assessment and Peer Review tools, offered new and clear insight into how the entire organization viewed the change process and pointed out the importance of involving the entire organization. To date, no clear path was evident in order to facilitate this degree of involvement. In 1998, Columbus Water Works hired yet another consultant, Black and Veatch, to lead the effort to update the strategic plan and to develop a method to involve all employees in the program. This was accomplished through developing goal teams for each of five new company objectives associated with the vision “ ….to be the best… .”. Subsequently, in 2000 a facilitated management retreat further refined the role andextent of involvement of goal team members. This resulted in a significant increase in employee participation in the strategic planning process. Specific products of these goal teams include an asset management program, a formal capital improvement program, a financial planning model, and development of an ongoing customer satisfaction monitoring and assessment program.

One of the largest challenges Columbus Water Works has faced is the development of a way to measure the results of the various activities of the goal teams. QualServe was invited to re-visit Columbus Water Works for the purpose of determining if the overall strategic planning program had resulted in overall improvement in the eyes of the employees and peer reviewers. The overwhelming answer was “yes.” Subsequently, QualServe has been instrumental in assisting Columbus Water Works by providing metric benchmarks through the Benchmarking Clearinghouse. These benchmarks will help Columbus Water Works compare results of its operation with other utilities in order to help continue the improvement process. EMA Services has been selected to assist in updating the strategic plan with a major focus on sustainability.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2004

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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