Archive for February, 2011

How Utility Outages SHOULD Be Handled

Monday, February 21st, 2011 Mike Ficco

Earlier (How to Reduce Electric Utility Outages), I promised to provide a short engineering specification of how a utility might better inform the public of repair progress during an outage.  What I describe following will not only inform the public but could also help solidify good management practices within the utility.  Improvement in management practices seems likely to translate directly into better customer service through more rapid repairs.

Management Experience

As an experienced engineering manager I know you can’t always predict how long work will take.  However, my direct engineering experience has been that predictions become MUCH more reliable if the work is broken down into discrete and well-defined steps.  Even more important is to then arrange the steps into a sequence that builds on intermediate results and optimizes usage of the available resources.  In short, success comes more readily with a complete and detailed plan.

My experience has also been that making the detailed plan available for review, critique, and comment often results in an even better and more highly optimized plan.  Such review allows for the inclusion of missed steps and for correction of operational sequences that had not been fully considered.

It is without question that ad hoc direction of maintenance crews is far less efficient than having a comprehensive multi-step plan with a well-defined series of steps and an estimate of the time to complete each of these steps.

Therefore:

The utility must have such a plan.  If they have no such plan – they should and must be required to produce one for each significant outage.  Managers must either be trained or replaced until such an obviously needed basic component of good service is instinctively created and used for every major outage.  Note: Inexperienced managers sometimes argue against taking the time to produce a detailed plan.  They may say it is only delaying the start of repairs.  Wrong.  It has been proven over and over that, for major work, a good plan more than repays the time invested in producing it.

Good Management Practices:

  • It is good management and a demonstration of foresight to produce a couple of plans in advance of the emergency.
  • When the emergency occurs, it should only take minutes to select a relevant preexisting plan and “tweak” it for the current circumstances.
  • There is no reason the plan produced in the first half hour has to be the final plan.  Don’t be afraid to enhance it as the emergency progresses and more facts are learned.
  • Make use of the experience gained during each emergency and adjust the preexisting plans to be even better for the next emergency.

Since it is the job of the Public Utility Commission to oversee the utilities, they would be negligent if they did not insist on reviewing the preexisting plans.  They should also insist on participating in post-emergency plan reviews.

It is incontrovertible that a plan must exist to guide repairs for every major outage.  The question becomes how should this plan be made available to the public.  I believe a spreadsheet or Gantt chart would be highly inappropriate.  Instead, I proposed a graphic web page.

Requirements:

  1. The basic web page shall be a map of the region.
  2. It shall be possible to zoom the map from a high-level view of the entire region to individual street level.
  3. The utility grid shall be superimposed on the map.
  4. The utility grid shall be color coded as follows:
    • Green – Represents the portions of the utility grid known to be working correctly.
    • Gray – Indicates sections of the grid that have an unknown state.
    • Yellow – These sections are not functioning correctly but are currently under repair.
    • Orange – These sections are not functioning correctly and are next in line for repair.
    • Red – Represents the sections of the utility grid not working and not scheduled for repair in the immediate future.
  5. The current time of day shall be presented.
  6. The time of day the page data was last updated shall be presented.
  7. The page data shall be updated AT LEAST once an hour (update every 15 minutes is preferred).
  8. The average time in minutes that trucks/crews have been on their current assignments shall be presented.
  9. The number of currently working trucks/crews shall be presented.
  10. The number of trucks/crews on break or pending assignment shall be presented.
  11. In a major outage, a number of trucks/crews will likely be requested from neighboring jurisdictions.  Each group of requested trucks/crews shall be treated as a discrete block.  For each such block:
    • The source shall be named and the number of trucks/crews requested shall be indicated.
    • The expected arrival time shall be indicated along with the number of hours since the request was issued.
  12. For all the blocks in #11, the total number of all trucks/crews that have been requested from neighboring jurisdictions but have not yet arrived shall be presented.
  13. It shall be possible for the public to provide feedback on the emergency plan and its implementation.  This feedback shall be archived and made available to the Public Utilities Commission upon demand.

Epitaph

Over my two blogs on public utilities I’ve described a three-step process for improving the reliability and accountability of the system:

  1. Stop blaming your outages on Acts of God and start doing regular preventive maintenance and infrastructure improvements.  If you claim you have already been doing so, clearly your efforts have been inadequate and need to be improved.
  2. Prepare emergency plans and post these for review and comment.
  3. Create a regularly updated (perhaps as often as every 15 minutes) web site that shows the current state of repairs.  This is certainly needed during an emergency – but why not do it every day?

Maybe we can finally stop hearing promises and actually have utility company executives earn their bonuses not by “saving money” but by providing the reliable service implied by their social contract with the community.

How to Reduce Electric Utility Outages

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 Mike Ficco

A couple of weeks ago we had a heavy, wet snow that took down many trees and in the process interrupted power for a significant number of people.  By some estimates nearly 300,000 households, businesses, and schools in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area lost power for the better part of a day.  At the time, there were a number of news reports comparing the power situation to that of a third-world country.  In addition, there were many disturbing reports of inadequately staffed call centers and, therefore, difficulty in reporting dangerous situations like live power lines on the ground.

Background

The power company responsible for the majority of the outages was already under the microscope.  They seemed to have a several year history of reliability problems and just last year a major snowstorm caused long outages for many of their customers.  When extended outages occurred again, there was a not too surprising customer outcry followed quickly by a great deal of posturing by both the power company and politicians.

… but that was weeks ago …

The reporting and talking continues.  Hearings are being held.  Excuses and promises are being made and made again. Enough.

Engineering Observations

Time to make some “engineering” observations. I experience first-hand both last year’s and this year’s extended power outages.  I was extremely irritated BOTH times when the power company blamed the outage on an “act of God”.  I disagree with that assessment.  Getting hit by a meteor – now that’s and act of God.  Getting snow in the winter just doesn’t seem to qualify as an act of God.  Furthermore, if you are genuinely surprised to get snow and ice during a Washington D.C. winter, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to be in charge of anything important.

Here is some further insight into this “act of God”:  both last year and this year, ALL my other utilities continued working after the power failed.  That would be my gas, water, sewage, telephone, and cable TV.  That is, my 5 other utilities performed significantly better than my power company.  So much for an act of God…

The good news for the most recent extended outage was that it was cold outside.  Since we don’t have any bears and coyotes in the area we could save some of the content of our refrigerator by putting it outside.  The bad news was that it was cold outside and we had no heat.  To be clear, my furnace and hot water heater are gas powered.  We had gas and we had water.  We had hot water.  We had no heat since the furnace blower required the conspicuously absent electricity to heat the house.  Fortunately, I had a fireplace and firewood.  We slept on the floor in front of the fireplace.  The furnace thermostat hit 52 degrees and on the second night without power I considered letting the faucets drip to prevent the pipes from freezing.

One (at least one) of the local radio stations periodically aired listener comments on the situation.  Most were outraged, but there was the occasional defender of the power company.  EVERYONE appreciated the efforts of the front line workers who risked their lives in the cold weather and dangerous conditions.  However, in my opinion, any comment that excused the power company from blame was very wrong to the point of being irresponsible.  Some comments went so far as to call people soft or whiners and told them to get tough or buy a generator.  Again, no one wants to diminish the contributions of the maintenance staff who worked so diligently to get power back on.  BUT it is unacceptable to do or say anything that excuses the executives who, for the last 20 or 30 years, “saved” money and presumably reaped large bonuses by minimizing regular maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

Calling those who complain about having no power “whiners” should have no place in any legitimate conversation.  It deflects accountability from the inability of the power company to fulfill the social contract at the basis of their very existence.  This is a public utility.  As such, the public cannot “vote with their feet” and select another company to deliver power to their home.  In return for being awarded this monopoly, the power company is expected to reliably deliver power – not blame God or repeatedly promise to get better.

I’ve worked for several companies that cut corners or skimped on design, implementation, or testing time in order to save money.  Of course the intention was not so much saving money as boosting profits.  My experience has been that these attempts usually backfire because customers don’t buy the junk that results from such cutting of corners.  That is, backfires for the company.  Many of my previous employers no longer exist.  Along the way, however, some executives got rich because of poorly (for the company) structured bonus plans.  Some also profited handsomely by selling hyped corporate stock before reality came crashing down.

Retail companies with competitors are very different from public utilities.  Those who manage public utilities have a social responsibility to provide quality service to their customers.  The politicians who oversee the utilities, therefore, have a responsibility to their constituents to insure bonus plans, maintenance schedules, infrastructure improvements, etc. are in line with the end goal of providing quality service.  If a public utility does not provide quality service, either due to ineptitude or malicious intent of its managers, those managers should be banned for life from involvement with any public utility.

But enough about managing a company to provide reliable service…

How to Reduce Electric Utility Outages

At some point, customers of even the best managed power company will lose service.  In my situation, both last year and this year, the power company was not able to – or was unwilling to – give us any realistic idea when power would come back on.  This year they made a blanket statement of “11:00 Saturday night”.  In my book (What Every Engineer Should Know About Career Management) I call this “big bang scheduling” and I assert that big bang scheduling is unacceptable.  A schedule with specific milestones is vastly superior because you can easily tell when implementers start to fall behind schedule or when events take an unexpected turn.  Either the power company was completely inept or they wanted to hide from the public when they were going off plan or off schedule.

During an outage, somewhere inside the gigantic power company people make decisions about what neighborhoods get worked on in what order.  If the power company doesn’t have a map of their power grid with known failures highlighted, they certainly should.  How could they hope to work in an efficient fashion without such an annotated grid?  I propose that all power companies… NAY!  All public utilities… be required to host an outage web site.  This should be a graphic presentation of the very same data used by the utility to schedule work.

I hear the power company now!  We can’t do that.  It’s too much work, etc.  Malarkey!  They BETTER be privately doing something like this already if they hope to repair damage in anything remotely resembling an efficient sequence of activity.  Graphically presenting this information to the public would accomplish two incredibly important objectives:

  • Homeowners could track the progress of work and see where their neighborhood was in the sequence of repairs.  They could then make educated decisions about emptying the refrigerator or checking into a hotel.
  • The public could critique the power company’s allocation or resources and staging of repairs.  The utility would probably dread such critique, but only because they are inept.  If done well, a public display of effective and efficient repairs could provide a wonderful boost of confidence that utility payments are being well spent.

My power company, unfortunately, reminds me of some of my former employers.  Unlike those, however, I can’t just leave in hopes of finding a better situation.  I’m stuck with these guys until the public utility commission wakes from their coma and learns enough about engineering to properly oversee the power company and properly align the thinking of the utility executives.  To help this process, in a future blog I will provide a short engineering specification of the outage web site concept presented above.

Done!   See How Utility Outages SHOULD Be Handled

Saving REAL Money on Healthcare

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 Mike Ficco

In a previous post (Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker) I had a link to my blog at MyPath.  That link was broken when they moved to a new format.  With their permission I have reposted it below so I can fix the broken link.

Origionally posted on MyPath.  Follow @MyPath_MP on Twitter for more career managment advice and resources.

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As I changed jobs over the years I never thought much about the medical benefits offered by a prospective new company.  Yes I wanted benefits, but I was more interested in the duties of the job and how much it paid.  It was only during the years I worked as an independent consulting engineer that I became more consciously aware of the convenience and savings associated with a company provided plan.

While the self-employed or unemployed may have a different perspective, it seems most regular fulltime employees of corporations see medical benefits dimly in the background – alongside furniture, stationery, and other things companies are simply expected to provide.  Over the last year, thanks to layoffs and the chaos we call our government, healthcare and corporate medical benefits have been anything but a background issue.  Hyperbole reigns on both sides, from “Electronic health records will save us billions” to “We are headed down the rat-hole of socialism”.

I’m not a financial or healthcare professional, but I do have several decades of experience thinking logically.  It seems to me that putting everyone into a national healthcare system will have several consequences.  One is that we will gain revenue from those who are young and healthy and consciously taking the risk of carrying no health insurance.  Had I done this over the last 30 years, and been disciplined enough to save the extra money, today I would be able to pay for a couple of heart transplants out of the savings.  The trick, it seems, is to have genuine fiscal discipline and to not spend the extra money.  I can’t guarantee I would have been able to do that.  Even our government was unable to resist spending the entire Social Security surplus – leaving us with debt and IOUs for the coming years.

Another consequence of the proposed new healthcare system, which I’m surprised few are talking about, is great risk for insurance companies no longer allowed to reject sickly applicants and no longer allowed to limit expenditures for any customer.  Insurance companies that, for whatever reason, accumulate a large number of such expensive patients will be forced to raise their rates – causing customer exodus to the cheaper companies.  In a world where insurers must take all applicants, it seems reasonable to expect a great deal of customer turbulence.  One can envision wholesale customer migration from expensive companies to economical companies as ailing clients drive the rates up everywhere they go.

Several years ago I had a cold that turned into a cough.  The cold was unremarkable but the cough lasted and lasted and lasted.  After maybe three weeks my cough had become an irritant to everyone around me – including my coworkers and family.  I’d spent a couple of weeks guzzling over-the-counter cough medicines but they seemed more useless than I remembered.  Evidently genuinely useful cough medicine is no longer available over the counter.  Finally I decided to call my doctor.  He refused to write a prescription based on a phone call but I was able to get an appointment the next day.  I paid my $20 co-pay and was seen by a physician’s assistant.  He asked me a few questions and listened to my lungs.  His diagnosis was… a cough.  He wrote a prescription for codeine cough medicine and had the real doctor sign it.  My office visit was $110.  The drugstore sold me the medicine for $10.

After a few days my cough was gone.  The “real” cough medicine broke the cycle of the continual coughing repeatedly irritating my throat.  Breaking this cycle allowed me to quickly heal.  I was cured at a cost of $20 co-pay + $110 office visit + $10 cough medicine + about $20 in over-the-counter “pretend” cough medicine that did nothing.

So here is the question:  If we are SERIOUS about reducing the cost of healthcare why don’t we give more power to the people and let them obtain real medicines?  Let it be the individual’s choice as to whether to see a doctor and perhaps get expensive tests.  Yes we have to protect people from themselves and people are clueless and will overdose and kill themselves and their kids will get the drugs and they won’t understand the contraindications and can’t read the labels and yada yada yada…

Blah, blah, blah – danger… blah, blah – controlled substances… blah…

Laws written by our government with the intent of protecting people from themselves are costing us money and lots of it.  Maybe this was good 20 or 30 years ago but today’s national debt is staggering and the cost of healthcare is spiraling out of sight.  We need to at least have the discussion as to whether such restrictive laws have a place in our current society.

If we want to continue spending money, albeit far less, we could add a safety net by implementing a national tracking database that would email your doctor with a notification every time you purchase a medicine.  We could even implement an Expert System that would warn of excessive purchases, flag interactions, and suggest addiction counseling.  All this can be done far more cheaply than requiring everyone to pay $150 for some cough medicine.