Compos Mentis

If at first you don't succeed...Simply redefine success!

The October 2005 issue of Power Engineering published the whimsical one-page “The Handyman’s Credo.” It had nothing to do with the power industry, and was intended to be humorous – a lighthearted list of ‘ten commandments’ for people who struggle with home repairs and home improvements. The list of ‘commandments’ includes the following:

• “If it’s electronic, get a new one, or consult a 12 year old.”

• “Always take credit for miracles. If you dropped the alarm clock while taking it apart and it suddenly starts working, you have healed it.”

• “Above all, if what you’ve done is stupid, but it works, then it isn’t stupid.”

• “If at first you don’t succeed, re-define success!”

Did I say the list had nothing to do with the power industry? Wrong! Let’s see why.

Consider the last commandment once again: “If at first you don’t succeed, re-define success!” Yes! That ensures that whatever you do is successful. Very handy! Especially in the utility business.

Unfortunately, this convenient rule seems to apply to some of the advanced metering, AMR/AMI installations we have all seen in recent years. The utility and its supplier claim great success, superb performance and a high value. Of course they do! But compared to what? Was there a wellconstructed business case that predicted what benefits would be obtained? If so, has anyone looked back to see if the predicted benefits materialised? Has anyone recently compared the current performance (both technical and economic) with that business case? Too often what happens is that once the AMR/AMI system is up and running, the talented people who guided this challenging project are reassigned to some other utility project. The vendor gets paid and goes home. And the business case that was used to justify the system in the first place is buried in the dark recesses of a file cabinet somewhere.

Now it is easy to claim success. Does it matter whether the system is really a success (as was predicted in the business case) or a dismal failure, falling far short of those now-forgotten predictions? No – it IS success because we conveniently redefine success, making it successful, and now we can bask in its glory!

“That’s life,” you say. Unfortunately, with this redefined success, the utility and its customers are not getting what they paid for. Who even knows? How can they tell?

Ideally, a high quality business plan sets the targets and expectations before the system is purchased. That same business plan must also be used after the system is installed, and every few years after that, to see if the system is actually providing the planned benefits, and if not, why not. The plan becomes the benchmarking tool, and is the legitimate basis of defining success. It is also the diagnostic tool that points to corrective action needed to obtain the predicted benefits.

Sounds easy – but in reality it isn’t. Using the business case to define success assumes that:

1. There even was a business case.

2. The business case was rigorous and very well done, a laudable effort.

3. The business case can readily be understood by people who were not originally involved with the project. This seldom happens.

4. The business case is not buried and can be found.

The development of a comprehensive business case, especially for electric utilities whose requirements and opportunities tend to be more complex than gas or water utilities, is no small task. That is why most utilities seek outside help. Utilities should carefully evaluate the consultant’s prior business cases for clarity, completeness, and the ease with which people can pick them up several months or years from now and understand them. You shouldn’t have to hire the consultant every time you wish to exercise the business plan.

In conclusion, you can have it either way. You can install your AMR/AMI system and simply state that it was successful – without ever answering the “compared to what?” question. You have just re-defined success. It can be whatever you want it to be.

Or you can ensure that you have a high quality and crystal clear business plan in the first place, and that it is revisited from time to time, triggering corrective actions. In this latter case you will achieve genuine success, meeting and probably surpassing the originally envisioned benefits.

Your choice – productive reality or ‘smoke and mirrors’.