OPINION: A 20-year ride on China's digital water train
Embracing the China speed of change
After spending over 20 years in the Chinese infrastructure market, one lesson it has taught me is patience. Yet I won’t deny the proverbial “China speed” of change. In reality, the two realities coexist.
Chinese water companies tend to be considered sluggish, yet they are moving faster in their digital transformation than their western counterparts. Considering it is a water scarce nation of 1.4 billion people, this is happening at a massive scale.
According to the 2017 “Maintenance in China” survey conducted by Siveco and Shanghai University, 95 per cent of respondents declared that maintenance was a core business, related to water quality and regulatory compliance.
However, 82 per cent had not yet computerised their maintenance processes. Facing a blank page, when western companies may sometimes feel hampered by their historical best practices and legacy systems, Chinese water companies dedicate increasingly large budgets to O&M improvement through digitalisation, initiatives strongly encouraged by the central government.
“IT systems for maintenance in large utilities show a dismal success rate, anywhere in the world."
IT systems for maintenance in large utilities have a dismal success rate, not just in China but anywhere in the world. They are often administrative-driven, implemented by IT people for IT people and aimed first at computerising cost and time control.
Often all the real improvement opportunities are missed, not to mention the enormous cost and endless implementation timeframe.
Taking Yuyao Water digital
With the advantage of hindsight, Chinese utilities can design IT projects with their exact strategic needs in mind.
For this, Siveco has long advocated relying on the ISO55000 series of Asset Management standards (and its Chinese national standard equivalent) as a practical framework.
They can put operation managers in charge and make the best use of the agile Chinese approach. While long derided in the West as inefficient improvisation, it consists of taking small steps, learning from mistakes and adjusting as you go.
Capital Water is a fast-growing water group involved in PPP projects all over the country. With the organisation being state-owned, in this instance, PPP may be understood as a public-public partnership, rather than a public-private partnership.
Labelled as the world’s fifth-largest water operator, it is also China’s most experienced in the field of rural sewage treatment, with projects often located in less developed areas.
The organisation has worked with Siveco to overhaul its maintenance management strategy at the group level, based on which practical guidelines were devised to deploy this strategy to newly-acquired contracts and existing operations.
The first such deployment took place in Yuyao Water, the comparatively large and advanced water company serving the city of Yuyao (population 850,000) in eastern China.
In less than six months, the company went straight from a traditional, loose, paper-based system to a modern mobile solution used by O&M technicians. This included highly visual interactive dashboards for decision support, structured around ISO55000-compliant processes.
Disproving the PowerPoint nightmare
Considered a successful model in the industry, Yuyao has essentially managed to “close the ISO55000 loop” of ensuring the group strategy is applied in the field and continuously improving based on field-verified data.
“A major IT firm convinced the company board that AI-based solutions would end the company’s dependence on workers.”
Meanwhile, in another Chinese reality, a similar digital transformation project was paused for over a year. The reason? A major IT firm convinced the company board that AI-based solutions would end the company’s dependence on workers.
By the time it took to disprove this PowerPoint dream (or was it a nightmare?), three years passed, the top management changed, and nobody dares to mention the successful pilot implementation to the new boss.
When I reflect on my 20+ years in China, it has been a slow train coming, certainly travelling at its own speed.
Yet, I am still enjoying the journey more than the destination.
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