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Credit: Photos: CDM

Team members check in on the water treatment process through the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system. The SCADA allows for an overall review and system check of each process element within the treatment facility. Current operating parameters can be verified online from any of the remote SCADA terminals.
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At the Trenton Department of Public Works, some maintenance team members at both the water and wastewater facilities are cross-trained , helping reduce overhead costs, provide consistent operations, and provide redundancy in case of emergencies.

Merger Methods

Merging two organizations administratively is a complex process. Whenever there are internal issues, along with the “marriage” of two work cultures, there will be challenges. For Trenton, a competitiveness assessment performed by a third-party mediator, combined with the integration, facilitated success.

Step 1: Identify a manager/leader. Define a mission. Competitiveness assessments are valuable in many situations. Occasionally, organizations identify a problem, acknowledge they do not have the resources to address it, and seek guidance. A mediator has an objective view and the ability to be sensitive to labor concerns.

Trenton's assessment was conducted during its integration to foster positive change from the combining of the two utilities. The first step was appointing a utility manager/leader and defining a mission. Knowing where the organization wanted to be in 10 years was critical in developing initiatives that support that goal.

From day one, all stakeholders—management, senior city officials, labor—were present, helping earn the employees' trust and making them a partner. Also, employees can help identify areas where management has not yet championed change. Trenton found that it was facing challenges related to management/employee unity. With the right leadership and inclusion of labor in all discussions, operations can improve, with the entire team supporting the vision.

Step 2: Start the integration effort. Trenton started the administrative integration of its water and sewer utilities looking into the future and understanding that it would take time. The manager/leader made an effort to be seen, becoming a partner and learning the operations.

For Trenton, changes were implemented from the start. For example, top water management sought methods for delegating tasks to individuals leading teams in the field and at the water filtration plant, as second-tier management was limited in its ability to make decisions and manage employees. The active role of the manager/leader helped the solution; management delegation was fostered and encouraged. The manager/leader used a variety of means to train, demonstrate, and describe the methods for managing staff to the second-tier managers, to establish the methods of delegation top water management were looking for, and to provide responsibilities second-tier managers appreciated.

Step 3: Interview all stakeholders. To ensure everyone had a voice, the assessment of Trenton's integrated utility included interviews with a majority of employees. Meetings were facilitated by the third-party mediator, allowing labor to voice their thoughts without fear of negative reactions. A pattern of opportunities for changes was revealed. These opportunities were then aligned with the defined mission and goals, providing suggestions for short- and long-term changes.

Step 4: Hold audit reviews. As a check on progress, the mediator led a series of sessions with select individuals from the water and sewer divisions, from mid-management to labor. This provided another opportunity for discussion without senior management being present. Participants appreciated being given a voice in their future.

Step 5: Schedule ongoing management meetings. Without including names, the meeting outcomes were reported in broad terms to senior management during monthly meetings, which involved reporting project status, raising possible initiatives, reporting the findings that needed short- or long-term solutions, or discussing issues outside of the utility's control.

The mediator treated these meetings as training/learning sessions for the city/ utility. Often, topics of discussion can be used as a point of reference as issues needing resolution are identified. These meetings allow an exchange of ideas and “what if” scenarios. Gauging the ability to implement solutions and identifying an action strategy, allow thought to become action and sound planning.

Step 6: Implement initiatives. Trenton has started implementing changes developed throughout the assessment and initial meetings, including:

  • Replacing the dated billing system with a new customer information system to streamline invoicing/tracking, improve service, and enhance reporting/performance monitoring.
  • Plans for a computerized maintenance management system are in early discussion stages. An initial planning phase to evaluate the broader needs of a department-wide system is in process.
  • Anew operator training program has been initiated, providing a nine- to 12-month schedule, instead of 90 days to complete the training.
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are being updated, ensuring work practices reflect industry efficiency standards and adding a measure of accountability.
  • Supporting these initiatives is the focus of the manager/leader, who is well-trained in handling disciplinary issues in a fair and respectful manner. With the guidance of the manager/leader, staff and union relations have improved.
  • Going Forward

    Change takes time, and Trenton will be able to evaluate the success of its initiatives more each year. By strategically implementing changes, such as the purchase of technology or development of need-based training, the organization will continue to move in a positive direction. Performance measurement and open communication will lead Trenton toward optimal effectiveness.

    “The utility has improved by embracing some of the efficiency initiatives of a private operation, administratively integrating its departments and resolving internal issues, while remaining public,” said Jackson. “Privatizing can be a sound decision for some organizations, but it would not have been the ideal alternative for Trenton.”

    Going forward, the city is proceeding with implementation of three task initiatives, including:

  • Performing a needs assessment for acquiring a computerized maintenance management system for the Department of Public Works
  • Developing and updating SOPs for select areas of Trenton Water Works
  • Providing operator training for new water filtration plant employees.
  • — Ponella is assistant director of public works for Trenton, N.J., and Gilmore is project manager with CDM, Edison, N.J.