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A sharper knife, please…

The head waiter of the upscale restaurant proudly delivered the steak dinners to the table. The waiter placed the plates before us with a flourish, and even an expression of culinary pride and smug satisfaction on his face. He backed up several paces and stood there, arms folded, smiling and waiting and watching as we prepared to devour the first bites. Then, with a beckoning finger, one member of our group summoned the waiter and politely asked if we might each have steak knives. The waiter hesitated, and then stated with supreme confidence that these steaks were so tender that no special steak knife was needed to cut them. Indeed, he emphasised, “Steak knives would be an insult to the chef!” So we gamely began the meal, soon struggling to cut the steak with the only eating utensils available.

A vast chasm between expectation and reality had appeared. There was a serious disconnect between the expectations of the chef and the waiter and those of us who were unsuccessfully trying to cut the rather tough steaks with dull table knives. These steaks would not yield without a fight! Obviously, we decided, both the chef and the waiter lived in a world of fantasy, or were sadly out of touch with reality, or simply hadn’t tested their own product recently. We again summoned the waiter and demanded steak knives. It was high time that the chef and the waiter abandoned their pompous delusion.

AMR systems are a costly investment for any utility. Accordingly, their procurement normally follows a rather rigorous justification analysis. We scour a broad menu of required and desired features for the prospective AMR system, looking for value contributions from each. Some value is readily identified and can be projected with high confidence. Other value is more speculative but likely. Still other value contributors will probably materialise in some ways that we haven’t projected at all. And this all assumes that we get the costs right too, and that the installation and integration with legacy systems goes as expected! There are hundreds of variables and uncertainties on both the benefit side and the cost side of the equation. We won’t really know how it actually all works out for at least three to five years after we say GO. Will it go as well as we projected it would; will we reap the expected benefits; or will we find that we need a steak knife (or perhaps we should have ordered something else on the menu…)?

Our AMR and advanced metering community does a great job of talking about what we expect our products and systems will accomplish, and how readily the projected benefits will be harvested. But when the systems are actually served up, now installed and operating, how well do they really perform? Are we really paying attention? Are these systems what we said they would be? Or do we need a steak knife?

Too often utilities fail to track actual benefits against projected benefits. This should be done not once but yearly. These audits should be documented. Why? Usually an audit of actual versus projected benefits will reveal many opportunities for improvements or fine-tuning the operation. On the flip side, it may reveal serious operating or integration problems, or even hopeless naivety on the part of those who projected the benefits in the first place!

Realism and truth about actual performance, not the performance we wished for, should be developed and shared with the community, warts and all. Excuses? The excuse that the information is proprietary is nonsense. The excuse that information cannot be disclosed because of a non-disclosure agreement with the vendor is all too often a cover-up for a badly performing project. If the AMR system was performing well, the vendor would be delighted for the word to spread!

The best presentations at industry conferences often have titles that begin with the words, “Lessons Learned…” Think about that when you are preparing a presentation for the next conference. Do you have the data? Do you have the guts to talk about it, warts and all?

Let us demand more of each other. Let us revisit projects to see what really happened, and learn from that experience, and share it. The whole industry will benefit. Let us try cutting the meat without a steak knife before telling others that it can be done. The completion of a business case is the not the end of the justification process. It is the beginning!

If you would like to comment on this Viewpoint, please write to the author at cm@metering.com

This column is to create a forum for ideas, passions and perspectives on our industry that are controversial, provocative and energising. The views expressed here may be unpopular, politically incorrect, heretical or simply humorous. The views expressed may be ideas that all of us have had but didn’t care (or dare) to articulate. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone, but are probably shared by many who have yet to say so.