Succession Planning

After 31 years at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) I’m eligible to retire. I will be starting a new position at Jacobs Engineering next month. My kids are looking at colleges and frankly, I need the money. I would happily stay with WSSC if I could afford to, but I can’t.

In case you were wondering what working in the same company for more than 31 years is like, it wasn’t boring. It still doesn’t feel like 31 years. The work was quite varied, and sometimes a bit too exciting. I recommend it highly.

What I am about to write applies to those of you in the control systems security business, especially on the OT side of the fence. You are interfacing with equipment and processes that were and are very expensive to build, very expensive to change, and need lots of care because it can’t be replaced overnight. In fact, some infrastructure took years to construct. This sort of thing requires institutional memory, long term commitment, and a slow, but steady stream of new people to learn alongside those who have been doing this for their entire career. You NEED succession planning, and you need to match what the rest of the company does.

WSSC has a very effective Control Systems Engineering team. Many people, consultants, sales staff, and visitors from other utilities marvel at what that team is able to do and what they have done. But there is one very small detail that could bring everything down to a screeching halt: Succession planning.

WSSC still does some old school things. They still offer and operate a full pension plan. And this is a very good thing. They don’t want to see a constant parade of people coming and going. It takes years to get to a level of proficiency where you can work independently. Recruiting and training costs are far more expensive than for a typical organization.

The general attitude there is to cultivate committed employees who will think for fifty and one hundred years in to the future. You don’t get that kind of thinking with benefits and attitudes designed to make people feel disposable. What’s more, many more have family and other relatives in other parts of the company. It looks like nepotism, but they actually work in different areas, so it’s ethical and reasonable. The benefit is that children care not only about the company, but how their family name is known in the company. And this makes fathers and mothers care about details that others would overlook, but that their children or relatives of others they work with might have to deal with. Everyone has memories like elephants in this company. We routinely tell stories of outrageous things that someone long gone used to do.

There is a standing joke in the company of someone calling the main number and asking to speak to a Mr. Proctor. There are dozens of Proctors in the company. There are also many Swanns and Savoys. And they’re related. Furthermore, in my career, I can easily name more than half a dozen parent/child employee combinations where I’ve worked with more than one generation: Supple, Mabe, Jennings, Clark, Gibson, Knopp, Ecker, Selock… Having a family with more than one generation of people invested in this operation is a good thing.

Furthermore, it takes at least five years to be vested in the pension plan and fifteen years for a spouse to be covered as well. The full benefits don’t occur unless your age added to your years of service totals up to 85.

Thus, it’s not unusual to see people join the company in their 20s and work well in to their 50s. I know many who have worked there for more than 30 years. I even worked with some who have over 40 years of service. You don’t see that very often in any business.

It takes incredible institutional memory to keep track of this stuff,  why things look the way they do, and what we’re trying to migrate toward. Not everything is worth a rip and replace. And in many cases a “rip and replace” attitude is terrifyingly expensive. Water infrastructure is the most expensive infrastructure in a city. So if you treat employees with an eye toward long term financial viability, they’ll avoid spending capital money they don’t have to spend. This keeps long term costs from going insane.

Sadly, however, for no one particular reason, the succession planning managed to fall on the floor and get ignored.

When I first joined the company, there was no such thing as a “Human Resources” department. We had personnel clerks. They took care of the paperwork, but they didn’t actually attempt to insert themselves in to routine company hiring, rating, or firing decisions. Today, they do. And the reason is because there have been some landmark lawsuits that have affected reasoning among executive managers. The theory is that HR will help managers navigate the landmines in the law. And perhaps in some companies it works better than it does at WSSC.

The primary focus at WSSC is stability, consistency, and long term commitments by employees. So the stock HR policies of unit workers with qualifications and specialties with experiences in specific areas doesn’t work. The Commission needs institutional memory and on the job training more than interchangeable worker units. There aren’t many water utilities this size nation-wide. The only way to learn is to get on-the-job experience. There are no schools or engineering experiences that can compare. So while HR probably does what they do pretty well, they still get a bad rap because they’re working against company culture.

But as easy as it is to blame HR, the company managers also have contributed to this problem. An example related to me by a friend: we have a machinist’s shop. They fabricate parts that may not be available any longer. When the company is in business for nearly 100 years, all sorts of interesting things like that emerge. The primary machinist was getting up in years. He was looking at retiring. There was  a parallel position for a junior machinist. But when HR came to them with a stack of resumes, who did the managers pick? They chose another experienced guy. The new guy did excellent work, though he was a bit uninformed about how and why some things were done in the company. It was honest ignorance: he had no institutional memory. Sure enough, not long after the original machinist retired, this guy left too.  Now they have nobody.

The result of these policies is that we end up hiring many older employees. It takes years to get them up to speed and once they’re working at full capacity, they don’t have long before they consider leaving. You know, interchangeable skills and all that. There aren’t many entry level full time positions in this company. And yet, for long term viability, we need those 20 and 30 something employees.

When I was there 30 years ago, we had 20 and 30 something employees in significant numbers, learning from 40, 50, and 60 year old employees. Though there was significant turn-over, many stayed. They became the leaders we know today. Today, those younger employees are missing. There aren’t enough to teach the institutional memory to. I can’t teach them the penalties of poor maintenance and how thin the margins of performance are today. The institutional memory of that notorious substation fire at Potomac Water Treatment plant in the 1970s is fading fast. There is lots of subtle maintenance that looks like make-work. So some managers cancel it as a money saving measure because it will not affect them in their career.

For example, that valve exercise program? Someone up high cut that program. Sure enough, ten years later, long after that administration was gone, we needed to close one particular valve that hadn’t moved in a decade or more. It was so rusted up that some very creative operators were standing in a flooded vault wearing hip waders while they carefully cut through the rust and metal to attempt to get a gear system working again. If they hadn’t succeeded, hundreds of thousands of people would have had to be without water for several days while we isolated both the primary and the backup pipelines to repair a break.

The company is starting to lose its way.

Furthermore, when someone is within a few years of regular retirement, it would be wise to start shadowing them with a new, younger employee who can pick things up and run with them over the long haul. But that’s not happening right now. It’s very hard to get new employees in to the fold in a timely fashion.

There needs to be better succession planning. Senior field work and field management positions should have a promotion path that leads to it. The notion that we can just hire from the outside for every specialty is an HR dream that has as much likelihood as unicorns.  There are few companies world-wide that are like WSSC. It is one of the top ten largest water and sewer utilities in the US. It operates at a scale that very few people get a chance to experience and document. There needs to be an entry level to professional level path for those who seek it. It needs to extend from student intern to senior grand poobah engineer. From technical helper to senior technical supervisor. From operator to superintendent.

Without that kind of succession planning, groups that have done so many world-class achievements will die on the vine. The sort of things that the process engineering group does are worth tens of millions in annual maintenance and upgrade contracts every year, yet they cost less than three million a year, including salaries.

Our group was formed 17 years ago from people across the company who all knew each other on a first name basis despite being in different divisions. We had people from Engineering, from IT, telecommunications staff, instrumentation technicians, and from operations. We all came together and things took off. We implemented automation and integration that seemed like science fiction to many.

I’d like to be able to point back at what I’ve been doing for the last 31 years and say I had a hand in it being that good. But there may not be a whole lot to point at in a few years. To make that happen, there needs to be better succession planning. People are performing at a very high level right now, but it won’t last unless WSSC returns to a sustainable succession plan. It should have started years ago. There may not be enough time left to ensure that a new generation of engineers can continue to perform at this level. But we’ll never know unless they start something NOW.

I would like to thank all my mentors at WSSC, even those who were a first class Pain In The Ass (Yes, you –Buckethead). Whether intentionally or inadvertently, you have taught me a lot. I’ve been trying to share this for years at WSSC to mentor a new generation. That hasn’t happened. Since I couldn’t do that at WSSC, I’ll have to try somewhere else.


Update: Corrected typos and verbiage.

With more than 30 years experience at a large water/wastewater utility and extensive experience with control systems, substation design, SCADA, RF and microwave telecommunications, and work with various standards committees, Jake still feels like one of those proverbial blind men discovering an elephant. Jake is a Registered Professional Engineer of Control Systems. Note that this blog is Jake's opinion ONLY. No Employers, past or present were ever consulted with regard to these posts. These are Jake's notions. Don't blame anyone else for them.