National Water & Wastewater Benchmarking Initiative

David Main
Project Manager for Asset Management and National Benchmarking
Earth Tech (Canada) Inc.
Burnaby, British Columbia

A Partnership of more than 35 Canadian cities and regional organizations is participating in an ongoing benchmarking initiative developed and led by Earth Tech. The project began as a pilot project in 1997 with four participant cities and with an investment by Earth Tech and the National Research Council of Canada's IRAP program. In subsequent years, participation has grown to the point where this initiative serves as the national standard for water and wastewater utility benchmarking in Canada.

The Partnership represents approximately 50 percent of Canadian utilities from coast to coast with a service population greater than 50,000, and represents over 60 percent of the Canadian population. The project, which won APWA's Management Innovation Award in 2003, originally focused on wastewater collection and treatment systems, and has recently expanded to include water treatment, supply and distribution systems, and stormwater management systems.

The project developed in response to utility managers' need to address such questions as:

  • How well are we doing?
  • How do we compare with similar organizations?
  • Are we getting value for our money?
  • How can our utility begin the process of continuous improvement?

The resulting quantitative measures, combined with the shared experience and networking between the participants, provided a significant resource of information from which improvements in operations can be identified and implemented. The Business Management Model and the Benchmarking Methodology developed provide infrastructure managers with the means to link their goals, performance measures, strategies and performance monitoring/reporting. In turn, this approach provides managers with the basis on which to strive for superior performance through continuous improvement.

Capital Regional District's (Victoria, B.C.) Water Reservoir, one of the first water sources to be benchmarked in the national program.

Project Objectives
The objective of the benchmarking project is to develop a high-level tool or model that the majority of Canadian Water and Wastewater Utilities will accept and use for managing and monitoring their performance. The tool provides an ability to compare with other utilities' norms and standards. Benchmarking can help utility managers achieve continuous performance improvement towards the utility's goals. If used regularly and effectively, benchmarking can assist managers in shifting to a proactive management philosophy based on continuous improvement. By monitoring trends in key business functions, managers can take proactive steps to avoid and resolve issues in the operating environment.

Numerous breakout sessions at the annual workshop focus on ways to implement continuous improvement.

The National Water and Wastewater Benchmarking project is geared at finding key trends and relationships between what infrastructure managers can do to influence performance (inputs) and the resulting effect of those efforts on achieving the goals (outcomes). The definition and development of performance measures were critical steps in the benchmarking project. Through consultation and benchmarking workshops, the participants identified performance measures to address issues of cost, reliability, environment and labor. A definition for each performance measure was developed, outlining its purpose and scope. The Water and Wastewater Utility Benchmarking Partners divided these performance measures into categories that correspond with the goals identified:

  1. Provide reliable and sustainable infrastructure
  2. Provide accessible and sufficient infrastructure
  3. Meet service and performance requirements at minimum sustainable cost
  4. Protect public health and safety
  5. Provide a safe and productive work environment
  6. Have satisfied and informed customers
  7. Protect the environment and minimize environmental impacts

City of Edmonton's Goldbar Wastewater Treatment Plant, one of the first wastewater treatment plants to be benchmarked in the national program.

Ensuring Quality Data
A real challenge in the development of the benchmarking methodology was to produce a tool that yielded results in order to provide a true comparison between utilities. To ensure that data was collected on a like-for-like basis between utilities on the project, significant effort was placed on the specific definition of each performance measure, and the data was collected by onsite visits and not through questionnaires. By visiting each of the participating utilities, problems posed by inconsistent data, incomplete questionnaires or the non-return of questionnaires were avoided. Any data input into the database had to be confirmed through a reference to the utility's financial records, annual report or other written records. This ensured the accuracy of the data, and meant that costs and staff were allocated in a manner consistent to all utilities.

Some of the data was especially hard to identify and collect. One example is the number of full-time equivalent employees, or FTEs, employed in the operation and maintenance of the collection and treatment sections of each utility. Most utilities are structured differently, and the allocation of staff differs from utility to utility. Great care had to be taken in allocating the correct number of employees in terms of Field, Laboratory, Supervisory, Technical, Support and Indirect Staff in a manner that would allow true comparison between utilities.

Achievements and Benefits

  • A proven benchmarking methodology that develops quality data and information which, in turn, allows exact comparisons between utilities of different size, characteristics and geographic location.

  • An established group that provides for productive peer-to-peer relationships and open communication where everyone is working towards common goals.

  • Identification of opportunities to improve performance, and the identification of "best practices." Participants can clearly see where they perform well, and what areas to focus on for improvement.

  • Leveraging of resources where partners can work together to solve common problems and share the cost.

  • Process benchmarking initiatives focus on the development of industry best practices that can be utilized by any of the participants. Examples examined to date include Infrastructure Reinvestment and Maintenance Management.

  • Process benchmarking task forces collect additional data on specific issues and develop best practices through conference calls and breakout sessions. Examples of the task forces include Water Loss Management and Source Control.

  • Development of critical management information to allow better long-term planning in key areas such as asset management, workload planning, setting of service levels, and service level accountability on an industry-wide basis.

  • Facilitated workshops and discussions to identify potential improvements.

  • Earth Tech's consistent, quality leadership provided a broad depth of international and Canadian experience and a strong interest in the success of the partnership.

  • The benchmarking partnership is still quite early in its evolution, and the benefits emerging from benchmarking water and wastewater utilities will increase progressively over time as the historical data can provide longer term performance indicators (are utilities getting better or worse over time).

  • Annual updates of the project's water and wastewater databases that are used to store historical data and present performance measurement results.

Conclusion and Route Forward
Robert C. Camp, benchmarking guru and manager of Benchmarking Competence Quality and Customer Satisfaction at Xerox, stated that "Benchmarking is the search for industry best practices that lead to superior performance."

This is precisely what the National Water and Wastewater Benchmarking Initiative is striving towards through learning from those who have achieved excellence in similar fields. By forming linkages between utilities and strategic partners from Canada and beyond, the National Benchmarking Initiative encourages the sharing of knowledge and insights about overcoming common problems. This encourages individual and organizational learning, and ultimately increases public sector efficiency and accountability.

David Main can be reached at (604) 298-6181 or at