Fixing up facilities management

The challenge: Link detailed building, systems info with end-to-end view

The Naval Facilities Engineering Command (Navfac), at the Naval District Washington, manages all Navy and Marine Corps facilities, which include 22,000 buildings at 80 installations worldwide. Those diverse holdings are worth more than $110 billion.

In an era of tight budgets "it's critical that we understand these assets and manage them wisely," said Capt. Dan Wheeland, Navfac command information officer.

Wheeland, like others in military and civilian agencies, increasingly demand more from the asset management software they use to oversee their facilities. When selecting a new facilities management program two years ago, he rejected applications that narrowly viewed individual departments and chose one that painted macro and micro portraits of the entire enterprise. That preference is now driving the facilities management software market.

"I wanted a tool that can slice and dice data in a number of different ways," Wheeland said. He wanted to develop enterprisewide maintenance contracts on common systems, such as elevators, or be able to view the repair histories of specific components, such as an air compressor.

"When I first came here, maintenance was a reactive process" that focused on fixing things that were already broken, he said. Now, the group uses asset management software to schedule preventive maintenance and determine when a piece of equipment is beyond its service life. "We're leveraging [information technology] to conduct information-driven life cycle management," Wheeland said.

Although facilities management programs have more capabilities for planning and analysis, experts warn that even the best versions aren't foolproof. Agencies must wade through vendor claims to find the right system for their needs. And the project's success can depend on the product's effective deployment.

Massachusetts is learning this lesson the hard way. When the Division of Capital Asset Management asked state agencies to enter work orders and preventive maintenance information into its asset management system, "we didn't get a lot of buy-in from the field because people said they'd need a new [full-time employee] to run it," said Mark Nelson, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Office of Facilities Maintenance, which is part of the division.

"If I had to do it again, I'd still bring the program onboard, but first I'd build consensus around using it," Nelson said.

Cost avoidance

Facilities management programs help agencies collect and analyze data about their buildings and infrastructures, such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) and plumbing systems.

Improved preventive maintenance is a big attraction for the software as agencies seek to avoid costly emergency repairs by monitoring daily service needs. Current programs also help managers develop maintenance action plans, which range from small service jobs to setting aside funds for inevitable big-ticket repairs, such as roof replacements.

"Asset management software can create little alarms that say Building X will need a new roof in 2015, and you should be setting aside funds for it now," Nelson said, whose organization now uses Famis Software to help oversee the maintenance of about 6,000 Massachusetts facilities.

The short- and long-term planning capabilities keep agencies primed for action. "They can help you claim possible end-of-year funding by having projects already created that you can execute quickly," said Anne Hager, a civil engineer at Navfac's Facilities Maintenance Engineering Department, which acts as the program manager for the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

Access to repair records can help agencies determine if a broken water pump or HVAC component should be repaired or replaced based on its age and maintenance history.

"If an agency calls to say it needs a new item, we can go to a central database to see that maybe the part is 15 years old and it broke down last year," Nelson said. "With this information, we can verify whether or not they do need a new component, instead of making a trip to the site."

Comprehensive view

Vendors are providing such capabilities by building asset management suites that span entire enterprises, not just individual departments, said Michael Bell, research vice president at Gartner. "In the past, the software tended to be best-of-breed solutions; now users are demanding full end-to-end solutions," he said.

Navfac officials adopted an enterprise approach when they replaced more than 200 facilities management software applications with a system from MRO Software. Ownership of the old hardware and software was cost prohibitive, Wheeland said.

Separate systems also made it difficult to consolidate reports enterprisewide, a problem that the integrated system eliminated.

"Each deployment had its own data dictionary," Wheeland said. "One facility tracked net square feet, while another listed gross square feet and both were talking about the same thing."

Navfac has consolidated asset management in three U.S. regions and is converting other systems in other areas and overseas.

"In places where we've deployed the system, the facility managers are able to gain access to information in a more streamlined fashion," Wheeland said. "The old approach to gathering information sent out e-mail requests that asked users to populate spreadsheets, which we'd pull into one common spreadsheet. But with inconsistent data dictionaries, it was garbage in, garbage out. Now, we get more accurate data."

Data gathering also happens much more quickly. For example, reports used to take three weeks to create, he said.

In addition to enterprise innovations, asset management vendors are using Web standards, including Extensible Markup Language, to create applications that run in a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

"We're finding that customers have Web services integration on their checklist," said Melanie Ziegler, vice president of software development at asset management vendor VFA. "Some of these customers are taking advantage of Web services now. Others are planning for the future."

The SOA approach provides for a central repository that helps eliminate redundant data and gives facilities managers a Web interface for viewing work order requests and project status, she said.

Preventive maintenance is the primary focus of asset management for the more than 1,000 facilities controlled by Hager's organization, a necessity in an era of scant funding for new construction, she said. "We try to provide the best preventive maintenance we can to extend the life of our facilities," she added.

The Web-based approach means that her group, which uses VFA's software for the medical bureau, can better manage projects and coordinate work processes with facility managers worldwide.

"We all see the same data at the same time," Hager said. This includes information about the condition of buildings and whether they need repairs or upgrades to meet local codes. The software also helps the organization combine related jobs.

"If we need to replace equipment on a facility's roof, our information may show that the roof itself may be close to needing replacement," Hager said. "We can package both jobs together to save time and money."

Wireless capabilities will become increasingly important to asset management programs, said Maury Blackman, a senior vice president for Accela, an asset management software vendor.

"Agencies looking for ways to become more efficient can move information to workers out into the field where they do their jobs," Blackman said. "With mobile devices, workers can set up or sign off on work orders."

Wireless capabilities can also help ensure that repairs are billed accurately, said Dave Levenstein, manager of business development at Famis Software. "Field reps don't have to write down how much time it took to do a work order and wait until they get back to the office to enter the information," he said.

Even if an asset management application can achieve a broad, enterprisewide reach, that doesn't mean that everyone will like its new capabilities. "We would love [our employees] to love the system more," Nelson said.

One problem is unrealistic expectations about what the systems can do, he said.

"People think they only have to go to a Web site to enter work orders, and they become disappointed when they realize that someone has to look at the entries and screen them," he said. "We have to make the case that even though that's so, the end result is better than what they're using now. For example, we checked with the state police about how they managed the work, and found it was all a back-of-the-envelope system. We explained that it would make sense to have a central database, and now they're coming along."

The lesson is to deploy asset management tools enterprisewide as a mandate from top-level managers, so it's not a shock to everyone else, Nelson said.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.


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Calculating payback can be tricky

The cost of asset management software varies and depends on the size of the organization and number of asset management modules purchased. Prices range from less than $100,000 to $1 million, said Dave Levenstein, manager of business development at Famis Software.

Given this disparity, return on investment calculations don't follow hard and fast rules. Melanie Ziegler, vice president of software development at VFA, advises government agencies to analyze cost-avoidance opportunities. "Some customers achieve ROI by avoiding new construction by finding available or repurposed space," she said.

Agencies should also consider savings from avoiding emergency repairs through better preventive maintenance and life cycle planning. For example, Ralph Bates, information systems specialist at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in California, uses software from Accela to monitor the condition of more than 1,500 miles of sewer pipes.

He measures success in the number of sewer overflows the district avoids. By analyzing the historical requirements for cleaning sewer lines, he determined that a five-year cleaning schedule is optimum, and the county has seen a payoff. In 1992, prior to using asset management software, the district experienced 400 overflows a year. The current rate is about 120.

— Alan Joch

4 tips for doing it right
  • Size it right. When evaluating asset management tools, determine how many square feet of facilities a product can cover and how many concurrent users it can accommodate.
  • Avoid customization. Look for programs that already have the capabilities you need. Customizing adds to maintenance costs and hinders upgrades to new versions.
  • Get the most out of it. Look for applications that not only support your agency's mission but will also enable you to meet the reporting requirements of real property rules, such as those outlined by the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Track performance. Once you've installed an asset management tool, monitor its end-to-end response times to ensure that data query results remain acceptable.

— Alan Joch

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