An Environment of Change

The recent article “Ontario Climate Change Action Plan on the Right Track” spurred some interesting discussion both for and against the arguments of climate change. This got me thinking about what drives us and how we process and comprehend information and compartmentalize it in a way that suits our individual perspectives.

Of course there are many perspectives on climate change with the two predominate ones being 1) climate change is not caused by mans activities, and 2) climate change is a direct result of mans activities.

But before I ride further down this trail of climate change, I want to take a pit stop and explore a different question.

The Question is “At what point is information so overwhelming or consequences so extreme or distant that one adopts alternate views or actions as a means to reach an acceptable conclusion?”

What I mean to provoke with this question is an awareness of how we deal with information. At what point do we as individuals, groups, communities, and nations reach a threshold where the volume, scale or complexity of the information just becomes overwhelming? Where we rely on someone else to “understand” and do the right thing, or try and solve the identified problem with a potentially equally complex solution. At some point we all come to a conclusion. However as the problem becomes more complex, the willingness to change perspective becomes more important.

Two historic environmental issues can help demonstrate how time changes perspective. The point being made in both these cases is that initial thoughts and final actions may or may not have resulted in directly solving the identified problem, but the actions taken can be agreed to, at the very least, reduce our impact on the overall environment. Even though these two issues have long term and complex interactions that we may not yet understand.

A Review of the Less Monumental Environmental Assaults

I want to go back to two environmental assaults that we don’t hear too much about anymore to the point that anyone born after 1990 may not even recall these as significant concerns of the day.

The first is Acid Rain. This one I barely remember, but it was a big deal when first publicly identified in the 1970’s. One of the easily identifiable contributors was sulfur compounds being released in the atmosphere due to combustion of coal and petroleum products. These compounds then reacted with moisture in the environment and fell back to earth as a mild sulfuric acid. Of course, these were not the only compounds being discharged, but a connection was made.

The phrase Acid Rain was murmured almost daily and the news media was flush with stories and examples of the coming wave of devastation and impacts to the environment. With these emissions peaking in 1975 to almost 3 times the levels experience in the 1950’s there was what appeared to be a clear need for action…and action was taken. Sulfur removal was implemented where feasible. Low sulfur fuels were sourced or produced. Emissions were reduced. Now, I haven’t followed the acid rain train for some time, but there was a real reduction in emissions, where depending on your data source, a declining trend has been occurring from 1975 to 2000. Now there seems to be a renewed upward trend since 2000 arguably as a result of global expansion of coal use in Asia.

So this leaves me with some questions:

  • The 2000 low for emissions was still twice that of 1950. Is there a tipping point for this emission where the formation of the acid is detrimental to the environment and are we still below it?
  • Have the predictions of melting stone and dying trees been reversed or do we just move onto other problems?
  • Dying lakes due to lower pH was a real concern in northern US and Canada. What has happened, have these lakes recovered, did something else change?

In the end, I really don’t know personally whether this impact was directly correlated to sulfur emissions or if the environmental impacts were happening and have been reversed, or if the whole thing was made up by the media. But one thing I know for certain is that awareness and public comprehension of the real impacts of dying trees, lakes and rivers, and the erosion of our monuments, buildings and infrastructure were enough to cause industry action to reduce emissions. To me, in the end there was a shift towards increased environmental sustainability. Of course there were many who did not believe that this activity was significant to cause this kind of impact and they argued in support of unabashed progress. That the environment was not affected and had the ability to absorb mans discharges. Regardless of who is right, does it not benefit us all when noxious gases that cause respiratory and other health effects are reduced at the very least in our local environments.

The second is Ozone Depletion. The next issue that emerged as a result of chlorinated compounds primarily related to manufactured gases used for air conditioning systems. In the mid 1980’s it was discovered that the ozone layer over the antarctic would have seasonal thinning. This in a zone of the atmosphere that is 30km thick! Of course if we lost the ozone layer this would mean a direct impact to humans from significantly increased exposure to damaging UV-B radiation from the sun. An international agreement was struck in 1987 (Montreal Protocol) requiring the phasing out of a list of known ozone depleting substances by 2000.

These substances where effectively reduced from 1.5 million tonnes of consumed substances in 1987 to virtually zero tonnes in 2008. A great success from the point of view of setting international goals and meeting them. So let me ask:

  • Do we know for sure what would have happened if these substances were not discontinued?
  • This was again a highly known and well covered story for many years. What has happened? Are we still not concerned that the ozone hole is still the same as it was in 1985 when alarm bells went off?

Again, in the end, are we not better off by having some very damaging and persistent chemicals out of environment. What are the indirect health affects of these products that we no longer have to address? So maybe the ozone layer has not recovered, and maybe it never will recover due the the persistence of many of these substances, but we learned something, we adjusted behaviour and I believe we are more aware of how our actions can have unintended consequences.

So How Do We Process The Scope of These Problems?

I can tell you that both these challenges had heated supporters on both sides of the argument. There was also a robust public awareness of the issues and a direct connection to how the predicted changes could impact individuals. Of course neither of these issues resulted in the end of civilization. But for certain, there was a wide spectrum of understanding of the issues at hand, and certainly this influenced the arguments and positions on the issues.

Also, there was varying degrees of understanding and acceptance of the information through the various interest groups of communities, industry, government and science. All these variables result in differing degrees of interest, understanding, impact, and accountability. Arguably, these two issues were of the scale and scope that definable actions could be identified and executed with the outcome of at the very least modifying our environmental impacts to some degree.

But what if the problem we face is too large to comprehend, or to complex to describe, or doesn’t seem to have a direct impact, or is so long term to not be a concern, or can be explained by other activities etc. Unless one is able to break down the problem, there can be a tendency to minimize, rationalize or redirect the issue to a level that can be more easily understood. There is therefore a need to simplify and clarify a problem to a point that it can be communicated clearly and concisely. This definitely is possible with the topic of global warming or climate change.

Alternately we can learn more about the issue, ask questions, have an open mind and try and see the issue from many perspectives.

The issue of climate change is complex, long term, and with a multitude of variables. To help the debate it is always beneficial to be open to others point of view. So, to that end I thought it helpful to offer these two videos that both have good arguments. Take a look and let me know what you think. Let the conversation continue.


Ontario Climate Change Action Plan on the Right Path

Best Summer Ever! Or Not?

If this summer is not confirmation enough, it is becoming more and more difficult to deny that climate change is happening. We have had almost 40 days this summer where temperatures exceeded 30 degrees C in Southern Ontario. On top of the heat, it has also been the sixths driest summer on record.

Now many of us also found this to be one of the best summers in recent history if hot dry sunny days are what you want. But what are the long term effects? I can say from my experience that by August I was well adapted to the high temperatures to the point that a cool day of 25 degrees was down right cold. Great for me, but what is the impact on the natural environment? We know there are impacts and we know we have to change.

Making Change is a Difficult but Necessary Action

So how do we make the necessary changes to slow down the trend if not outright reverse it? We have to change…yes change, the hardest thing for almost everyone to do. Especially considering that many of the changes circle around our carbon based society and all the conveniences and comforts this culture brings to us. Where do we start and will our efforts really make a difference?

Provincial Plan is a Great Start to Aligning Necessary Change

The Province has made a great start in publishing the Ontario Climate Change Action Plan this summer and it marks a clear change in direction that focuses on green house gas reduction goals as a universal target for creating effective change. Since the late 1990 there has been a slow but steady effort by the Province to make change and it is working…we need to now get much more engaged at a local level to help make this work.

With targets based on a 1990 emissions benchmark, reductions of 15 percent by 2020, 37 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2080 are forecast for the plan. These may appear lofty goals but I expect they are necessary and are achievable as long as everyone starts to take personal ownership.

Is Your Municipality Focusing on the Right Things?

Environmental stewardship is a priority for many municipalities with all required to develop energy management plans and incorporating best practices in making a sustainable improvement to various aspects of our environment. But can we and do we measure what impact these programs have on actually moving the bar on climate change?

The beauty of targeting green house gas emissions as a proxy to effective climate change mitigation is that as engineers we can measure this. But if you look at various municipal climate change or environmental action plans, the notion of tangible GHG reductions is not always present and if present may not be well defined as an overarching goal to achieving tangible results.

One good example is the City of Toronto were, similar to the Provincial plan, they have set targets based on a 1990 benchmark of 6 percent by 2012 (surpassed), 30 percent by 2020 (on track), and 80 percent by 2050. These targets are more aggressive then the Provincial targets and so far are being achieved.

What is your municipality doing to align itself to the Provincial plan? I believe that strong alignment will be the only way to make the necessary changes. Only by focusing on the same goals will we reach these targets. Is it time to take a look at your Environmental Strategy and make sure there is alignment on the right outcome?

Some Things Municipalities Can Align With?

There are a number of areas were the Provincial legislative framework is moving the agenda forward. Programs under Ontario Regulation 397/11, being the Energy Conservation and Demand Management Plan clearly sets out the tracking and reporting requirements for every municipality in Ontario. But are you simply following through on these submissions to met the legislative requirements or are you taking the information to heart and making real efforts to set new targets and measure real change?  After all this is what is intended by this regulation.

Can We Align with the Province on at Least One Thing?

So what has the Province identified as actions within this plan, and can municipalities find alignment as well? Here are a few actions that could easily fit within a municipal public works mandate:

  1. Installation of electric vehicle charging stations
  2. Improve commute cycling networks
  3. Showcase heritage buildings a low carbon projects
  4. Participate in Green Button Program to share and access electricity, gas and water consumption as program grows
  5. Set green development standards
  6. Make climate change a planning and engineering priority
  7. Reduce minimum parking requirements in transit corridors
  8. Participate in Provincial GHG reduction challenge fund to gain access to grants
  9. Access funds in developing Climate Action Plans from the Province
  10. Consider “low emission traffic zones” in highly congested traffic areas
  11. Rethink building energy needs and long term benefits of co-gen or ground source energy sources

Considering the legislation and attention on climate change, we should all be already doing many of these actions. If you are great…see what you can do more of. If you are not engaged in these actions, find out from your energy team where you can participate and help make the provincial targets a reality.

Winter Program Changes Improve Services and Save Money

Like every municipality we are always looking for new ways to improve service and reduce costs. For the 2015/2016 winter season we made some changes to our snow management program with these goals in mind and found some interesting successes.

Every year as part of our continuous improvement strategy, the department selects a handful of priority services and deconstructs these services based on Lean methodologies for the purpose of verifying where value is added and that the right level of service is being delivered to the right customers. Of course, being public sector and servicing a broad community, we also focus on a consistent service model for all.

Now before I give you our program details, complete this one question survey so that we can compare how the majority of readers are performing this survey.

Share your program to see how we compare


Primary Change for this Season was the elimination of Sand

We have two major road classifications in Aurora being our primary roads and secondary roads. the primary roads receive salt treatment and the secondary roads receive a 95 percent sand/salt mix and the road ratio is about 4 to 1 for secondaries.

The exercise we undertook in 2015 was to review every step of the winter operation from both a customer perspective (are we adding value to the customer experience at every step) and from a life cycle approach ( what is the full impact of each practice).

How the Program Changed

The key changes to the program were:

1. eliminate the pre-wetting operations (8 years of operation in this mode has found some significant overall disadvantages of this approach on asset life)

2. Trial a pre-treated salt product in lieu of pre-wetting

3. Shift from sand/salt mix to salt only on all routes

4. Reduce overall application rates based on new characteristics of treated product

And here is how its shaking out so far…

Service Levels Experience

The major service level improvements were noticed on the roads that shifted from sand to salt. Moving to a bare pavement objective resulted in higher positive feedback from those areas. In addition, there were comments on how much cleaner the roads and private drives were based on the absence of tracked sand. This was an immediate benefit to the community. The overall service level improvements to the customer included:

  • clearer roads
  • faster completion of routes (due to reduced loading time)
  • perception of cleaner streets (due to absence of sand on roads in spring)

Operating Experiences

The major operational improvement was reduced re-load time as the application rates for sand vs salt was almost 4:1 since much more sand needed to be applied to provide the necessary traction as snow melt was not the objective. With salt only, the objective changed from snow pack to centre bare resulting in a more visible measure for the staff.

Also, the reduction in trips to the dome drastically increased “Plow on Road” time resulting in improved completion times with the same level of equipment. This was also translated into improved service to the customer with no added equipment costs and the availability of staff to perform other valued added services to further improve the customer experience.

Another significant improvement is with the spring cleanup. We are seeing an immediate savings of approximately $30,000 as all street sweeping will now be performed internally compared to a blitz with contracted services. The blitz was previously necessary due to high complaints of street conditions with the remaining sand. Now the roads are only requiring s light sweep for debris. This savings does not include the additional savings expected with sweepings disposal which will be minimal compared to sand application volumes.

The other area where savings are expected is with catch basin cleaning. This will be verified this summer but intuitively no sand on the road means no sand in the catch basins benefiting cleaning costs.

Staff have also found the change beneficial and are very much in support of how this has simplified operations.

Environmental Stewardship Major Consideration

We were also concerned about how this change might effect the environment so our overall goal was to minimize overall salt impacts as much as possible. While application rates for the secondary roads did increase due to the removal of sand, there was an opportunity to lower application rates on primary roads due to the benefits of the pre-treated salt. We are monitoring the overall application rates and believe that we have found the right balance of public safety and environmental stewardship as we balance legislated service levels with road salt usage.

Overall this has been a great pilot and these changes will be incorporated into future operations.

Now let us know how your program works to compare results.

Survey Results- Why Strategic Initiatives Fail


First I want to thank all those who participated in the survey. The following table to a comparison of your responses to a survey that was completed by PMI called “Enabling Organizational Change Through Strategic Initiatives” and as can be expected, there are some similarities and some differences.

Continue reading Survey Results- Why Strategic Initiatives Fail

Why Strategic Initiatives Fail

One of, if not the biggest risk of achieving corporate goals is failing to effectively execute strategic initiatives. This if course is assuming your organization has a strategic agenda in the first place…but that is an entirely different topic.

Before we talk about why strategic initiatives fail, I am interested in finding out why you think strategic initiatives fail? So please give me your opinion over the next few weeks based on taking this survey based on the following potential causes of strategic initiative failure:

After the results are in I will share some interesting findings and see where the biggest opportunities really are!

Simple Rules for Smart Simplicity

In my opinion time is the most valuable resource we each have. Yet we can so easily let it slip with barely a thought. So every time I come across a useful tool or idea that helps keep me focused, I can’t help but want to share it.

I came across this video randomly and found Yves message so compelling for its simplicity. Although there are so many management approaches out there, I found these ideas straight forward and common sense. But in a profound way I also found them fundamental to creating healthy human relationships and attitude in an organization.

Take a look and tell me how you feel about his message.

Blame is not for failure…It is for failing to help or ask for help

Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of Lego

What to do about Organizational Silos? Try the Virtual Silo

We all know about silos in our organizations. You hear comments about other departments that somehow put them separate from your group or make them different. Some silos are attractive and people scramble to be part of them, and other silos are avoided at all cost.

We are also each a member of a silo although it might not feel like a silo if it is large enough or the culture is sensitive and supportive. So why do we continue to accept silos and what can we do about them?

Continue reading What to do about Organizational Silos? Try the Virtual Silo

Trash as Fashion…Why Not!

People have been making things out of recycle material for some time now. This is a great way to practice the 4 R’s but how effective is it to moving use closer to sustainability?

The fashion industry has also played along in recent years. I guess every designer is looking for that next new thing. Of course like many fashion events, the clothes that are presented are either signature pieces reserved for the wealthy or so impractical that they only serve the purpose of promoting the designer.

Continue reading Trash as Fashion…Why Not!

Winter Highway Maintenance Audit

Ontario Auditor General Report Critical on Snow Maintenance Performance

Bonnie Lysyk, Auditor General of Ontario released the Special Report on Winter Highway Maintenance April 2015 that was requested by the Standing Committee of Public Accounts. This report provides a critical eye on winter maintenance service delivery changes at the Ministry and how these changes, primarily made to reduce operating costs, have negatively impacted on service levels and potentially reduced road safety. Although specific to Ontario, I suspect many jurisdictions that deal with snow management will find value in this report.

Continue reading Winter Highway Maintenance Audit

Three Reasons Public Sector Projects Go Over Budget

Capital Projects in Public Sector are High Risk

Successful capital project delivery is a critical component of the asset growth and renewal cycle, but is is also only a small portion of the overall life cycle cost of an asset.

So how is it that capital costs (and the unfortunate experience of cost overruns) seem to attract so much attention in the public sector, yet annual operating costs generally get approved with very little attention? The primary reason for this dichotomy is the differences in these cost pools as summarized in the  following table.

Continue reading Three Reasons Public Sector Projects Go Over Budget

By Municipal Engineers…For Municipal Engineers