Jim Christenson retired last year after serving 40 years in university and federal facilities management. He can be reached at email@example.com.
There is nothing so useless as doing with great energy that which should not be done at all.
I've shared some thoughts this year about change, empowerment, assessment, and the role of leadership. It's time for a reality check. What are our customers looking for? They may not give a hoot about any of these concepts. They're looking for a service or a product. The greatest leadership in the world is wasted if the group experiencing outstanding leadership, change, and empower- ment doesn't produce something that is valued.
So what do education facilities management organizations produce? This may seem like a stupid question. But there are a few nuances of the typical mission that I would like to explore with you. Education facilities management organizations exist for two primary reasons that are sometimes in conflict.
They are on-site to directly serve the present customers: students, faculty, researchers, medical teams, and other members of the institution's internal community. And they are there as stewards of the institution's facilities assets on behalf of these same people, plus future customers, and the many stakeholders who are not members of this close-knit community. Their basic mission (or production), then, is service and stewardship.
In the service arena, the organization exists to respond to the reasonable requests of the campus community. I add "reasonable" because good service includes advising the customer against doing something dumb. Service covers the spectrum from responding to a call for more heat to building a complex laboratory to satisfying a vaguely articulated research objective.
One of the very important and basic service tasks is to make students, faculty, and staff members comfortable. Normally, people who have their basic needs satisfied can concentrate on higher level, creative activities. The facilities should enhance their efforts, not detract from them. In one sense, the people served by the facilities organization should not have to know that the organization exists. At least in the ideal world, they should have confidence that they will be comfortable without any action on their part, unless they have special needs.
Providing proper temperature, humidity, light, air quality, sound control, accessibility, and watertightness of the buildings is the starting point. But as you all know, even these basic environmental attributes are much easier to list than to supply. It is immensely difficult, especially in older or poorly designed buildings, to deliver the ideal indoor environment. It takes the work of a variety of skilled people-people who are paid well to be good at what they do.
There has been much talk in America about the low wages paid for service as compared with manufacturing. We need to help institutional administrators understand that providing outstanding facilities service is not inexpensive. And the need for prompt service makes it even more costly. Besides, the list isn't complete.
The customer service list includes cleaning the buildings, making sure toilets are sanitary, interior painting, and keeping facilities maintained so they always work. It includes hanging pictures, making bookshelves, adjusting the desk chair, replacing a burned-out bulb, providing transportation when needed, designing and constructing a building, providing a scenic and safe outdoor environment, and more.
In providing customer service, we are in a world very similar to that of the entrepreneur or businessperson. We need to listen carefully to the voice of the customer. And, once more, who is that? Your primary customer isn't your boss. Sometimes the boss may think you work for him or her. But if that person is wise, she or he will realize that unless you respond to the expressed, valid needs of the students, faculty, researchers, medical teams, and other members of the institution's internal community, you aren't doing your job.
Listening to one person for direction is easy. Listening to thousands of customers with multi-faceted needs is difficult. It means every member of the team must be trained to receive and act on the communications.
I've used a couple of phrases that bother some facilities professionals: "reasonable requests" and "valid needs." The more prestigious the institution, the more necessary is this aspect of providing service. Each dean, especially at such an institution, is determined to make a mark on history. This often involves facilities, either construction or adaptation. A dean typically has five years in which to accomplish the feat that will change the world in some area of study or research. The dean often does not, publicly at least, demonstrate interest in what follows his or her administration.
This is, of course, a harsh judg- ment. It would be grossly unfair to apply it to all deans; but the chief facilities officer should be aware of the tendency and be prepared to head off potential long-term damage. The demands by the customer may take the form of bypassing university planning, design, and aesthetic standards and processes to get a research facility constructed more rapidly.
Or it may head in a quite different direction: Seeking to build a spectacular facility that cannot be properly maintained. Examples of fallout from the latter requests are lights and smoke detectors installed in positions where they are inaccessible for maintenance. Many of us have assumed responsibility for buildings that had earned the designer an architectural award, but in which there are dozens of burned-out light bulbs that will never be replaced because there is no physical means to reach them within the soaring, sculptured atriums.
We have also inherited buildings that are scarred by additions that were designed and built in haste to fulfill an urgent need that is long forgotten. Only the shabby, out-of-character physical evidence remains. And, as we all know, the building will never be razed because the space within this monstrosity is too valuable. Similar problems on a smaller scale occur in some of the renovations requested by our customers.
When faced with customer expectations that are in conflict with the long-term institutional welfare, the facilities professional is on the borderline between service and stewardship. And that position can be as uncomfortable as that of the "fiddler on the roof." We may be perceived as a major obstacle in the narrow path to fame.
As service providers, we need to support the dean's initiative while precluding the diminishment of the long-term value of the facilities and the waste of financial resources. That is, we need to partner with customers to find a way to accomplish their objective while honoring the institution's traditions and standards, and ensuring long-term maintainability.
I've used the term "stewardship" a few times. What is it? Webster's dictionary defines it as "the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care." That's an apt description of the second part of the facilities management organization's job. Years ago, physical plant directors thought it was their only job, even suggesting, only partly in jest, that the other members of the campus community were just in the way. The chief facilities officer is entrusted with physical assets that, in replacement value, usually exceed the institution's financial endowment. Stewardship of these assets involves intelligently conceived and executed preventive, predictive, and corrective maintenance of all facilities and their components. It requires a full inventory of current and deferred plant renewal needs. But it isn't enough to hold out the alms box.
Facilities stewardship requires the chief facilities officer to identify potential sources of funds to perform cyclic renewal of facility components; to develop the strategy and rationale for reducing the accumulated renewal backlog; and to repeatedly, factually, and vividly describe the requirements and the potential solutions. Facilities have no voice of their own. The chief facilities officer is their only voice. That voice must be well informed, strong, and articulate.
The work of an education facilities professional is all about service and stewardship. Most of the work by the facilities management staff is physical, a rarity in the academic community. Rarer still are the skills required to perform such work. Many parents want their children to go to college, not to pursue a trade or a career in physical service.
In spite of increasing unemploy- ment, most areas of America, at least, are severely short of people skilled in the trades and in high-quality maintenance. This puts an even higher premium on skilled leadership, appropriate and timely change, and enlightened empowerment, and ensures long tenure of these scarce and important people, who wield the wrenches, hammers, floor machines, and diagnostic equipment-the people on the front line. They are the ones who make the customer curse or smile. They are the ones the chief facilities officer is appointed to support with the best of leadership skills.