Welsh Water (Dŵr Cymru) is seven months into a new billing system that won the business applications category in Computer Weekly’s European User Awards 2015.
The system is vital to the smooth running of the utility’s business. It processes more than 1.1 million meter readings every year, and issues £800m worth of bills.
In 2012, the company, which is responsible for providing clean water to more than three million people in Wales and some adjacent English counties, decided to replace its mainframe billing environment. It created a Newid (new income delivery) programme to manage the implementation (“newid” is Welsh for “change”).
The system went live in January 2015, and was a large, complex change management programme. “It was the best programme of my life, and I’ve been around,” says Fraser Nairn, head of architecture, business information services at Welsh Water.
He describes how an initial nucleus of five people built a team of 150 who worked on the programme for its duration. Welsh Water provided a project office, close to the contact centre in Cardiff, that was big enough to house the team. “We had a very low attrition rate," says Nairn.
When three team members were diagnosed with cancer during the programme, the rest of the team raised £5,000 for three cancer charities. “Teambuilding with a cause is very powerful,” says Nairn.
The company decided to be its own systems integrator for the programme. “There is a litany of billing programme disasters in the utilities industries,” says Nairn. “We decided we could not outsource the risk. The complexity of moving a legacy billing system, especially in the water industry, is very complicated because of the complexity of the tariffs required.”
The industry norm is for legacy mainframe systems to be allowed to run decade after decade.
The scope of the Newid programme included the billing engine, the meter reading system, mobile hand-held terminals, the debt management system, the web billing system, a document management system and more than 100 interfaces.
Nairn led what he describes as an intense procurement process, which came down to three bidders in 2012. The team chose RapidXtra, from Echo Managed Services, as the core billing engine. That product emerged best from a competitive two-week build process, says Nairn.
He is most proud of the culture created in the team, however. “It was a like a mini society, and great fun,” he adds.
The programme, which Nairn says was subject to strong governance, came in on time and within budget (£33m). Data quality was improved by 44% by switching from the old system to the new system.
“You can get burnt by data”, he says. “I would always have as a separate project.” The data stream team comprised 25 people, and one of the senior nucleus was a data architect. Nairn says the data was in a “go liveable” condition a year before the whole system was ready to go live.
“We carried out 18 data loads and five full dress rehearsals for the data migration and cutover ahead of the final go live,” he adds. “The quality of the data reconciliation [from old system to new] was commented on by PWC [an external auditor] as something it had never seen before.”
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There were 15 workstreams in the programme, each of them a substantial project in its own right, says Nairn. Moving from an older Fujitsu mainframe to a Windows blade environment has reduced technical operating costs by £400,000 a year.
“A greater range of tariffs is now available to help customers,” he adds. “Twenty-five years ago, 100 tariffs was thought to be enough. The legacy system was handicapping our ability to offer our customers flexible tariffs.”
Nairn says this social mission is important because Welsh Water is a not-for-profit company. “Any reserves go back into the company – we don’t have shareholders to answer to.”
He also reports a reduction in staff training requirements, down from six to eight weeks with the old 'green screen' system to two to three weeks with the new set-up.
Julia Cherrett, managing director, Dŵr Cymru customer services and sponsor of the programme, said in a statement: “Replacing our billing system was a one in 25 year event for us and not something we entered into lightly. When we began the project, we were clear that our priority had to be that the only impact on customers should be positive and that an equal priority was training and support for our teams.
“To have achieved a successful implementation within budget and on time is a real testament to the way the project was planned and delivered and a great example of what can happen when teams really focus around a goal.”