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Digital plumbing – a step too far?


Recently, I visited a school, as part of the “taxi service” that one provides when one is a father of school-age children who are active in sports and other extra-curricular activities.  At one point, I needed the toilet, so I headed off to find them.  It turned out that this school had recently refurbished the toilets, at great expense, with all mod-cons; it was very smart, well decorated, and had full-length panels behind the loos, hiding the back-end plumbing, just like you might find in a smart hotel.

It even had “hands-free” flushing, so there was a sensor, where you would expect to find the handle for the flush mechanism, that you waved your hand in front of, and it flushed.  So, you didn’t even need to touch the handle, thereby, no doubt, reducing the danger of spreading germs amongst very dirty school kids.

I was very impressed, partly by the quality of the toilets, and partly by the school’s ability to fund such a lavish and technologically up-to-date set of toilets.  I used them, and went to flush with the no-touch device.  Nothing.  I waved again.  Again nothing.  I held my hand in front of the sensor; the colour on the sensor changed from green to blue, indicating that it had detected my hand, but then growled mechanically, as though a little gremlin inside had been woken up, and wasn’t happy about it.  And then… nothing.

At this point, I was sure it was something about my hand-waving technique that was letting me down, so I spent several minutes waving in various fashions in front of the sensor.  Eventually, I accepted defeat and had to leave the toilet in search of someone who might know how they worked.  Highly embarrassed, I found a lady who had the confident stride of a teacher and asked her if she knew if there was something wrong with the hands-free toilets (an easier way into the conversation than saying I didn’t know how to make the toilets work!).  With the matron-like air of someone who had seen everything before, which immediately put me at ease, she said, “oh yes, the batteries have run out.  The facilities men are going to replace them, so they need to take the back panel off, but they haven’t got the right tools today.”  Before I could ask what I should do, she continued, “don’t worry, I know a way of flushing them anyway; leave it with me”.   And with that, she breezed off, relieving me of both my predicament and my associated guilt for having to ask someone for help for something that should be a simple task.

Because actually, flushing toilets are one of the basic requirements for civilisation.  The Romans solved the problem with massive aqueducts to bring water into their cities and sewers to take the used water away, and ever since then, our benchmark of basic society has been defined by how we manage our waste, both collectively, and individually.  I failed as a civilised human by having to ask someone how to flush my urine away.

Now, there are many ways in which digital technologies can assist with water and waste management, but clearly battery-powered hand-motion-detecting flush mechanisms whose systems, and cisterns, are hidden away behind fixed panels are clearly not one of them.  And yet, I can see how the “business case” would have been written.  Toilets, it would have said, can spread germs and the most obvious place for that will be the flush handles on the toilets. So, in a busy school, we should reduce this risk and have hands-free, and we can then make everything look good behind the panelling, so it will really impress the parents with how hi-tech it is.

This can sound great before it’s implemented, but one of the challenges with digital transformation programmes is what happens in the longer term.  Things may well work very well in the first wave of enthusiasm and interest after digitising a process, but when you need to start to factor in maintenance and what happens if things break, this is often overlooked.  To be fair, it’s difficult to predict and plan for all these scenarios upfront, but it’s also possible to try to transform or alter tools that simply don’t need to be transformed, or customised, in the first place; if the best you can hope for is that the customisation will create something that is just as good as the original system, then perhaps this is a clue that it doesn’t need changing.

Of course, this is much more about digital transformation programmes in business than in school bathrooms – at least schools will have a facilities manager on hand to fix things fairly quickly; in complex business transformation, that’s much less likely to happen.  But the temptation to digitise or customise every system, just because you can, can create real problems, which often won’t become apparent immediately, and only after the systems have been in place for a while.  So, I think it’s a useful guide for any programme – how is this custom process going to work when bits of it go wrong?  Or, can I still flush the toilet manually if I have to?

If you need help with your digital plumbing, as it were, please get in touch.