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Mind Maps in Action: Improving Water Systems & Quality in Spokane

In this latest edition of our 'Mind Maps in Action' series, we talk to Mike Taylor about his fascinating work with government to improve water quality and systems in Spokane, and his use of mind mapping as an aid to decision making, organisation, communication and more!

Could you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?

I serve as Director of Integrated Capital Management and City Engineer for Spokane, WA, a city of 210,000. My team manages the planning, design and construction of about 1,000 miles of streets, sewer, water and storm water systems ($1.7 billion) for our community. The bulk of my career was in the

private sector as the founder of a civil engineering consulting firm that grew to 4 offices in 2 states and, continues to this day. Sold to my successor partners; ‘retired’ for 10 days; and, competed for the city engineering role. Now, am working with Mayor Condon and Utilities Director Rick Romero to help infuse private sector best practices in the public works arena and more.

When and how were you first introduced to mind mapping?

In 2001, when serving on a hospital board, the hospital CEO presented some decisions in mind map form. We engineers are naturally graphic communicators (plans, sketches, and diagrams); and, his decision mind maps were such a great tool to depict everything in context. As board chair and vice chair; they helped me through a very challenging time. The hospital was failing and we needed to pull it around. Decision maps, organization charts, complex and demanding processes of approval were all well depicted by mind maps. It helped get to timely decisions and we all got the job done. Six years later, both hospitals are going strong.

What do you perceive to be the greatest benefits of their use?

I think viewing topics and issues in a holistic fashion is a major benefit. On boards, too often, decisions are based more on the dominant personalities than the merit of the argument. Carefully constructed mind maps put fiduciaries on a more even footing; and, the merit of the idea more often drives the strategy. I also appreciate the ability to blend visual cues with the written material. That clearly strengthens assimilation, understanding, and recall of information. Green for “go!” or, for money; blue for water projects or strategy; yellow for caution or emphasis; red for urgent or deep trouble; etc.

Could you tell us a bit about your work with the government relating to water quality improvement in Spokane?

We are embarking on the largest public works program in the history of Spokane. We will be investing approximately $100 million per year for the next 6 years in our infrastructure. Issues with algae blooms in downstream reservoirs; untreated overflows during storms from our combined storm and sanitary system; and, PolyChlorinatedByphenols (PCBs) in storm water runoff require upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant; addition of storm water retention tanks; and, retrofit of large areas of the city with grassy swales, rain gardens, and infiltration galleries to address the pollutants. We are also aggressively addressing the upgrades to our water transmission lines; pavement condition; sewer collection and conveyance; and, the wells, pumps, reservoirs and controls, to name a few.

What place has mind mapping had in this work, and how has it helped?

I introduced it to the Mayor’s cabinet in 2011 to depict issues and ideas for strategic consideration. Then, taught the introductory classes; and, we now have 37 licenses in City Hall. We use it to frame decisions; track projects; communicate technical issues with lay persons; organize meetings; graph and refine processes; and, to organize work. Again, the most helpful has been in the decision maps providing decision makers with the holistic depiction of decision, background, alternatives, pros and cons in an all-inclusive map. Follow the logic or challenge an assumption; and, the revised decision map is ready for debate and consensus.

For following our various projects from concept through design and construction, the rolling master map and companion Gantt chart is a great tool to depict where we are. A very large dashboard, if you will.

Would you like to add anything else?

Mind maps are a great tool to use with a variety of others to more clearly communicate with your audience. I use Google Earth and Sketchup, along with mind maps, to communicate with senior staff, City Council, neighborhoods; and, various citizen activist groups. Those that use mind maps are clearly part of an innovative core who are leading a culture shift that is paying big dividends. We formed our own Integrated Strategy Studio (ISS) (Skunkworks) to address the water quality challenges; and, the full array of public works. This is totally atypical of classic municipal structure; and, deliberately intended to overcome the silos of each utility to address issues as stewards of the citizens’ capital investments. The systems approach to wastewater reduced a planned $500 million program down to closer to $300 million; and, improved the pollutant removal by 25 to 250 times in key pollutants. Bright minds, unfettered by bureaucratic constraints, working together for innovative solutions. Great formula.

Recognizing the value of the systems approach, we now address all street, sewer, water and storm water projects holistically; and, bundle them wherever practicable. This was never facilitated by utilities and streets functioning as individual entities. Their structure actually pitted them against each other for General Fund budgets. Rick Romero led the process and supported me in assembling the brightest minds from the water, wastewater, streets, and planning to form the ISS; last June. They are now routinely saving millions per year through the integrated approach. They are also spearheading innovative approaches to public works challenges that were previously often shunned by “we’ve always done it this way” cultures. ISS is a work in progress, but delightful team to lead; and, making big strides for our beloved city. This couldn’t happen without the leadership and support of our mayor and Utilities Director. They are a pair of the most creative personalities that I’ve had the pleasure of serving with in my career. Good things are happening. More to come.

A huge thank you to Mike for sharing his story with us! You can see more terrific maps from Mike, covering a range of topics, on his Biggerplate profile, here.

Are using mind maps in your day to day life and work? We want to hear from you! Get in touch via Twitter (click here) or by commenting below.

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Barney is Community Manager at Biggerplate and shares user stories, mind mapping tips, and other news and updates from our global member community!
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