Q&A with Industry Leader Mildred Chua
Q&A with Industry Leader Mildred Chua
Keep New York Moving.
That is the corporate mission and overall vision of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). So what does it take to keep the largest city in the United States up and running?
According to Mildred Chua, Vice President & Chief Financial Officer for MTA Bridges and Tunnels, “I believe that best practices in asset management will enable our organization to use our infrastructure to provide safe and reliable service to our customers. By managing our physical assets well, not only are we able to work toward ensuring high performance for our bridges and tunnels, but we are also able to realize the goals of maximizing our revenues while optimizing the cost of delivering our services.”
Q: Could you briefly describe the asset management culture at MTA and your role in it?
As the largest transportation agency in the world (comprised of five operating agencies), MTA is an asset intensive organization with a diverse asset base, ranging from rail, transit, buses, bridges and tunnels. The combined value of our assets is estimated at $1 trillion!
I am the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for the agency, MTA Bridges and Tunnels (B&T), which operates the tolled bridges and tunnels in New York City. I am also the program sponsor for the agency’s enterprise asset management (EAM) initiative.
Asset management is a core value and way of life at MTA. We have been managing our assets, either acquired or built, from the very beginning and our workforce serves as proud stewards of our assets, regardless of which operating agency they work for. Our employees have an almost heroic quality about them – thriving on the satisfaction that at the end of every day, they are contributing to fulfilling MTA’s mission of keeping New York moving.
In spite of a strong asset management culture, our current practices lack consistency across MTA’s agencies. While we have been successful at maintaining our assets in a state of good repair, there is always much more work to do to bring us into alignment with corporate goals, customer expectations and, of course, the international standards for asset management – ISO55000. Therefore, we have been in the throes of implementing an EAM program across all of the MTA agencies since 2013, with an emphasis on establishing a comprehensive management system to formalize and provide a structured framework for our already sound asset management practices.
Q: You have been active in encouraging the advancement of asset management, what drives you to be so passionate about the topic?
My expertise is in finance, investment planning and budgeting, so, of course, asset management is extremely important from a finance point of view, specifically from a total cost of ownership perspective. But, my passion for asset management is deeply rooted in my natural curiosity to understand the drivers behind situations and not simply accepting things at face value. I love exploring options and possibilities from multiple perspectives beyond the financial realm and arriving at results that are more holistic and comprehensive. Business case development and the evaluation of alternatives to select best value options are an integral part of my skill set, along with my inclination toward the use of data to enable evidence-based decision-making.
Given my role at MTA B&T, I have a unique perspective and understanding of the challenges and successes across multiple disciplines through visibility gained from our strategic and financial planning process. This provides opportunities to integrate varying perspectives to achieve efficiencies and better value for our investments, as well as help people understand the value they bring to the table, regardless of their background and expertise.
Q: Can you give us an example of how diversity has played a role in the current MTA asset management journey?
There are many ways to look at diversity. First, it is about consideration of all different perspectives beyond engineering and maintenance, extending participation to include administrative functions, such as finance, procurement, human resources and IT. Second, diversity is about inclusion in the workforce and reflecting healthy representation of gender, age and ethnicity. Last, but not least, there’s diversity across the MTA family. We are five operating agencies that have uniquely different businesses (e.g., rail, transit, buses, bridges, tunnels), yet we align ourselves under a common goal for asset management across the MTA enterprise. I think all of these perspectives on diversity have played a major role in MTA’s asset management journey.
As an example, our enterprise asset management programs involve projects that touch all departments and encompass three major work streams (people/culture, business process, and systems and data) that are integrated to work in concert to enable comprehensive implementation efforts. When we implemented our recently completed program for cashless open road tolling (ORT), we were inclusive of every department and all levels of the organization to meet the accelerated schedule on budget and to the satisfaction of our customers.
It is noteworthy to mention that when the EAM program was launched MTA-wide, all of the agency’s program sponsors were women who happen to have significant expertise in investment planning, budget and finance. I think this says a lot about the ultimate goal of the program for MTA: to realize efficiencies and achieve that optimal balance of CAPEX and OPEX when making decisions regarding investments to maintain our asset base in a state of good repair throughout its lifecycle.
This is a true reflection of the many ways diversity is very much at play at MTA, not only in asset management, but across all aspects of the business.
Q: What can other organizations learn from encouraging diversity in their asset management journeys?
Encouraging diversity as part of our asset management journey has, so far, enabled better integration of uniquely different perspectives into a common goal that aligns us both strategically and tactically across our organizations. Diversity allows us to transcend the traditional asset management mind-set of reliability engineering and maintenance to become all-inclusive of every discipline in our agency.
It is through our organizational efforts to encourage diversity at MTA B&T that we have been able to bring everyone together to envision an enterprise approach in managing our assets. We are most proud of our vision statement for asset management, which simply states: “Every Crossing Counts.” These three simple words succinctly capture our mission statement of providing efficient, safe and reliable service to our customers and generating surplus revenues to subsidize mass transit operations.
We use the vision to inspire and help our employees understand that while we may view the world through different lenses, each and every one of us at MTA B&T has a role in making “every crossing count” for ourselves, our customers, the MTA family and the New York region. We keep New York moving by making every crossing count!
Q: What are the barriers to diversity and how can we overcome them?
One of the barriers in achieving diversity is the lack of good communication within teams and workgroups, as well as between management and staff. This can be a substantial challenge when there is a high variance in employee backgrounds, especially if differing predispositions and cultures exist because they often result in different forms of expression that are easily misunderstood if communication channels are not open. Really effective communication establishes trust and rapport, helps you to act on risks and opportunities, and promotes productivity and alignment. To improve communication, leaders must lead by example and demonstrate empathy and mutual respect.
Resistance to change is another barrier that is slightly different as it pertains more to the momentum of an organization’s culture. Diversity affects organizational norms by creating the need for flexibility and evolution toward a broader culture—a need that is sometimes met with resistance. Resistance builds a wall around a group and creates silos that promote less communication and further isolation. To overcome resistance, you must be able to answer the question often asked by resisters to change: “What’s in it for me?” Then, proceed with implementing a planned approach to change in a way that allows people to understand and realize the social, environmental and financial benefits desired from the change, as well as their own personal benefit.
Q: Can you give an example of diversity in action?
One of the goals of MTA B&T’s EAM program is to establish a reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) community of practice, with a focus on embedding the principles of asset management and reliability within the culture and mind-set of the organization. EAM implementation requires participation from all disciplines. However, most of the technical expertise required for asset management lies in the areas of engineering, maintenance and operations. In order to provide opportunities and encourage women in these departments and throughout the agency to participate in the EAM program implementation, MTA B&T established a formal outreach effort to recruit interested staff to join the Women in Reliability and Asset Management (WIRAM) community to increase participation of females from all disciplines across the organization. As participation increases, we expect to see more application of EAM knowledge and principles into daily routines and projects.
Q: Where do you see women in reliability and asset management in 5-10 years?
EAM is cross functional, multidisciplinary and, essentially, a diverse arena where anyone and everyone with the interest and desire can find a calling for themselves personally and professionally. As more women enter into professions in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math, I think there will be more opportunities for exposure to and engagement in reliability engineering, maintenance and EAM. I am particularly encouraged as I am seeing younger generations entering our workforce (a lot of them are young women) with open minds and a thirst to learn many different things beyond their areas of expertise. EAM thrives in this type of mind-set.
My goal as the sponsor for EAM is to build a community of practice, not just for WIRAM, but for asset management in general. In our agency, we have begun to expose all of our new employees to the principles of asset management and reliability as part of their orientation process. Also, we were able to build momentum for our program when we implemented ORT at all of our crossings within one year and we are beginning to experience positive outcomes from using EAM principles to support our ORT implementation efforts. Many women at MTA B&T participated in this important initiative and as they continue to practice EAM principles and share/transfer their knowledge and experience to the next generation of asset managers, I am confident we will see an increasing level of participation among women, as well as better proficiency and higher maturity for EAM, not only at MTA, but in the industry as a whole.
Q: Can change management play a role in encouraging women in reliability and asset management?
Absolutely! Change management is key to successful implementation of anything new, innovative and transformational, like our EAM program. MTA’s change management team seeks to facilitate a change in behavior by providing employees with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and desire necessary to embrace the principles of asset management and their eventual application in their daily routine. Training programs are available on this subject and there are regular communication channels where EAM news is shared across the MTA family on a regular basis.
I was encouraged to join WIRAM by a number of women across MTA who have experienced the benefits of this special community of practice and learning environment. As the EAM program sponsor for MTA B&T, I am also the first woman to join from my agency and have found it rewarding to participate and share ideas and knowledge with women around the world who share the same passion as I do for enterprise asset management. I have since begun to recruit my sister EAM practitioners in my agency to join this movement. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the WIRAM family.
Q: What is your advice for young engineers hoping to pursue this career?
This is an interesting question since I am not an engineer myself. But, my advice for the young engineer or anyone who has aspirations to pursue an asset management career is to remember that asset management is much more than engineering, reliability, maintenance, or systems. It takes a special mind-set to be a good asset management professional. You must rise above your own perspective and have an interest in listening, understanding and considering all different points of view and how they contribute, add value, integrate and connect to achieve holistic outcomes.
The real value of asset management is realized in properly integrating and coordinating diverse sets of activities across the organization to achieve maximum performance, efficiency and alignment of the operating environment with corporate goals and objectives. This means not only being comfortable in dealing with a range of uniquely different disciplines, but also helping people across the organization understand and value the contributions from all perspectives and mind-sets beyond their own. I don’t think there is any college major or curriculum that teaches students how to achieve this mind-set, as it is learned primarily through exposure to the diversity of thought out there, coupled with a personal commitment to embrace an enterprise asset management philosophy.
My personal mantra is: “Let events unfold and embrace the possibilities.” EAM is a discipline geared toward building a solid foundation, then allowing the principles to take root and blossom, enabling those who have the desire to seize the opportunities for improvement to proceed on the path of continuous improvement and best practices.
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