Sorting out sewage

Two men of different ethnicities dressed in dinner suits and bow ties: one receiving an award from the other
Simon Cyhanko receives his CMI Chartered Manager of the Year 2021 award from Teddy Nyahasha

A Lancaster University graduate has been named Chartered Manager of the Year by the Chartered Management Institute for his success in reducing sewage flooding in the North-East.

Simon Cyhanko discovered a fascination with water and sewage when studying for a degree in Environmental Management at Lancaster University.

“I studied a lot of water related modules with Nick Chappell, which inspired me and triggered my interest in water. I was fascinated by the infrastructure and what is involved in producing drinking water from the environment, treating it and returning it to the environment.”

A couple of field trips to treatment works confirmed his interest. “There were some older guys who used to work for United Utilities showing us around. I was mesmerized.”

Two decades later Simon is Head of Wastewater Networks at Northumbrian Water responsible for safely transporting and treating the sewage from 2.7 million people. His “outstanding” work on reducing sewage overflows – when blockages cause sewage to flood out through manholes, toilets and shower trays – has won him recognition by the Chartered Management Institute, as Chartered Manager of the Year 2021.

Simon knew he wanted to work in the water sector when he left Lancaster, having achieved the top degree in his subject in his year and having completed a masters in European Environmental Policy and Regulation. He got a job on the graduate training scheme at Northumbrian Water, and his dream soon came true when he was seconded to a water treatment works.

“It maybe lost a little bit of the romance when I was doing a proper job, which was intense and detailed.”

After finishing his training, Simon stayed on at Northumbrian Water, soon realising he wanted to “develop as a leader as opposed to technical specialist”. He spent time in a variety of leadership roles including managing three water treatment works and then moving to the waste treatment side of the business – “taking sewage from people’s homes and trying to get it to treatment works without any problems.”

He also did another degree, a BA in Leadership and Management through Newcastle Business School, which gave theoretical underpinning to his day job.

It was a company restructure and the risk of redundancy that led Simon to apply for his present position as Head of Wastewater Networks

At the time, Northumbrian Water had room to improve its sewer flooding performance and Simon was offered the job with the priority clearly being the need to improve sewer flooding.

“Sewer flooding is bad for customers, bad for the company’s reputation and a real financial risk – essentially companies get big fines for bad performance.

“The good news is that after about 18 months and one full regulatory year, we have improved our performance by 50% for sewer flooding inside the home, 20% for external sewer flooding and 75% for repeat flooding.”

How did he turn it around so quickly?

“The main problem was that we did not have a clear plan that was supported across the business to get from where we were to where we wanted to get.”

Simon and his team developed a plan, identifying seven issues that, if tackled, would see fast and dramatic improvements.

“We needed to stop customers flushing wet wipes down the toilet - a lot of blockages were caused by customer behaviour. We didn’t have the right scale of investment programme of inspecting and maintaining sewers. We didn’t have a culture of responding to sewer flooding as a blue light, emergency incident.”

Simon and team worked hard to get the resources – funding and staff - and to change attitudes within the business to the problem. “You need the relationships and the ability to bring people together to develop a tactical plan.

“You need influence and persistence, almost relentless persistence. As the leader, I kept talking about it, showing teams I was committed to getting resources, making sure the drumbeat was in place saying, ‘this is important’.

“People started to talk about sewer flooding every day, why is that customer flooding, what are the reasons, what do we need to do about it? We started to create a zero-tolerance culture around sewer flooding.”

As the end of another regulatory year approaches, there has been a sustained improvement in internal and repeat sewage flooding – putting Northumbria Water in the top half of performers - and another reduction in sewer flooding outside – by 15%.

“With external sewer flooding, we are still in the bottom half, however the gap is significantly less than it was in the past. The challenge for us next year is how do we take the next chunk off.”

Simon is delighted to have been named Chartered Manager of the Year for his work on sewer flooding: “It’s a nice acknowledgement, that you’ve done a good job – to pitch yourself against the best of what wider business has to offer.”

As for the future – “I need to do a bit more with sewer flooding. One of things I do want to do in spirit of personal development, is to make the most of the opportunities the award allows, speaking at and attending events, having conversations, using the opportunity to become more effective at what I do and improve my network.”

Simon recognises that his time at Lancaster University, as well as triggering his interest in the water industry, helped shaped his desire to achieve.

“It reinforced and fostered my desire to stretch myself, to be the best. Good lecturers like Nick Chappell and Nigel Watson invested time in me and helped me get to where I want to be. I was top of my degree group, then I wanted to be best manager, and now have had the recognition of being the best chartered manager in the country.”

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