When the pressure is on to maintain and improve an increasingly busy network, obtaining a truly evidence-based view of operational reality can reduce both risks and costs while increasing productivity. NEIL SINGH explains the concept of operational excellence

The future of rail is all about high speed. On one hand it’s about getting people and freight from one place to another in as short a time as possible, as reliably as possible. On the other, it’s a highly digital operation that demands data packets and information in real time.

Whether it’s encouraging greater use of mobile devices to book travel arrangements, or deploying traffic management systems to visualise the movements of individual trains, high-speed information access is a key feature of the railway of the future. It’s also a highly necessary one: if rail is to become Europe’s preferred method of transport, efficient use of resources, optimised network capacity and targeted customer services are essential.

But for infrastructure managers, the challenge is slightly different. More rail traffic means more wear and tear; more demand on services inevitably means greater pressure on work execution. They will need to do more, but crucially, they will need to perform these tasks in much less time. And when people are under more time pressure and things are moving faster, it creates fertile ground for mistakes that can lead to significant safety events – all in an industry beset by high risk operations, public scrutiny and political pressures.

The future now
Of course, for many infrastructure managers caught between operational demands and boardroom ambition, this isn’t just a vision of the future – it’s the lived experience of today. These challenges are familiar and current, but will only become amplified and exacerbated as the high-speed digital future gets closer.

And so it’s not surprising that the idea of operational excellence (OE) is slowly gaining purchase within the rail industry. At events and meetings of infrastructure, maintenance or operations managers, OE bubbles up in conversations. Its promise to break down functional and information silos and give everyone in the organisation a big-picture view of the network and its fixed and moving assets is increasingly appealing. In these conversations, it is recognised that the ability to look at planning in a different way is a key advantage of OE – and one that is necessary for delivering the future rail vision.

The problem occurs when those conversations attempt to formalise what is meant by OE. As a concept, it lends itself to a number of interpretations: where one company might refer to OE solely in the context of their customer service improvement programme, others take a more engineering or maintenance-focused view. Without a universal definition, the conversations about OE that start so promisingly, often hit the buffers.

Where the need for OE has been recognised, it has often been implemented piecemeal: for example, a project to deliver end-to-end asset management, a programme implemented within the maintenance department to improve infrastructure health, or an initiative to improve safety performance, or the implementation of in-cab signalling.

However, these individual programmes can create internal tensions, which in turn, distort outcomes as they compete for resources, attention, and priority. So OE is ideally seen as a more holistic programme that delivers transformational changes across the enterprise.

A hazardous challenge
OE isn’t just a concern for rail. It is also being discussed in other hazardous industries that also have to manage the tension between increasing productivity and maintaining exemplary safety standards. These conversations are coalescing around a useful definition of OE that applies equally to the rail industry.

That definition is: ‘OE is the pursuit of world-class performance that requires everyone, from the boardroom to the frontline, to consistently make the most effective operational decisions, based on an integrated view of operational reality, based on risk, cost and productivity.’

If we break this down, we can start to see the value on offer to rail operators. First of all, implicit in this definition is the idea that OE turns best practice into common practice so that doing the right thing at the right time is embedded in the organisational workflow – and in its culture. Second, it shows that everyone in the organisation has a role to play in delivering OE – this isn’t just a management-led trend that fades away before it comes into contact with daily operations.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it enables decisions to be made that balance the cost and productivity dynamic with risk to passengers, employees and infrastructure. Most businesses are familiar with achieving efficiency by balancing cost and productivity – it might involve difficult decisions, but conceptually at least it is relatively straightforward. But adding operational risk to that equation is a whole new dimension to consider. It is a challenging one, but with new insight, presents good business value.

For example, maximising the use of available track possessions by maintenance teams is essential to the reliability of the railway and therefore to customer safety. But once procedures that enable safe work are taken into account, the maintenance window can be significantly reduced. The pressure is on to accomplish a given task but the time available is less than first planned. There are only negative outcomes from this situation: either passenger and employee safety is compromised, or maintenance delayed, trains held up and the customer experience damaged.

However, evidence-based, optimised early planning allows managers to maximise the work that can be safely accomplished and make better use of valuable track possessions. That planning is enabled by the ‘integrated view of operational reality’ of the above definition, which can be delivered by technology and supporting processes that give operatives the most accurate, real-time, bigpicture view of the network – and which enable them to make the best possible decisions regarding interventions.

The synchronised enterprise
This is not just a breakdown of silos within the operations, maintenance and renewals department, but a crossfunctional view of the entire organisation, in which information for the various departments is presented contextually, helping to drive the right decisions in a synchronised way.

A rail network is a complex ecosystem. There are multiple assets to take into account, and their behaviour is often dependent on location, time of day, freight and passenger composition, and external factors like weather. Mapping all of these variables, and allowing for unpredictable and unpredicted events is no small task. High-speed simply makes it harder: increasing the consequences of getting it wrong, enhancing the rewards of getting it right. One of the advantages of an organisation that has achieved OE is that it can capture knowledge and experience of these assets, so that best practice is quantifiable, repeatable, and continually improved.

In the above maintenance example, the ability to create stable and realistic maintenance plans followed by carefully controlled and assured project implementation results in reduced costs overall. The stability and transparency ensures that frontline staff remain informed and empowered to make the best possible decisions weeks ahead in the planning process, or on the day as events unfold. And the informed organisation ensures investments are directed most effectively.

When the industry does talk about OE, it is often in conjunction with the increased demands of the highspeed, digital future. And there’s no doubt that the digital enterprise will require the cross-functional, co-ordinated and synchronised performance to deliver its goals. But the benefits of OE are also there for organisations at the ‘maintain’ stage in their development, when the focus is continuing with current operations, but in a better, safer, lower-cost way. Equally, organisations that are at the ‘expand’ stage and whose focus is on big infrastructure rather than digital projects also benefit from OE and the ability to view their plans through a lenses of space, time and risk.

Whatever form the present is in – and whatever plans the organisation has for the future – an OE programme will reduce risks and costs while increasing productivity. Not just as a short-lived initiative, but as everyday routine.

programme manager, Petrotechnics