How to embed trust and control in major capital programmes

27 August 2015

In late June 2015, Network Rail – the authority responsible for the United Kingdom's railway network – announced it would be unable to deliver all the planned improvements to the network. It added that the £38.5bn upgrade plan, which was launched in 2014 as the "largest modernisation of the railways since Victorian times", was too ambitious.

There was an inevitable media firestorm. The top management of Network Rail got a kicking from the press. But I feel Network Rail was more ‘sinned against than sinning’.

Why? Well, one aspect of the story that the press coverage conveniently overlooked was the enormous complexity of delivering major infrastructure programmes – in this case involving billions of pounds of public money, and under the full glare of public and political scrutiny – while simultaneously running a live railway network. Throw in the need to overlay infrastructure dating back to Victorian age with modern electrification technology, and it’s not a job many people would envy.  It’s difficult to do and the team ran into problems.  Should it not be surprised?

But there’s a deeper point here. If you look back to the start of the 2010 parliament, you may recall that one of the new coalition government’s proudest achievements was to eliminate the Ministry of Defence’s so-called ‘bow wave’: its list of unfunded programme commitments. Removing the bow wave meant budgets were actually in place for the things the MoD had committed to buy.

You might think this should always be the case. And applying the same principle to the recent media blitz on Network Rail and the Department for Transport, you have to ask: what’s worse? Plans being put in place, and even into effect, without the resources and budgets in place to deliver them? Or someone calling for a reset, so that the expectations of everyone involved – passengers, taxpayers, the supply chain, train operators, parliamentarians – are actually aligned with the reality of what can be delivered with available capacity?

So, while the announcement of delays to the improvement plans made for painful reading, you could argue it was a laudably responsible act, both by the DfT as the sponsor and Network Rail as the delivery body. Put simply, it was the right thing to do in the circumstances – and avoided far worse problems down the line.

Whatever the specific rights and wrongs, the whole episode provids a salutary reminder that delivering complex programmes requires not just sufficient budgets and technical capabilities, but also a whole swathe of programme management skills – together with information that can be trusted. Only by combining all these components can a delivery organisation make the right decisions, manage its risks effectively, and deliver what it’s promised.

Achieving this boils down to two interrelated attributes: trust and control. In my view any major programme – whether tangible, like transport infrastructure, or intangible, such as a bank’s compliance systems – will fail without both of these two pillars in place.

Let’s look at trust first. Building trust in a programme is about having the courage to be honest about what can be delivered, and when. Sometimes this means disappointing people’s expectations and taking flak: but it’s the kind of transparency and openness that we hope to get from people in leadership positions.

But, you can’t build trust in a large, complex programme without control. And this requires clear oversight of – and confidence in – not only the people responsible for delivery on the ground, but also the underlying facts, founded on comprehensive, trustworthy and integrated information. Only when armed with such information can the programme leadership take the right decisions.

However, this is an area where problems often arise. Not unlike our transport systems, much of the decision-making infrastructure used to run UK programmes is a legacy of the past. The result is project information that may be poorly integrated, fragmented and even partial – which in practice can come to the same thing as being unreliable.

What’s needed is a solution that provide programme managers with information that’s both accurate and integrated, enabling decision-making that takes account not just of individual facts but also of the interdependencies between them. And given the sheer number of workstreams and interrelations in today’s major programmes, it’s important that the solution takes a portfolio approach to projects, blending a high-level view with insight at the individual project level.

Although there is a wider point here, as the successful delivery of any major programme in any business comes down to managing three critical dimensions: cost, risk and time. We have developed an approach called Mission Control to help our clients deliver major programme successes, in industries ranging from public infrastructure to financial services. We believe it’s the future of complex programme management which any organisation could benefit from.

David Van Oss | Partner, Consulting
Email | +44 (0)20 7213 5528


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