Saturday, 20 August 2011

Time for Lean Thinking on the Railway

The long-awaited and then much-derided McNulty review on value for money for rail, finally published in June 2011, showed that Network Rail is 30 to 50% less efficient in terms of maintenance and renewals expenditure than comparable European railways.  It quoted the recent HS2 study that found that civil engineering costs in the UK were typically up to double those in Europe.  It also said that franchising of trains in countries like Germany and Sweden was reported to have given cost reductions of between 20 to 40%, while train operating costs in Great Britain are still above their levels of 1996-7.

McNulty does not paint a pretty picture but neither does he offer any realistic solutions.  His ideas ideas for "improvement" involve more bureaucracy and more committees, mostly without any central direction. This just amounts to "more of the same" for the beleaguered railway industry when more of anything is hardly what we want. So, now it's time to look for new and effective solutions.  One such could lie in the approach offered by lean thinking.

Lean Thinking

Lean thinking is a new way of approaching how work is done throughout an organisation's project delivery process, with the principal aim of maximising value and minimising waste. It crosses traditional boundaries in the client-contractor relationship by eliminating wasteful practices like confrontational, zero-sum contracts, loading prices at every level with contingency and traditional "fastest is best" programme management.  Instead, gain-share contracting is adopted, flow control of feasibility, design, construction and commissioning is applied, whole project programming is enabled, business objectives are agreed and shared by all the stakeholders and client-contractors' relationships are positively engaged at all levels of the project to get to the jointly agreed targets.

To develop these processes in industry, a new organisation, the Centre for Lean Projects (CLP), has been set up at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) to develop the lean approach across the engineering and construction industry. "CLP@NTU" - which aims to provide firms with a range of personal, team and organisational learning to help develop new ways of thinking and working - is being spearheaded by Christine Pasquire, Professor of Lean Project Management in Nottingham Trent University's School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment.

The centre will run events, workshops and seminars for networking and dissemination of research; continuing professional development and short courses; and industry-based action learning projects. It is developing an international team of doctoral researchers working on industry level research around lean project production. The Centre will also carry out blue sky and exploratory research including research into commercial arrangements supporting lean project production, integrated project design and production processes, the management of complex or multiple projects, or making the cultural shift to 'lean' in project-based organisations.

Professor Pasquire said: "The Centre for Lean Projects enables the exchange of learning from practice to research and back again, promoting a continuous improvement spiral. Lean is about continually improving what we do by engaging with people to take charge of their own work and make it more efficient. This is crucially important at a time when the government is calling for efficiency savings."

Professor Pasquire added: "The close involvement of a wide variety of organisations provides the opportunity to learn on the job and means that students and researchers are continually exposed to the realities of the workface and the demands of teams, projects and organisations. This enables us to find answers to real world problems and issues and helps our customers to become learning organisations. We can develop the capability to deal with problems within the organisation, to be creative in the way they work and the way they behave." As well as representatives from academic Schools across Nottingham Trent University, the CLP is made up of researchers and partners from both industry and academia.

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