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Thinking outside the box

Rail - Tube maintenance

The productivity of Tube track renewals specialist Trackforce is going through the roof. Judith Cruickshank finds out how.

Working conditions are tough for Trackforce, the track renewals arm of Tube maintenance contractor Metronet.

Its 300 operations staff have limited time to carry out their work - as little as three hours when the system is closed for the night - and much of it takes place in the narrow tunnels of London Underground's deepest lines.

But that can be no excuse for underperforming, especially when missed targets hit pockets hard.

It was Rod Hoare, then chairman of Metronet, who suggested calling in consultant Boxwood. Hoare's experience of the company dated from the Heathrow Express tunnel collapse when Boxwood founder Simon Clothier had been part of the team helping to get the project back on track.

But how would men on the ground react to a bunch of management consultants?

'Well, ' says Trackforce manager Hugh McAnaw, 'for a start, we mostly saw them wearing overalls.' The first step in the Process7 methodology is called Discovery, where Boxwood's consultants observe how people carry out their tasks (see box). In Trackforce's case this meant watching the gangs at work in the tunnels from the beginning to end of their shift over several shifts in different locations.

As well as observing, the Boxwood team talked to members of the renewal gangs, who had practical suggestions as to how productivity might be improved. In many cases the idea had been around for some time, but 'they'd never been asked', says Boxwood development director Tom Jamieson.

'Crews are generally very forthcoming and a huge mine of information', he adds.

Following the observation period, Boxwood was quick to make recommendations for change. Working out the practicalities of the proposed changes took a little longer, as did convincing middle management to buy in to them.

'This is not unusual, ' says Jamieson. 'But real active consensus throughout the organisation is fundamental to success. The people at the top must really want it to happen. They have to push the work of the project team, encourage and promote it.'

The actions proposed ranged from the simple - like putting lights on helmets - through technical - such as reducing the number of steps in an operation - to managerial - setting up a new planning and reporting system for example.

The total effect was a dramatic increase in productivity.

Sleeper replacement rate on one project shot up from an average of three and a half a night to 10.

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