Enhancing performance: Set up, transition and relax

Chris Anstead

Head of Capital Programme Transformation

Let me try a theory on you. The infrastructure leaders of the future should not be defined by their ability to ruffle feathers, to be bombastic in a boardroom, or to weigh into debates as chief trouble-shooter.

Rather, the dream project chief is one who sets up a major programme for success. Their principle mission is to create the right environment for other people and other organisations to succeed, for the benefit of the whole programme.

In a nutshell, this is my case for the less eventful – or shall we say capable – infrastructure leader.

The case for change

30% said more investment in the strategy and set-up phase would enhance the performance of the industry, in the UK this increases to 48%.

We can see that our current model of charismatic, interventionist leadership doesn’t always deliver the goods. According to our survey, 85 percent of UK infrastructure professionals believe that there is pressure to improve the productivity and efficiency of the programmes they are working on. Yet this doesn’t translate into good performance: only 13 percent believe that the KPI’s set during the programmes formation were actually achieved.

Globally, respondents estimate that more than a quarter of the value of major programmes is lost through poor performance – approximately US$400 billion. Why is this the case? Among UK professionals, 71 percent agreed that insufficient time spent at the beginning in planning stages was responsible for poor performance. This sits ahead of poor communication of decisions and change – 53 percent – and a lack of clarity on the approach and vision – 38 percent. In summary, our leaders are failing to set up the environment for programmes to succeed.

In a more personal example, some years ago I arrived at a client site for a programme strategy meeting only to be told that the chief executive was unable join because they were in a meeting about piling. I am not sensitive about being blown out, but barring a serious pilling crisis, when a senior executive is prioritising granular project issues over programme strategy, surely something has gone wrong.

Instead, the capable leader needs to focus on creating the right programme environment and setting up for success.

Looking a step ahead

Investing more time in the planning and set up of major programmes is important. It is then about evolving the environment and leadership approach as a programme inevitably transitions through phases.

A major focus of this period should be on preparing the organisation for the transitions it will need to make during the programme and beyond.”

Take Heathrow Expansion as an example. The principal function of Heathrow’s programme team to date has been to effectively engage stakeholders to obtain support. Now, with Government approval for expansion, it is becoming a DCO focused organisation. In the future, it will become an organisation that is focused on delivery readiness, then construction, and finally merging with the operating business. The style of leadership will need to flex through these phases as will the capability of the team.

In the future, it will become an organisation focused on procurement, then construction and delivery, and finally merging with the operating business.

In setting up such a major programme, clients need to ask what type of organisation they need to be and when. At each stage, what does a client need from its corporate functions to deliver? What does it need from the supply chain? Is it ready to double or triple its headcount and when is the right time?

The answers to these questions should be defined in the target operating model. The role of the leadership is to ensure the organisation is continually working towards that model – ensuring the right capabilities, in the right places as we transition as seamlessly as possible between every stage.

Getting the target operating model right involves making clear organisational decisions and following them through. Will you be a thin client organisation with a thick supply chain or vice versa? Recruitment and procurement needs to follow so there’s minimal overlap, conflict and wasted cost.

As well as getting the organisational design right, success relies on early engagement with supply chain partners (programmes like Heathrow have started actively talking to the market some five years from construction). It’s not only the client organisation that needs to plan for big transitions, but the supply chain too.

Building from a digital base

There are many other important decisions that we must get right during programme set up. But to see meaningful change in our industry, data and technology must be early considerations.

A digital-centric approach cannot be easily retrofitted into a programme. It needs to be there from the outset.

The full application of BIM, for example, with the opportunity to create a digital twin asset for an infrastructure project, is a decision that must be made early. It requires commitment from all parties in terms of technology systems, working methods and reporting so that the digital twin is built in parallel with the physical asset.

But the value of the digital twin may only be truly realised at completion or during operation and future maintenance and planned investment. Moreover, new infrastructure is very often required to integrate with much older existing assets for which there are unlikely to be digital records.

It requires a client with long-term vision to appreciate the case for investment at the outset and to adopt the right digital strategy. But it’s important that they do this during set up, because the later you decide to ‘go digital’, the greater the costs and the challenges will be.

This is true for most aspects of a client’s data and technology strategy, from data collection, analysis and reporting, to the adoption of modern methods of construction, component-led design and off-site manufacture. Taking decisions during set up means that they can shape the whole programme and their full benefits can be realised across the whole life of the asset.

Set up and sit back (but don’t get too relaxed)

The hero mentality of some of our sector leaders – one which encourages us to dive in, disrupt, and get down into the detail of the project – needs a little modification.

We certainly need leaders who can deal with a crisis and who understand the challenges at the coal face. But it’s also critically important that they can set up their organisation for change and transition, delegate appropriately, and make informed decisions early on about how we will deliver, operate and maintain an asset in the distant future.”

The more attention and care that can be put into the planning and set up of major programmes, the easier life should be during delivery and beyond. It’s not quite a case of sit back and relax, but we can do more to create an environment where it’s easier for all parties to perform at their best.

This article is part of 'Enhancing the performance of infrastructure programmes'

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