The Occupational Psychology Centre (OPC) shares some of the positive benefits Non-Technical Skills (NTS) has had for rail organisations

Non-Technical Skills (NTS) originated in the aviation industry through the use of Crew Resource Management (CRM) training which was ‘a system into making the most of all available resources, processes and personnel to promote the safety and enhance efficiency of flight deck operations’ (CAA 2006). The related term Non-Technical Skills (NTS) is now used in several safety-critical industries and has been defined as ‘the cognitive, social and personal resource skills that complement technical skills, and contribute to safe and efficient task performance’ (Flin,O’Connor & Crichton, 2008, p1).

In 2012 the Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) published some key work research that identified 26 NTS for train drivers (Based on research published by the RSSB 2012 ‘Research Programme. Operations and Management. Non-technical skills for rail: A list of skills and behavioural markers for drivers, with guidance notes.’ Copyright RSSB 2012). These NTS were grouped under seven headings including, but not limited to Situational Awareness, Communication and Workload Management. NTS aren’t new, we could say that they are best practice skills that our really high-performing employees use in their day-to-day roles to achieve excellence.

So how do NTS differ from technical skills? They are intrinsic to an individual and they are the inputs that enable us to deliver the technical skills of a job. Fundamentally, they underpin the technical skills and help deliver the job to a more effective and a safer level. For example, a train driver can learn how to initiate the train’s brakes, and judge the speed and distance to stop at a station. However, if the weather conditions are adverse, the NTS of ‘Anticipating Risk’ comes into play to undertake this task more effectively and safely. Both technical skills and NTS have the potential to be taught and improved upon.

As an industry we are very good at identifying the technical skills required for a role, assessing for them and developing them. Very often, a NTS gap may be the underlying ‘root cause’ of a safety incident, rather than a technical skill gap. Once a NTS gap is identified in an employee then there is potential, through development, to lessen the gap and help improve safety performance.

Why are NTS so important to rail organisations?

Safety, safety and being safer still! In view of the rail industry’s continued focus on safety and seeking out safety improvements, utilising NTS is at the heart of understanding poor safety performance.

Dr Stephen Fletcher emphasises ‘Using Non-Technical Skills gives us the potential to ‘smart target’ in what can sometimes be an overwhelming task. They help improve an individual’s safety performance and by default, an organisation’s. The OPC has found that exploring and applying NTS helps reduce safety incidents and we believe they are the next, right step on the safety performance journey’

What are the most important NTS to train driving?

As categorised by the RSSB, there are 26 NTS grouped into seven categories of Situational Awareness, Self-management, Communication, Decision-making, Workload Management, Conscientiousness and Cooperation and Team Working.

To understand what the most important Non-Technical Skills are, OPC psychologists asked 81 train driver experts (driver managers, trainers and instructors) from four leading UK train operators including both commuter and long-distance routes to rate the importance of the twenty-six NTS to train driving. We analysed the data and ranked the NTS in order of importance to safe train driving. They identified the top six NTS as follows:

Depending on individual TOCs the NTS they see as being the most important to focus on may vary i.e. freight driving may (or may not) require a different set of NTS to a commuter passenger train driver, or a long-distance driver or an on-track machine driver. There may be some different emphasis or lots of overlap depending on the individual business priorities, the driver function, traction and the employee themselves. So, one size may not always fit all.

The 26 NTS are not all separate and exclusive – they will overlap with each other, e.g. ‘Checking’ and ‘Attention to Detail’ are similar. Using one NTS may counter the effects of not using another e.g. ‘Checking’ could counter the effects of poor performance on the NTS of ‘Maintaining Concentration’. Some driver managers or driver instructors/mentors may have a preference for, or relate better to, particular NTS compared to others. The most relevant NTS may vary from driver to driver and their relative safety performance. However, the more NTS we have in action in our driver teams, the more likely we are to improve overall safety performance across the industry.

A compelling case study on the effectiveness of Non-Technical Skills

Are there tools that can help predict a train driver at risk of a safety incident? Yes, the OPC has done some ground-breaking work using past intelligence to help identify a driver’s future safety and job performance.

Working alongside a UK national train operator and 3Squared Assessment Software Consultancy, the OPC collected data on over 230 train drivers about their selection, training and driving performance between early 2014 to March 2015. In particular, we collected their NTS performance as assessed by their manager. Two years later we revisited the train operator to find out how many safety incidents there had been across all 230 drivers. The aim was to uncover if there was a strong statistical link between a train driver’s past competence, safety performance and in particular their Non-Technical Skills on the one hand, and his/her subsequent safety performance on the other. OPC psychologists undertook extensive analysis using rigorous statistical techniques to look at this data and segment it.

In June 2018, using the data for the same 230 drivers, OPC psychologists categorised each driver’s NTS ratings from 2014/2015 into groups A to D, with A being ‘well above average’ to D being ‘well below average’. We reviewed the percentage of drivers who then had safety incidents after 2015 and correlated these with their NTS ratings collected back in 2014/2015.

When we looked at their NTS, those drivers who were in the A and B categorisation for the eleven best NTS predictors had significantly less safety incidents than the baseline average of 55 per cent for the total group. In the case of drivers categorised as ‘A’, they had eleven per cent less incidents than the baseline. In contrast, those drivers categorised as ‘D’ with the lowest NTS ratings had 14 per cent more incidents than the baseline.

The client that we completed the work with was delighted with the results. All their drivers have undertaken NTS training. This key data can help build confidence across our industry as to the important role that NTS play in potentially reducing safety incidents.

Incorporating NTS into the employee lifecycle to gain maximum benefit

Using this kind of intelligence data with drivers is powerful stuff. It can do more than just help rail companies improve their safety performance. It could also save time investigating safety incidents, have a positive impact on the bottom line, as well as improve employee wellbeing. However, if NTS is to be given the best chance of working it needs to permeate throughout the whole employee lifecycle from initial recruitment through to incident investigation if an employee has a safety of the line incident. When we utilise NTS within a Post Incident Assessment (PIA) framework we may see what NTS were lacking. We can then help a driver to improve and enhance those NTS that were lacking and so help to avoid future safety incidents.

Having a continuous NTS programme from executive directors down to front line roles will help fix NTS into the organisation’s processes and so give NTS the best opportunity of improving our safety performance. Since 2010, the OPC has implemented NTS training with hundreds of safety critical personnel including drivers, driver managers, safety personnel, track workers and signallers. Delegate’s feedback has been very positive, rating courses e.g. ‘Top Notch’ and ‘110 per cent job relevant’. Over a thousand drivers from a leading UK train operator attended a one-day NTS workshop and 89 per cent of the drivers said the NTS workshop really worked for them.

As a final reflection, Dr Stephen Fletcher urged ‘If NTS are harnessed correctly and consistently then they have the potential to have a real and lasting impact on our industry and help us reduce safety incidents still further. At the OPC we have witnessed first-hand the positive impact NTS can have on an organisation’s safety performance. We have also seen the impact NTS interventions can have at an individual level too, when we’ve worked with rail employees who have had safety of the line incidents. Some have reported life changing affects in both their work and personal lives. This positive feedback spurs us on still further to shout about the positive impact NTS can have’.

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