Britain’s railways are experiencing the fastest growth in Europe. That growth has brought with it a raft of unprecedented challenges, including the delivery of £2.5-£3.5 billion of savings, investment to reduce overcrowding, and improvement of customer satisfaction, safety, timetable reliability, asset optimisation and service connectivity. These challenges create change and uncertainty at a time when senior leaders have low confidence in their teams, in a sector where innovation has been low and underinvestment has been the norm.

For 15 months, Thales Learning & Development (TLD) worked with a major industry body to develop the necessary awareness and skills to respond to these challenges. Central to the research was the use of VIEW – An Assessment in Problem Solving Style™ – a questionnaire designed to help people effectively and efficiently solve problems. VIEW™ is based on 25 years of research and development in the field, and highlights specific actions that support effective collaboration and resolution of complex problems. It does this by exploring particular problem-solving style characteristics and preferences.

The work TLD has done has helped identify the ‘golden keys’ that release their potential to unlock the TotalVALUE challenge.

What is the TotalVALUE challenge?

The British rail industry faces a significant challenge – to deliver more for less, creating an infrastructure fit for the future and a rail system that works. There are a number of essential principles and issues that need to be adopted in order to deliver against that challenge, incorporating multiple fields of research and practice, whole systems engineering, innovation and creativity.

The TotalVALUE challenge looks at overcoming these hurdles, taking a deep look at the true nature of the problems – such as high technological and organisational complexity – and what strategies should be adopted in order to succeed. It is ultimately about creating lasting, positive change.

The term ‘golden keys,’ essentially refers to the way in which people work in groups to resolve complex problems. That premise is at the heart of what is required for successful delivery of TotalVALUE. Some of the problems are highly technical, some more people-centric in nature. But when it comes to large-scale, big-picture change, it is the incremental resolution of multiple ‘smaller’ – or specific – problems that achieves that. It is that cumulative effect that makes a lasting difference.

VIEW – an assessment in Problem Solving Style™

To support TLD’s work in helping the rail industry achieve the above, it utilised the VIEW questionnaire. The results revealed some profound insights into what strategies should be adopted in order to successfully overcome the challenges.

TotalVALUE is about creating the impetus and capability for railway organisations to adapt and change for the better – placing pressures on existing ways of working and dealing with complex problems. Using the VIEW tool also allowed TLD to identify a number of key issues that affect and, possibly, limit the rail sector’s ability to respond to the TotalVALUE challenge.

It also highlighted three dimensions against which to measure a person’s propensity to tackle the challenge. Those dimensions were their Orientation to Change™ – i.e. their perceived preference between two general styles for managing change and solving problems creatively; their Manner of Processing™ – i.e. their preference for either working externally (with other people) or internally (thinking and working alone before sharing ideas with others) – and their Ways of Deciding™ – i.e. the major emphasis they give to either people (maintaining harmony and interpersonal relationships) or tasks (emphasising logical, rational and appropriate decisions).

Each dimension directly influences the ways people perceive problems and information, make sense of the situation or data, come up with solutions, make choices and decisions, and prepare to implement those solutions. Research and practice shows that there is no one ‘right’ style. Rather, for situations where high levels of productivity are required, innovation and a blend between whole system and detailed technical approaches, and a combination of styles, leads to high performance. Because we often see difference as threatening, those with radically different styles may need support and insight to work effectively together to yield results. Teams with particular biases may unintentionally limit their performance, constrain their solutions and introduce unforeseen risks.

The findings

Measuring against the three dimensions – Orientation to Change™, Manner of Processing™, and Ways of Deciding™ – yielded some very interesting results; results that many who work in the industry may find they can relate to.

In terms of Orientation to Change™ for example, analysis revealed that senior leaders differ significantly in their approach from those responsible for day-to-day delivery of TotalVALUE. This difference helps explain why change and transformation efforts to support TotalVALUE are not as effective or efficient as they could be, and why reconfiguration often results in organisational tension and personal stress.

When it came to Manner of Processing™, the results highlighted a tendency towards External™ preference, suggesting a need for many workshops and meetings – perhaps with questionable value – as well as a lack of deeper reflection on problems and potential responses, and a preference towards action. When groups exhibit this collective behavior, it leads to sub-optimal solutions, reduces efficiency, increases cost of delivery and introduces product and process risk.

For Ways of Deciding™ there was a significant trend towards task-based decision-making, suggesting people tend to understand the way things work from the perspective of activities, tasks and transactions. It also suggests they may not see the significance of relationships, nor see people’s wants, needs and desires as of equal significance to the task. In this state, stakeholder understanding and engagement is often poor, and the finding of hidden or deeper needs is compromised. The result is often conflict and dispute, and whole-team engagement suffers.

Whole system approach

Based on the above findings, how should the railway industry move forward if it is to unlock the TotalVALUE challenge and achieve lasting change that will ultimately have a positive impact on the way the sector operates?

Based on the above findings, how should the railway industry move forward if it is to unlock the TotalVALUE challenge and achieve lasting change that will ultimately have a positive impact on the way the sector operates?

The ‘whole system approach’ incorporates six key principles, as outlined by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Those principles are: debate, define and pursue the purpose, think holistic, follow a disciplined procedure, be creative, take account of people, and manage the project and relationships. It is clear, therefore, that effective problem-solving, productivity and effectiveness is the result of a combined influence between the characteristics the people bring to the situation, the processes they work through and the significant influence of the context within which they work. It is through genuinely understanding those characteristics, processes and influences, and implementing the right type of lasting change based on that understanding, that the TotalVALUE challenge will be met.