Posted by & filed under MD Desk.

Probably being a bit slow off the mark I spent some time this week considering a couple of recent reports which are very relevant to the UK’s credentials in delivering infrastructure for the future……….

The first of these was published by the Budget and Performance Committee of the London Assembly under the title Transport for London’s Signal Failure.  The Exec Summary starts off with the rather depressing narrative ‘TfL’s Sub-Surface Upgrade Programme (SSUP) is running five years late and is forecast to cost £886 million more than originally planned. This is nothing short of a disaster for London.’  A great opening line just to get you in the mood…….

The report then goes on to explain why it is in the Automatic Train Control (ATC) system that has given rise to the majority of the time and cost problems which apparently arise out of the failure of a single contract between TfL and Bombardier.  From this point the report goes on to highlight some of the underlying causes which include:

  • Ineffective procurement – including selection being skewed to cost rather than quality criteria
  • A bad contract with payments being made according to the contractor’s expenditure rather than the progress achieved
  • Inadequate management capability on both client and contractor side
  • Ineffective assurance – both internally and through the Independent Investment Programme Advisory Group
  • Culture – a desire to put out good news stories rather than deal with the realities of the situation

I am highly sceptical that the delivery problems are down to one contract – although I have not carried out the review.  What is interesting though it that that a succession of reports carried out into project failures over the last 2 – 3 decades consistently say the same things.  This really is history repeating itself.   The reports make a series of recommendations, as this one does, about how the situation should be addressed – and then we seem to go back to business as usual.

If we already know where projects can go wrong, what is preventing us from taking some basic steps in making sure that they don’t?   From my perspective it is about the leadership of setting standards and then investing in the capability to deliver to them.  There is nothing particularly new in the findings or recommendations of this report – it is perhaps rather irritating that the lessons from the past have not been universally taken on board.   Obviously, no organisation sets out to fail – quite the reverse, but perhaps there are some forces operating which conspire to prevent best practice from emerging as a reality and a norm in some cases.

Such things as:

  • Traditionalism / resistance to change – many large bodies have self-preserving ways of doing things which may conspire to prevent improvements from being effectively implemented
  • Education gaps – perhaps the requirements of good project management and governance are still not well enough understood by those in authority
  • Culture – suppressing bad news until the last possible moment  is a natural tendency but conflicts directly with best practice  in project management which requires that issues are surfaced and dealt with at the earliest possible stage
  • Procurement – ineffective attempts by client bodies to pass risks into the supply chain – often causing behaviours where contractors seek to manage their own risks at the expense of the desired outcomes for the project
  • Integration models – complex programmes require that client and contract organisation work effectively together to recognise and deal with issues which affect delivery.  Although there are some good examples of this happening, there are many other instances where this is not set up

Dealing with these issues is not trivial and requires leadership and commitment.

This brings me to my second piece of reading this week which is the publishing of the National Infrastructure Plan 2016 – 2021.  At one level this gives great hope and impetus to the project community and the plans are ambitious and the statistics are staggering:

  • Around 600 projects in prospect with total expenditure of around £425Bn
  • Around £297Bn of expenditure planned to occur over the next 5 years
  • 50 / 50 financing Public / Private sectors

The scale of this investment represents opportunity for us all.  Opportunity of work for those involved in the delivery of this infrastructure and opportunities for a secure / improved lifestyle for those who will enjoy the benefits of the projects which will be delivered through this plan.

I have no doubt that much of this infrastructure will be delivered – my question is one of value.  Are we collectively able to raise our game in delivery to get the best possible outcomes for the majority of this infrastructure – or are we set for a series of further reports, along the lines of that issues by the London Assembly, where reviewers are sent in at the end of failed projects to ‘bayonet the wounded’?

Answers on a postcard please…….

Written by Logikal Projects