Cumbria is a county with the second longest road network in England. It has high levels of rainfall and low winter temperatures. Unsurprising then, that Councillors spent a great deal of time on the issue of keeping their highways in working condition. Their postbags were full of local concerns about the roads. They had even outsourced the entire contract for maintaining highways in the expectation that the private sector would improve the service. Those postbags remained stubbornly full. Tenacious on behalf of their citizens, Councillors tried something different. They employed a systems thinker. This story is about how those postbags are getting lighter every day.
Marie Fallon, Corporate Director of the Environment, was employed to deliver improvements in the highways system. The service knew that it received 50,000 calls a year, but it knew very little about the nature of those calls. There was little understanding of the type and frequency of those calls and if they represented value or failure. As an experienced systems thinker, schooled in the Vanguard Method, Marie knew that studying the system would uncover its true performance.
Studying the system (see video left)
The Vanguard Method begins by studying to understand how the system is actually performing (we call it Check). Check requires a team to be drawn from all of those parts involved in the delivery of work. In Cumbria this included representatives from the council and the outsourced services (with support from Vanguard consultant Jo Gibson). It isn’t an office-based process. The team need to go out into the work to understand the true performance of their service.
Marie told the team that this would involve understanding the story of the road from the road’s perspective - how good the service was at dressing, unblocking and cleaning them. The team thought that she had lost her marbles. They were in for a shock.
The story of the road
Initially the Check group began by following individual repairs jobs through the system to completion of work. What the team found was a typically elongated system, with work handed off to different people and organisations at different stages of the process (7 hand-offs). Each repair had a response target depending upon its category (e.g. Category 1 within 24 hours). A system of inspectors graded each pothole or repair and gave it a category. When the team began to study the data they were shocked at the true average time it took to carry out a repair. 230 days!
Each visit gained a payment but no actual solution to the problem
Following individual repairs only provided a limited transactional understanding of what was going on. Understanding highways requires a more holistic view, seeing them as ‘integrity’ pieces of road and effectively understanding the story of the road over time. Marie tells me the story of one particular curb. It had been visited and repaired seventeen times in eighteen months. It was obvious to the team that there was an underlying problem. Each visit gained a payment but no actual solution to the underlying cause. It indicated that there were some serious problems with the contract, which was driving perverse behaviour.
The contract was driving dysfunction and cost into the system (see video left ‘In-sourcing and intelligent strategic outsourcing’)
The terms of a contract must be wrong if it is possible for a contractor to get seventeen payments in a short space of time, but never attempt to solve the actual problem. An intelligent service is turned into a transaction, if it only responds to the content of the contract. In effect there was no incentive for the contractor to address these problems differently: their whole profit model had been designed on this basis.
Materials could only be obtained from prescribed suppliers
Evidence of further dysfunction driven into the system by the contract soon emerged. Many materials could only be obtained from agreed contractor suppliers as part of their national framework. This resulted in work teams waiting around for materials to arrive. Problems took longer to solve.
‘They couldn’t understand why I wanted to visit workers’
The contractor's managers couldn’t understand why Marie would want to go and sit with the people doing the work, and even go back and do it again to see how things were changing (or not). It became clear that systems thinking had unlocked a profound understanding of the system that meant the client knew more about highways than the contractor did.
In-sourcing and intelligent strategic outsourcing
Marie says that Highways are something Cumbria’s councillors are ‘passionate about’. They explored all options. It became clear the contractor was not going to deliver what was asked for. Since Highways was so critical to them, Cumbria’s councillors decided to make an informed decision and in-source the service.
They did so in the full knowledge and understanding of how the highways system actually performs. It has enabled Cumbria to be very clear about how and where they want the private sector to play a role. Private contractors will be used for large-scale works, such as bridge repairs as and when needed. The process of in-sourcing is not due to be completed until next year.
Planting potatoes and a deep understanding of root causes in redesign (see video left 'a deep understanding of causes')
Redesign is the second stage of the Vanguard Method. Workers are able to experiment with designing a new system (using new principles). The difference in approach can be seen with one particular stretch of road. As workers began to explore the initial blockage, it became clear that there were linked problems. A series of blockages at some distance from this one was part of the cause. The core root cause however, was how the farmer was planting potatoes in his field. The direction of plough was leading to the direction of drainage: silt was being washed into the drains which was, in turn, leading to blockages. Working with the farmer, next year he will plant his potatoes in a different direction.
Workers are now able to study and understand the actual problem and create solutions. A wave of changes has already been rolled-in. These include new materials suited specifically to Cumbria’s colder climate. More expensive perhaps, but understood systemically offering more value by creating longer lasting solutions. Gone are the inspectors grading repairs to meet target response times. The focus now is responding to all repairs as quickly as possible, but with a permanent solution in mind. Much more satisfying for workers and much more beneficial for the taxpaying public!
Local teams gaining local knowledge
The in-sourcing of the service will not be completed until next year and this is when the real improvement work can continue. The new system is much simpler. There is only one budget now, reducing form-filling significantly. Local teams with local knowledge are now working with parish councils to pinpoint problems and are beginning to deliver cost-effective transformation.
Democracy in action - The visible absence of failure (see video left)
End-to-end times for example are down from an average 230 days to 15-20 days. Although Marie is clear: what is important is getting it right first time to get it ‘perfect and good’ rather than just quick. Elected members now can see that backlogs have reduced and complaints have reduced.
This is the palpable evidence that local democracy is working well in Cumbria. And they can prove it. Not many authorities can say that!
For more information please contact Howard Clark or Jo Gibson the consultant who worked with Marie Fallon