Change management: Transforming the Tube – HR in practice

London Underground is undergoing the biggest upgrade in its history, which requires the full support of its staff to succeed. Its ‘Valuing Time’ workshops are an innovative combination of change management and employee engagement. Helen Williams reports.

The business

London Underground (LU) carries more than one billion passengers a year – as many as the entire National Rail network. With up to four million journeys made each day, up from three million in just 10 years, on 11 lines serving 270 stations, the Tube is now running a higher volume of service than ever before on the 140-year-old network.

The challenge

The Tube is undergoing huge transformation – the entire network is being rebuilt, from tracks to trains and signals to stations, a process that is expected to take more than a decade and cost in the region of £10bn.

“We’ve got the biggest challenge in the history of LU on our hands, what we call ‘Transforming the Tube while keeping London moving’,” says chief operating officer Howard Collins. “If we don’t create 30% more capacity, it will eventually gridlock.”

Keeping services running for customers during this upheaval has meant change for everyone at LU, including a change in behaviour. “We needed to share the message with staff about what’s coming, and how difficult that is going to be,” says Collins. “The analogy I use is it’s like trying to run your first marathon while having open heart surgery.

“We say to staff: the only way we can do this is with your help. We could be like the New York Subway or the Paris Metro, run by machines with no visible staff around. But what our customers appreciate more than anything else is the people – helpfulness and information.

“We say: we recognise you’re doing a good job, our customers are telling us so, but if you do more, if we can maintain lots of energy and a positive attitude, it will get us through this very difficult phase.”

The solution

Collins felt this combination of change management and employee engagement required a fresh approach. Working with communications company Glass Page, LU came up with interactive ‘Valuing Time’ workshops, and more than 10,500 frontline employees have attended the one-day sessions since October 2008.

The venue is a huge basement on Bloomsbury Square in central London, the site of a former Saatchi art gallery, and already looked like a disused Underground station – white tiles, exposed pipes and brickwork, and the like added authenticity of the Piccadilly Line rumbling directly underneath en route from Russell Square to Holborn.

On top of this convenient base, LU branding looms large. Prints around the venue show the ‘five behaviours’ LU staff are expected to uphold – to be active, direct, accountable, fair and consistent, and collaborative; as well as trains and stations upgrade plans, customer comments, and images of staff. Interactive screens allow them to explore the network and upgrades, and Tube memorabilia from the past 100 years is dotted round the venue, borrowed from the London Transport Museum.

The effect, even when the venue is empty, is striking. And the ‘wow’ factor continues with the opening session. Collins and his team felt strongly that the message should initially be delivered by the most senior manager – in other words, by managing director Tim O’Toole. But with 94 sessions over six months, O’Toole couldn’t be present for every one.

The solution developed by Glass Page is both simple and dramatic. Delegates sit in front of a dark stage. Huge fans at the side of the stage begin to whirr, simulating the familiar feeling of standing on a Tube platform. A train pulls onto the stage, the doors open and out steps O’Toole to deliver a 20-minute pep talk, packed with 3-D graphics and statistics that whirl around him.

This impressive and extremely realistic holographic display ensures the message is consistent and authoritative across every session, says Collins. But he was keen that the bulk of the day should be delivered by workers’ peers, not from a lofty management perspective.

Next, staff are put into mixed groups of different jobs and Tube lines, and head for the breakout rooms scattered round the venue. Frontline managers and staff from across the operation side the business, from train drivers to cost-control staff, were trained as facilitators for these sessions. Some had previous experience, such as teaching, and were keen to use that, while others wanted to overcome their fear of public speaking and learn a new skill.

“The facilitators are people our staff can relate to,” says Collins. “By lunchtime they’ve had a really good session, and held conversations they may never otherwise have had, such as between train drivers and customer services assistants. It can be a bit like a school reunion too, as it’s a lifetime career for many employees.”

Lunch is provided, which encourages staff to mingle and chat across different roles and lines. Staff then regroup according to line – for example, a train driver, station assistant, ticket seller, revenue controller and so on from the Jubilee Line will be together.

“This session is really important; a lot of people have great pride in their own line,” says Collins. “They talk through behaviours, about how they work, and their energy and attitude.”

The outcome

The day ends with a short session rounding up the event, which allows staff to vote on how they found the workshop, using electronic keypads. “Feedback from staff has been overwhelmingly positive,” enthuses Collins. “For example, 94% of attendees said they understood what they needed to do to value the time of customers and colleagues. The vast majority of people have said: ‘I thought it was going to be management brainwashing, but I found out about the rest of my line, met up with some people I hadn’t seen for ages, and I understand what my role is in this huge change.’

“The message from us is that operations is the centre of the business. In Tim’s opening address, he points out that the only thing we do here is get people from A to B on trains – everything else is peripheral.”

O’Toole is due to leave LU soon, heading back to his native US after years of commuting across the pond.

“This programme is a legacy,” says Collins. “His style of engaging with employees directly, of being very candid, and his focus on operations, has all rubbed off on us, and we have taken that message to the rest of the company.”

Collins says the programme has attracted “a significant amount of interest” from other organisations, including the Olympic Delivery Authority, National Grid, Network Rail, and the Metropolitan Police.

“We haven’t gone out there selling it as a concept at all, but people have got to hear about it.”

During the programme, a new HR director – Tricia Riley – was appointed.

“She joined us in the middle of this and she and her team have been very supportive,” says Collins. “She has been down here for quite a few sessions, which has allowed her to meet a cross-section of people from across the network in one go.”

Collins’ next challenge, he says, is what happens next. He is particularly keen not to waste the team of in-house facilitators.

“Momentum is so important. We want to use the workshop/forum/breakout idea, but deliver this locally using the 200 facilitators we already have in the programme. It’s a jury-like concept – 12 people in a room, from across the job grades, and perhaps including local police, the guys who fix the track, managers and supervisors.

“They will have a specific subject to talk about – concepts such as safety and security – how do you make your patch feel better; or employment and conditions – what would you like to see. These generate concepts and ideas which then get fed back into our business. It’s about getting people involved. We have a huge amount of ideas and enthusiasm in this business, but nobody was listening,” he says. 

In a year peppered with negative news stories – the collapse of Metronet into administration and its integration into LU, and reports of job cuts – customer satisfaction ratings are nevertheless at an all time high. LU has exceeded its target for the first time since the measure began a decade ago – scoring 79% for the period April 2008 to March 2009 with a target of 78%.

“In the past you sat there in a darkened tunnel and nobody said anything,” says Collins. “We now ask drivers to make an announcement within 30 seconds of anything happening, telling people what’s going on. If you see someone struggling with a map, go and help them. That applies to all staff, including myself – that’s why I always wear my badge, so if I offer to help someone they can see who I am and don’t think I’m a nutter.”

Collins also believes this approach is having an impact on staff morale.

“The last annual employee satisfaction survey was in September. It scored well, and more than 70% of the workforce responded, up from just 30% when we started them five years ago. I’m hoping this September the effect of ‘Valuing Time’ will mean an even better score,” he says.

If I could do it again

Following Metronet’s collapse into administration, its 6,000 employees merged into LU. Collins was eager to get them onto the programme. “Because they only do night work, the challenge was trying to get people to a central venue when they’re out fixing tracks,” he explains. “If I could do this differently I would look at a way of delivering this locally in a way which would have the same sort of impact as this great location. I would also have brought in facilitators from the front-line earlier – we started off with managers.”

Employee perspectives

  • “I’ve really enjoyed discussing things as a group, and looking at how issues can be resolved collectively. It’s also been good to listen to other people’s experiences and points of view.”
    Lee Swallow, station supervisor, District Line (delegate)

  • “The honesty and integrity of the facilitators was refreshing.”
    Brenda Sutton, customer service assistant, Circle and Hammersmith Lines (delegate)

  • “Everyone got so involved and there was lots of laughter. People even shook our hands at the end and said how much they enjoyed it. It’s been great that people, even with 40 years’ service, can see the reasons for change. Sometimes people were quiet at the beginning, but once they got involved they clearly had lots to contribute.”
    Mark Stevenson, service control, Central Line (facilitator)

  • “I’ve really enjoyed interacting with people from different grades. It’s been a challenge getting the messages across in a manner that delegates understand and relate to.”
    Francis Ugboma, duty stations manager, Northern Line (facilitator)

Howard Collins’ top tips on running an effective change management programme

  • Involve people in the day – get them to contribute, don’t just talk at them.
  • Have a ‘wow’ factor, but don’t make it too lavish and expensive. Our venue feels like an Underground station that isn’t quite finished, which is ideal. Create something that is innovative and interesting in presentational terms.
  • Give people the opportunity to have some informal time together, over lunch or coffee – that’s where you get networking and communication.
  • You’ve got to have the top team delivering it, and make sure that team can communicate with staff in a really effective way.
  • Be careful of ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ and other such terms. When talking about where your company is going, keep it simple and straightforward. ‘A world-class Tube for a world-class city’ and ‘Transforming the Tube while keeping London moving’ are clear messages that everyone understands.
  • The cost of the ‘Valuing Time’ programme were kept to a minimum, working out at around £150 per head, half the level of LU’s previous campaigns. To keep costs down, go for maximum utilisation – in other words, you put 10,000 people through the same programme in the same venue, so the relative cost of the building is marginal. Rent equipment, look at innovative ways of running a contract, and always have an open, competitive bid for the delivery. With competition you get innovation, and a good price.

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