Maintenance Management at Network Rail

Episode 7

Maintenance Management Podcast


About this episode

Get to know the approach and tactical techniques Tim uses to maintain Network Rail. Insights include building Maintenance Culture, When to use spreadsheets, using CMMS or EAM Software and practical advice on Maintenance Management.


INTRO: Downtime, spreadsheets, technician problems, communications problems, maintenance management, maintenance budget, predictive maintenance, reactive maintenance, CMMS Software.

Matt: [00:00:31] Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Comparesoft Podcast. My name is Matt, the host and today I am joined by Tim Flower, who is the head of maintenance at Network Rail. Tim studied mathematics at the University of Bristol before his first role working at a software company, AMT SYBEX. Following this, he started his career with Network Rail, where he has now been for over 16 years. Tim started there as an Infrastructure Maintenance Performance Manager before working up through the company in Program Management and Maintenance roles, and before reaching his current position as Head of maintenance. So, Tim, welcome to the show. How are you? How’s business been?

Tim: [00:01:17] I’m very well, thank you and thanks for having me on. Business is interesting, I guess, in the rail sector, as in many sectors at the moment, obviously, due to COVID, the number of people on our trains is dramatically reduced. And freights obviously, not been so much of an issue, but we’re probably much lower than we were prior to COVID. I think with the second lockdown, I think we’re around 25%, of where we were previously. So obviously that brings its own challenges, and also makes us really think about what the future looks like as well.

Matt: [00:01:55] And of course, we are talking right now during the second lockdown in the UK. So that’s obviously right now probably, I’m assuming no one on the trains or very low numbers.

Tim: [00:02:10] Yeah. It is about 25%, obviously, lots of key workers, one of the reasons that the railway is so important during the crisis is helping key workers get to their work. So we are classed as key workers for that very reason. So some of the strains are quite busy. I think some of the trains going into London early in the morning are still seeing quite a lot of people on them. But at the same time, lots of other trains are really empty and then if you have seen recently, but in the news yesterday, I think it was the train operators and DFT who are working together to look at how many trains should be run and given the amount of people on them. So obviously every train that runs has its own cost. So we need to make sure that they serve as much of the demand as possible.

Matt: [00:02:57] Absolutely, yeah. So moving on from that, then could you tell us about what you do in more detail?

Tim: [00:03:04] So I’ve been the President of Maintenance for around four years, and I’m currently in the process of moving across to be Chief Intelligent Infrastructure Engineer. So I’m very much focused on how we can deliver maintenance activity and asset management activity in a different way. How we can understand more about our assets, so that we’re able to change their maintenance frequency or maintenance intervention, where possible automate the intervention, through use of machine vision systems on trains for inspection purposes, or through sensors fitted to assets and understanding the information that we’re getting from that sensor, which then enables us to set a different maintenance regime to intervene at a different frequency or intervene differently. So then the other part of that is bringing all that data together. So to support our engineers and section managers and thinking differently as well. So it’s not just about the tests on the ground, it’s about the tests in the office as well and essentially pulling as much information, as much data together as possible, turn that into information and wisdom, and provide in the simplest possible interface for somebody to use to then make different decisions. That’s the crux of what I’m trying to achieve.

Matt: [00:04:28] Yeah. And so then that follows nicely into how do you set a good maintenance culture?

Tim: [00:04:36] Well, that’s a really interesting question and one that we grapple with daily through our program, so obviously, if we’re going to be successful, the most important thing is that we bring our people with us and that they want to be part of digitization or a digital approach to maintenance and asset management. And so it’s one of the fundamental how things are delivered, doesn’t it. And as a result, we work really closely with our end-users, and we work really closely with our trade union partners as well so that they can understand the tools that we’re providing. And that we can understand what that means to their members and we can alter our implementation plans accordingly to make sure that we get the best out of our tools, but also the best out of people as well.

Matt: [00:05:29] So there’s a lot of emphasis on implementing the right culture at senior level, but how do you take that message and implement it across all layers of the maintenance team? And what are some of the other tactics, techniques and day to day activities that you do to drive up that culture?

Tim: [00:05:47] Yeah. So I think that with as being an industry, and also people maintaining it quite often, in a position of danger, we try and make that as safe as possible, that interacting with trains is obviously fraught with danger, because it’s not managed properly. So we really start with a safe culture and really driving home, the need to look after yourself, the need to look after your colleagues, your peers, and the need to look after your teams as well. So we’ve put a huge amount of emphasis into that safety culture, safety management. And I think that’s the cornerstone to moving forward, it’s about providing people with empowerment. So empowering people to make decisions about how to perform tasks within a set of boundaries because obviously everybody needs boundaries. But if you give people the skills, the competencies, the knowledge hopefully they’ll take those sorts of things, and alongside their own experience, and that of their peers and use that to perform the best intervention, which is what we’re really trying to get to. I think in the past, we didn’t always give people the best information and then we wondered why they didn’t fix the root cause. So I think nobody comes to work to do a bad job, clearly, everybody wants to do the best they can. So making people understand, or helping people to understand why doing things a certain way, gives the best result. Taking the time to explain it to them, and helping them to understand why it is the best solution to the problem they’re trying to fix is the best way of driving that culture of improvement through the business. And then listening to feedback understanding why things haven’t gone as planned but not imposing ridiculous draconian consequences when things then go as planned as well, because people won’t, where mistakes are made, generally, it’s an error not deliberate. So using those as learning opportunities, as opposed to punishments, and then instilling that across the business and helping the whole business to learn as well, providing, a culture of sharing. So where somebody does come up with a really good solution, one thing that we could really be better at is helping others to understand why it’s a good solution, and helping them to want to take it forward. If people haven’t themselves, and they aren’t keen to take it on. So breaking down that particular psychological barrier is really key to driving successful maintenance.

Matt: [00:08:40] Okay. Well, that’s fantastic. So moving on to the next question, then, how do you go about planning maintenance activities?

Tim: [00:08:48]So I guess it’s interesting, we’ve been talking a lot about this at the moment and finding the best way to plan and integrate between our renewal activities, which quite often involve lots of trains and lots of machines and things alongside our maintenance activities. And, obviously, integrating that with running a train service when people want to travel. So the starting point that we’re looking at at the moment is making sure that all the maintenance that we are planning to do is actually required. So utilizing reliable centred maintenance and some of the technologies that we’re deploying, to minimize the need to go on to the balance is our starting point. Once we’ve got that, it’s then about creating a plan to meet the demands. So understanding what maintenance we need to perform, how we may need to perform and what type of access is required. And whether that is something that we can do during the day in between trains by taking something called a line blockage, or whether we need sort of full access to the track in what we call a possession and making sure that if we are taking repossession, which obviously is a costly thing to do, because it prevents trains running, then making sure that we utilize that to its best effect. So the integration of plans between the various disciplines, so single in track, electrification plans, and also with the renewals, colleagues. So we only as many people in their homes performing and working together in a safe and integrated way, it’s the real key to it. And we’re definitely not there yet, but it’s an aspiration we want to achieve, and some of the tools that we’re bringing in will help us achieve that alongside some of the cultural things that we are introducing.

Matt: [00:10:52] And so then talking about plans, how do you go about implementing an effective maintenance plan?

Tim: [00:10:59] So I think that’s about understanding the competence of the resources that you need to implement that plan, and making sure that they’re optimized, that they’re available when they need to be. from a resource perspective and making sure that not only is the plan in place, but you’d see a high-level plan of when you’re going to do something, but then you’ve got a detailed plan of what type, what activity you’re going to perform throughout a shift who’s going to perform them and have they got the right tools, have they got the right competencies, managing risk, as well. So by that, obviously, things can go wrong in the night, and you may not get access to the track when you expect to get it. So making sure that we don’t inadvertently do some maintenance or renewal activity that we can’t have the trackback on time. So understanding what risks there are, from that perspective, as well as what risks there are to our people, making sure it’s safe, plan for safety, as well as plan for productivity, and making sure that people that are going to be delivering the work have been involved in that planning process, particularly the person who’s going to be in charge of that activity on the night. Do they understand the plan and are they going to be able to enact that plan successfully?

Matt: [00:12:21] Right. And so then talking about tech, which, of course, is part of the plan. Do you think software tools are useful for managing maintenance activities?

Tim: [00:12:33] Absolutely. And will become even more so, the multiple different types of software tools that we use today. And in many, you’ve got too many of the moments, which is part of our future plans. So a consolidated software interface is something we’re really aspiring to consolidate of all software, it’s not always easy but consolidating how somebody interacts with the various pieces of software that are running in the background is very doable, and it’s something that we’re really aspiring to do. So that’s software for enterprise asset management, software for rostering, software for planning, also, software interposes, annotations, and the field force type of applications. So at the moment, we have various tools that we use, out on the front line and they allow us to give information and obtain information in the simplest form. And by evolving those tools, we should be able to tell a technician if the activity they performed, has had the desired outcome there and then, and that’s one thing we are really focused on at the moment. So somebody at the back office can see what the impact of a maintenance intervention has been for the guy on the tools can’t. So we need to change that. We need to be much better at providing information about failure history, what maintenance has been performed on a certain asset, if it has failed, what’s the likely cause of failure, so on and so forth, and then moving forward being able to predict and diagnose failures that are likely to happen, understanding the probability of them and understanding the impact of those failures is going to be really fundamental to our future maintenance regimes.

Matt: [00:14:27] And so what’s your take then on using spreadsheets? Something a little less sophisticated for maintenance management. Do they have that place or?

Tim: [00:14:40] I use spreadsheets a lot. Yes and no, and not as a database. And not as a source of record, definitely not. But spreadsheets are always useful because if they’re leading, they’re quick to use but in terms of having master data records, having a bit of a purpose, scalable tools, and spreadsheets aren’t suitable. We do have lots of people who have lots of spreadsheets because we’ve failed to give them the right IT tools. We’re trying to remedy that at the moment and so it’s a huge growth market for that for the right tools. It really comes back to, if we can get all the information that somebody needs to do their job in a single place or a single login, that will fundamentally change their role, make them more productive, and make them more efficient, and hopefully make them have to work less hours as well. That’s always a challenge with selling stuff.

Matt: [00:15:40] Yeah. So then what would you think, obviously, tech can be an advantage, but how would you use maintenance as a competitive advantage in business?

Tim: [00:15:54] That’s a very interesting question. In terms of competitive advantage, we are a monopoly. So that’s an interesting question for us, but what we have seen in other railways is where they do complete their maintenance activity, having a really good understanding of your asset condition. Asset register, first of all, but then the condition of those assets, the likelihood of failure, being able to digitize inspections, they provide the competitive advantage to those railways and we spend a lot of time working with colleagues in the Netherlands, where they’ve got four different maintainers and who compete to win the various contract areas. And there’s several reasons why the Netherlands are so advanced they are much more stringent about when they can send people out onto the infrastructure. So they’ve made huge strides in automation and taking what we call boots off the ballasts. But they’re relentless focus on improvement and the need to have a differentiator against the three contractors that are competing against, really just provide that competitive advantage in that manner, or things that we’re trying to bring into the UK. So despite this, obviously from a network perspective, we need to be as efficient as we can be. But obviously, we don’t have competition as such in maintenance.

Matt: [00:17:29] Yeah. Well, and so obviously, being a very experienced, very knowledgeable professional in this area. What would be your top three tips on effective maintenance for our listeners?

Tim: [00:17:44] I think number one is having the right people, having the right management, just having the right organizational structure, is it able to deliver the maintenance that you need in an effective and reliable way? Now to do that, you really need to understand what assets you’ve got, what condition they’re in, and how that condition reflects the failure modes effects and criticality analysis that you would have performed against those assets which then means that at number three, we’re able to deploy some digital tools that predict time to failure, predict consequences of failure, and are able to give those to our people give them the best chance of maintaining those assets so that they don’t fail.

Matt: [00:18:36] Okay. And so wrapping this up with a bow, what’s your favourite saying, or quote on maintenance?

Matt: [00:18:52] Yeah. That’s a good one.

Tim: [00:18:57] So that’s one of the things we’re trying to understand at the moment. What do we actually need to do to our assets? You don’t maintain your fuse board in your house, do you? But go out and maintain electrical assets and as a result of opening the box, you are potentially inducing a failure. So don’t open the box.

Matt: [00:19:20] All right. Well, thank you very much for being on the show, Tim. We’ve had some really in-depth information and advice and knowledge there, which is going to be very beneficial to our listeners. So thank you very much for being on the show.

Tim: [00:19:38] No problem at all. Thanks for having me.

Matt: [00:19:39] And thanks to you guys for tuning in again, we appreciate having you here. See you on the next show.

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