How can highly operational organisations innovate faster to meet changing demands from customers? This is the question we’ve been working with Network Rail to answer. Innovation is core to Network Rail’s business. Our experts in innovation, growth strategy, organisational agility and transport worked with Network Rail R&D to launch the Accelerated Innovation Programme. The Programme provides a practical process for turning ideas into workable solutions, capable of testing novel ideas and capturing tangible benefits, in as little as 12 weeks.

The Programme allows Network Rail to put ideas into practice faster, proactively identify and manage many of the blockers to innovation and meet demand for rail services more effectively. It’s also speeding up delivery to frontline services, which is becoming increasingly important due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By innovating faster, Network Rail is ensuring the UK railway network can meet its strategic targets in putting passengers and freight first.

Key successes

  • Launched an innovation programme that turns new ideas into workable solutions at pace
  • Engaged stakeholders at every level from across a complex organisation in the delivery of innovation
  • Identified detailed financial, environmental and sustainability benefits in order to secure buy-in and investment
  • Uncovered 100 potential innovations and applied agility to drive forward the development of 46 key ideas

Pivoting faster to meet immediate challenges

Network Rail, which is responsible for maintaining and operating Britain's rail network, is changing the way it operates to bring its vision – of putting customers first – to life. Customer needs are evolving all the time. For example, as a result of the pandemic, passengers want to travel in a COVID-secure environment where social distancing is possible.

Building new lines can only be a solution for the longer term. Major projects take decades to progress from initial ideas to operational delivery. To meet evolving demand from rail users today and in the near term, Network Rail needs to make existing assets work harder. That means finding innovative ways to manage and maintain the network, without creating disruption for passengers.

The nature of the organisation makes this extra challenging: it's a complex amalgamation of different routes and regions across 20,000 miles of track, highly regulated and safety critical, and dependent on systems and processes that have built up over many years. This combination of characteristics restricts organisational agility and makes delivering new ideas into the business a long process.

Accelerating innovation is key

We've been working with Network Rail to address many of these challenges through the Accelerated Innovation Programme. We collaboratively created a five-stage model based on decades of experience helping large, complex organisations like Network Rail innovate. The model and the core principles that underpin the Programme have transformed the way the organisation approaches innovation and is accelerating the delivery of new ideas into operations.

By working in close collaboration, our diverse team of experts can flex and pivot to enhance Network Rail's existing expertise and build on shared insights and experience.

Generating ideas from across the business

The Accelerated Innovation Programme provides a structured process to facilitate end-to-end innovation. The Programme covers everything from how to source new ideas, to how to prioritise them for delivery, and how to enable the adoption of successful innovations at scale. It's highly transferrable and we are already adapting it to help other organisations realise innovation opportunities more effectively.

For Network Rail, a priority is to generate new ideas from across the business, involving teams from the organisation's many routes and regions. Employees working on the ground know the challenges and are critical to identifying the best ideas for developing safe and efficient solutions. Yet engagement across a large, devolved organisation like Network Rail is a challenge. Teams are responsible for delivering R&D alongside existing operational roles, which means less time is devoted to innovation.

Additionally, finding ways to share lessons learned effectively across a large team is complicated. We worked with Network Rail to bring representatives from different parts of their operations team together with their R&D teams and senior stakeholders at quarterly engagement events.

Each event served as a forum for discussing priorities, unblocking challenges, showcasing successful innovation, and enabling the cross-pollination of ideas. "These events are empowering route teams to make their own decisions and to implement the technologies they need," says Alison Smith, Network Rail's senior programme manager for the R&D portfolio.

These quarterly events underpin the 12-week project cycle of the Programme. Throughout each period, ideas and challenges are collected from across the business to continuously maintain a backlog of valuable opportunities. These included setting up structured opportunities for knowledge sharing to showcase innovations in other areas of the business; providing new tools and processes to navigate blockers around contracting, procurement and product acceptance; and providing mentoring and training to upskill teams.

Scoping out projects and exploring potential benefits

For the second stage of the five-stage process, our experts worked alongside Network Rail to undertake a more thorough analysis of the technical and financial feasibility and business viability of the proposed projects, including developing outline business and benefit cases. Each idea was analysed against a defined set of criteria based on alignment to strategic objectives; expected return on investment; stakeholder endorsement; and suitability for an accelerated approach.

By ensuring each project was analysed against the same set of criteria, we were able to assess each project individually and across the portfolio. This meant that from day one, we focused on delivering benefits to customers and maximising the opportunity for return on investment with the projects selected.

For the third stage, we prioritised the ideas. Having quantified benefits and outlined the objectives, we were able to use specific financial, environmental and social benefits to compare and contrast ideas, and evidence their value.

To aid prioritisation, our data analytics experts developed a scoring mechanism to understand how well an idea fit with Network Rail's wider innovation vision. This stage was key to getting buy in and securing R&D resources to support the delivery of individual projects. Importantly, it provided stakeholders with the transparent information needed to make evidence-based decisions with confidence.

Accelerate Innovation Programme – Driving Transformational change across the UK Railway

Testing ideas and turning them into workable solutions

For stage four, we launched prioritised projects into an agile development cycle. Our experts in organisational agility delivered scrum master roles, working shoulder to shoulder with Network Rail operational and central colleagues to create the right mix of blended cross functional teams for the specific challenge at hand. We governed delivery with a series of two-week 'sprints', allowing a regular cadence and review of progress, steering teams from contracting and procurement all the way through to delivering novel technology solutions and evidencing benefits.

In delivery we tested the latest version of the product and incorporated users' feedback to shape the next version at the end of each sprint. This also enabled a 'fail fast' philosophy, where we quickly jettisoned some ideas that weren't working out, without waiting for the end of the project. This allowed Network Rail to minimise investment and cost in failing ideas, allowing effort to be reprioritised on other projects that continue to show potential to deliver benefits sooner.

Rolling out novel technologies

For the final stage of the cycle, Network Rail are able to make an informed decision about the most suitable direction to take each project in. This could be another development cycle to refine the idea further or working with route teams to design a BAU roadmap to maximise value and deliver real impact.

To ensure solutions can be embedded into everyday use, we work with route teams to develop investment cases, secure funding, design operating models and define transformation requirements.

Network Rail are already seeing the benefits. The Programme has enabled Network Rail to successfully review 100 accelerated innovation ideas, develop 46 ideas and is delivering six into the business. The Programme has allowed Network Rail to pinpoint the most promising projects and then to drive those forwards.

One such project developed by the Programme includes the award-winning OLE StAT (Overhead Line Equipment Statistical Analysis Toolkit), a tool for making better use of performance data from overhead line equipment, to predict and prevent asset failure. The tool improves the safety of workers on the track by reducing the duration and frequency of repeated manual surveys. It also has the potential to deliver millions in performance savings and make the railway a safer, more reliable environment to operate.

The approach also helped refine the idea for the Konux embedded monitoring system. This combines machine learning algorithms and IoT technology to deliver software-as-a-service solutions for operation, monitoring and maintenance process automation. The collaborative environment facilitated by our process enabled engineering experts and suppliers to work closely together to develop a novel methodology for affixing sensors to concrete on the railway track, improving the life of the asset. This allowed the business to test the solution in a relatively low risk environment and has enabled the business to make more informed decisions about the innovation investment.

Accelerating innovation now and in the future

The Programme gives Network Rail an approach that will enable faster innovation to meet the challenge of evolving demand.

New ideas will help shape the rail services that passengers and business want – better value, more reliable and safer than ever. Accelerating innovation will help Network Rail ensure rail stays relevant as an essential part of the transport mix required for a sustainable future.

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