The Shape of Things to Come Part 3: The Hard Path to Change


“And one should bear in mind that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dubious of success, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things; for he who introduces it has all those who profit from the old order as his enemies, and he has only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new.”

– Niccolò Machiavelli

At the TfL Board Meeting on 2nd November, a short report appeared as agenda item five. Entitled London Underground’s Operational Vision: Technology Enables Change, it lays out in relatively plain and simple language a basic plan for developing the Underground.

Technology, it explains, has changed the way people use the network and will continue to change it further. Wave and Pay will soon present opportunities and problems alongside Oyster and the way tickets are sold and handled will need to be changed to better manage both. Train technology is also changing, and London Underground will need to work out how best to leverage this into the network as the current Rolling Stock purchasing cycle comes to a close. All this will need to be done, the report explains, in a spirit of openness with staff and for the right reasons – the improvement of services and the customer experience – not as a cover for bringing about staffing cuts.

Technology Enables Change is a short but well written report. What it represents is a solid attempt at communicating the start of a huge period of organisational change that will affect almost every individual who works at London Underground in some way. By keeping its points simple, focused on the overall objectives and fact-based, it attempts to open what will be a tricky dialogue with staff and public in a clear, non-emotive way.

As a document, it was also largely undermined by the leak of the Operational Strategy Discussion Paper.

Big Changes Gonna Come

Transport for London, London Underground’s parent organisation, face an enormous challenge in the coming years. They have a clear objective, if not a requirement – to take advantage of both existing assets and changing technology to maximise and improve the value they deliver to Londoners. That objective has unique repercussions for all the child organisations within the TfL family. On the buses, for example, it has led to some interesting discussions over bus kilometres. Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport, recently found himself explaining to the Transport Committee the dilemma of keeping bus kilometres the same, whilst at the same time meeting both existing passenger needs and accommodating the need for new services as circumstances require.

On the Underground, as the OSDP and its subsequent coverage and discussion have made clear, this objective looks likely to have a huge impact in the coming years. Few can argue that the OSDP – with its underlying focus on changes to ticketing, stations and train operation – doesn’t raise some very good points. It is on the Underground, one of the oldest elements of the TfL family, that technology and global best practice present the best opportunity for gains. Yet precisely because those potential gains are so huge, it is here as well that they will be the trickiest to successfully implement. They will require organisational change that has few comparables on a global – let alone a national – scale, and even fewer successful ones. This organisational change will also need to take place in an environment that is very short on the one commodity that has been consistently demonstrated to be most crucial to a successful change process – trust.

People are Important

All organisations have an implicit psychological contract with their employees as well as an explicit economic one. The latter is written down in terms and conditions, the former is largely intangible and based upon mutual expectations and culture. Organisational culture is almost always a tricky beast to pin down, although that’s often not for want of trying (as anyone who has ever sat through an uncomfortable corporate away day or “values event” can confirm). At its most basic, it is often nothing more than “the way we do things round here.” This is particularly true in older organisations, or those with relatively low staff turnover – both of which apply to London Underground.

Understanding an organisation’s culture and the nature of that psychological contract is essential – because more often than not organisational change on any scale is as much about changing that culture and that psychological contract as it is about changing processes. People are important, and it is people who, more often than not, are both the agents of and the assets most affected by, change. As can be seen from the OSDP, nowhere is this truer than on the Underground. The overwhelming majority of changes suggested have a significant impact on staff, arguing for a wholesale recasting of both staff roles and mentality.

Recognising the Need For Change

Change is only possible when staff at all levels recognise the need for it. For London Underground it will likely be this element of the change process that will prove the hardest to engineer. Many internal processes and elements of organisational culture have remained largely unchanged within London Underground for some time and there will be considerable resistance to changing them – even in some cases where employees at all levels themselves recognise that the existing models no longer work well.

This may seem strange, but London Underground is not unique in this – indeed it’s something that is almost universal in organisations where change is required.

In part, this is because human beings naturally use mental maps – heuristics – or ways of thinking normally based on previous experience to guide our behaviour. We keep the maps that work, and discard those that don’t. Over time these mental maps become part of an organisation’s culture, along with the assumptions that led to their establishment. They become taken for granted as the best way of operating because they have worked well in the past.

This is highly useful whilst the original assumptions are still valid, but becomes limiting if the criteria upon which they were originally based changes without this being recognised.

Even when the need for change is recognised, these mental maps can cause issues with implementing it, because people become very skilled at the competencies required by the old map and believe that by changing they will go from being very competent at the wrong thing to incompetent at the right thing. For few people is this an appealing proposition. Indeed this “Perestroika effect” was the experience of IBM in the 90s. Surveys revealed that staff at all levels acknowledged that a rethinking of the way the company worked and its processes was necessary, but there was a general resistance to any efforts to do so.

In many ways, the underlying theme found throughout the OSDP is that this is exactly the situation that exists within key elements of London Underground – change of some form is necessary as the old processes and culture no longer align with the objectives of the company and the sweeping changes promised by technology.

The Underground has a higher visible staffing level at its stations, for example, than virtually any other UK Transport Operator and indeed most comparable metro systems worldwide – something that most would argue is one of its greatest strengths and which has become very much part of the organisation’s culture. The broad underlying reasons for this high level of staffing (and the reasons its seen as successful) have always been relatively clear – it makes stations safe, it provides passengers with access to information and help, and it helps prevent fare evasion.

The OSDP, however, effectively suggests that the roles and mental maps currently associated with achieving those goals are no longer valid – CCTV, Oyster, Wave and Pay, Gating and changing ways in which people use ticket halls and want help have all rendered the assumptions on which the current mental maps are based invalid, and they need to be rethought.

This, therefore, will prove London Underground’s first challenge – proving to all elements of the organisation that change is necessary.

Indeed however it approaches this challenge, the key to doing this successfully can be found in the vocabulary used in the previous sentence – it’s about “proving” not “convincing.” The need for change needs to be demonstrated to staff not dictated – not least because recent heavy-handed attempts by London Underground to enforce change and reduce staff levels have hardly engendered an atmosphere of trust within the organisation in edicts from above.

Shaping the Things That Come

Proving that change is necessary is closely tied to another major challenge that London Underground face – establishing the form that this change will take.

Ultimately, the OSDP is a framework of possibilities – revamped ticket offices, redeployed staff, a move to more automation in train operation and other measures. What will need to be established, however, is whether all of these are truly the best way to achieve the desired goals and, if they are, the detailed form they will take.

Here again, it’s ground level consultation that is crucial. New systems, processes, roles and indeed mental maps are ultimately useless if they simply replace one system that inadequately meets London Underground’s objectives with another. This is certainly a perception that many within London Underground have of the organisation’s previous efforts to change – and that’s not without some justification.

Lessons learnt from previous exercises will need to be – noticeably – taken onboard, and London Underground can also learn valuable lessons from elsewhere. Toyota, for example, have long been seen as a shining example of a company who successfully embrace change with their Toyota Production System which implements the principles of Kaizen. This includes the Shewart Cycle:

  • Standardize an operation and activities.
  • Measure the standardized operation (find cycle time and amount of in-process inventory)
  • Gauge measurements against requirements
  • Innovate to meet requirements and increase productivity
  • Standardize the new, improved operations
  • Continue cycle ad infinitum

Effectively, TPS recognises that within every large organisation there develops a gap between employees who know what is happening on a day-to-day basis and those who think they know – and that the former can be found on the production line just as often (if not more) than they can be found within the senior management structure. Indeed the Toyota system has key benefits beyond the change process itself – because it effectively helps an organisation constantly evaluate its mental maps and processes and improve them before they become entrenched.

The PDCA Cycle

The PDCA Cycle. Diagram by Karn G. Bulsuk (

This is something that London Underground will need to take on board – there’s a difference between management leading change and being the sole people who design it. In practical terms, the new principles established in the OSDP may be sound, but many of the potential flaws in any implementation thereof will be more immediately obvious to the staffer on the gateline or the driver on the train than they will to the man in 55 Broadway. Harnessing the knowledge of those individuals will be just as vital to successfully improving the Underground as any number of Management or Consultant reports. Put simply – consulting staff is not just a lip service exercise to “engineer buy in”, it’s an absolutely crucial part of working out what form that change should take.

Smashing the Myths and Breaking Down Barriers

Another major challenge London Underground will face is breaking the vicious circle of poor relations between staff, unions and management. All of the above is impossible without the genuine cooperation of everybody involved.

It’s a cold, hard truth that London Underground’s industrial relations are terrible. The “blame” for this can be placed on many people and in many places, but the simple fact is that (as was correctly pointed out in the comments on Part 2) London Underground’s own “Speak Up” survey showed that roughly 2/3rds of London Underground staff don’t believe management communicates with them honestly. In order to effect change, London Underground needs to accept that reality and make genuine, visible efforts to remedy it. That includes accepting and allaying fears that their motives for change aren’t transparent, and that they wish to save money not improve the organisation. Technology Enables Change is a positive sign that this is something they are aware of, but the leak of the OSDP also highlights that they’ve got a lot of work still to do.

The leak of the OSDP also highlights that London Underground are not the only organisation with a stake in this change – the Unions do as well. Just as London Underground have an obligation to be transparent, the Unions have an obligation to accept that change is necessary, healthy if done well and most importantly neither a new thing nor avoidable. Tube trains featured gate-men in every car until powered door technology rendered their role unnecessary, and prior to that the role of firemen on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan and District disappeared upon electrification. Just because the roles in a play disappear when its run ends does not mean that the actors do – they move on to new roles and the Unions need to accept that this is very much the case within London Underground as well.

Both sides also have an obligation to break some of the myths that have become a standard part of the dialogue between them. That station and train staffing changes automatically create health and safety issues has become a regular stick which the Unions, particularly the RMT, try to beat London Underground with, for example, and in reply London Underground passively adhear to the idea that Tube Drivers are overpaid and underworked.

Both arguments are brutal distortions of reality. Well executed and supported by technology such as CCTV and Platform Edge Doors, station safety can be maintained whilst staff focus on other tasks, increased train automation does not automatically mean unstaffed trains. Tube drivers are not overpaid. Just as the British media tends to try and measure distance in football pitches and height in double-decker buses, it seems to have established the Nurse as the standard unit of currency for salaries. Tube Drivers may earn, very generally speaking, about 1.8 Nurses, but salaries in this country (or indeed anywhere) are not established based on some kind of karmic scale – they’re based on comparison to similar jobs elsewhere, and Tube Driver salaries are broadly comparable to their peers on National Rail.

Leading the Change

Effective high-level and low-level leadership will be vital if London Underground are to effect the change that needs to take place.

At a local level, management will need to be persuaded and accept that they are as much in need of change as staff. This is something that many will have realised already, but at a senior level management will need to accept that it too is part of that change and also help support staff when local management fails to realise that everybody is part of the change exercise.

The likes of Mike Brown and Peter Hendy will also need to demonstrate a commitment to keeping both London Underground and TfL focused on genuinely effecting change that improves the organisation despite inevitable pressure from outside – TfL and London Underground will remain a key battleground in this Mayoral Election and the next. They will also play a key role as the visible faces of change and of the relationship with the Unions. Should relations with the Unions remain fractious, then they need to be able to demonstrate to both the public – and crucially to staff – that it is not through any failure on London Underground’s part.

They will also be crucial to helping London Underground leverage support and knowledge from elsewhere within TfL – indeed its worth remembering that lurking a few metaphorical offices down is Terry Morgan, Chairman of Crossrail. Terry was one of the BAE Directors who lead their cultural transformation programme “Benchmark BAE” which met with some success, but he also later grazed his knuckles at Royal Mail (whose change programme most emphatically didn’t). His experiences will likely prove valuable in the coming years.

Finally, it is also worth remembering that the length of the change programme suggested by the OSDP will surpass both mens’ time in office (and indeed likely Bob Crow’s as well). Succession planning and inter-generational coherence will be critical. For although Peter and Mike get to play Moses in leading the TfL tribe towards the Promised Land, they themselves will enter it as passengers with Freedom Passes.

A Brave New World

Ultimately, as hopefully this series has served to demonstrate, the OSDP is neither the dark beast that some have suggested, nor is it an extensive pre-determined plan for change.

It, and its public successor Technology Enables Change, are simply the opening shots in a vast change programme that London Underground must, inevitably, undertake.

It’s a change programme that’s fraught with huge challenges, some of which we’ve attempted to highlight here and its success or failure will shape London’s Transport Network for decades to come. Done well, these changes will release capacity, both in terms of finance and personnel, to build a bigger better London Underground (and indeed a better TfL). There are a number of new lines that need building and extensions to existing services long sought after. The only way this will happen is if existing assets tangible and intangible can be successfully be redeployed.

For it to succeed, however, London Underground will need to mobilise its inherently most flexible asset – its workforce. It will need to both run and run down existing systems, and it will need to start and spin up new systems. It will need to do all this whilst under pressure from people with political and personal motives both internally and externally. It will also need to regain the trust of its staff.

It’s an enormous challenge, and one that we, and the rest of the transport world, will be watching with great interest.

Written by John Bull