Tube Lines director makes data gathering top priority

Keeping the London Underground ...

Keeping the London Underground running is no easy task. The network of tunnels is up to 150 years old, every piece of equipment needs constant attention, and most of the work must be done within four hours in the dead of night.

The company looking after the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines is relying more and more heavily on IT and information to help them manage maintenance of the tube, and to make sure things run smoothly.

Tube Lines has a 30-year contract with Transport for London to maintain the three lines. It has thousands of assets, including escalators, track and signals - all of which need to be working perfectly.

When it comes to maintaining these assets, Tube Lines' director of information John Connolly faces a similar challenge to large swathes of the public sector. Information and data is crucially important, but staff don't always see it that way. The result is that the workplace culture surrounding information needs an overhaul.

But while the MoD and the Home Office struggle to impart to their staff the wisdom of not taking databases to the pub, Connolly has a different message for his team.

His aim is to collect valuable, detailed data on assets -when they break, how they break, and why. By looking at the most common cause of failure, or at how often something breaks, Tube Lines can tailor a maintenance programme around the behaviour of the equipment.

"The information is in many ways as important as the asset itself, because it tells us what to do with the asset. This is hugely important," he says.

"In order to get reliable management of information, you have got to start at where that information actually comes from," says Connolly. "In our case, information comes from a dirty tunnel at 3am where someone's got a spanner in one hand and - hopefully - a pencil in the other."

He wants employees to adopt a similar approach to information as that of airlines or the manufacturing industry. Airlines must maintain their aircraftto high standards of safety, getting everything right first time. Tube Lines has a similar challenge - to make sure its services are safe, with the right maintenance job done at the right time. The collection of information needs to be uniform and disciplined, or the maintenance regimes built on it will fail.

"In many ways I am trying to drive a big culture change," said Connolly. "One of the reasons we are so good at safety is everybody is really clear that it is non-negotiable. We would never dream of compromising safety. Now I'm asking the organisation to take a similar stance on the quality of information."

Connolly will not upgrade Tube Lines' IT systems until he thinks the company is using the IT it already has effectively. He wants to get the basics right, he says, before adding new features.

The other important aspect surrounding IT culture change is engaging with executives. Connolly has focused on bridging the communication gap that often exists between IT and the rest of the business, in an attempt to bring expectations of what IT can achieve to a realistic level. Each quarter, he meets to discuss information and IT with the rest of the board, talking about everything from the progress of specific projects to information strategy.

"It means the team looks at something in a structured way rather than IT being the stuff you jam in between audit reports and any other business. It's very focussed.

"It's better than the head of IT consistently being on the end of a series of requests, and it's a better way to get realistic expectations."

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