Profiles in Leadership - Dr Christian Roberts

I have known Dr Christian Roberts for a long time now after meeting with him on a project in the rail industry in Liverpool in the UK. He is one of the disciplines real theoricians, with a knack for getting things done. Every single time I get involved in the big issues surrounding rail Dr Chris is there somewhere; normally right in the center of it all. Notable in this is his time working with the London Underground, as well as his time with the ill fated Metronet contractor in the UK. Making his points of view some of the most unique in the game today. His time in leadership in some of the worlds leading rail companies, combined with his dedication to the Institute of Asset Management and its goals easily qualify him as one of the thought leaders in the discipline of physical asset management. And, like most people in our game, he is a heck of a nice guy also. Q1. The last time we spoke you had recently started trying to do some great things over at Metronet. Although in the infrastructure sectors, do you think there's any lessons there for asset managers globally? It’s been a while since we spoke! Just over two years ago I took on a lead role to develop Metronet’s Asset Management system. I had two roles – as Professional Head of Asset Management set out the overall Asset Management Strategy and advised discipline Heads on Asset Strategies and Asset Management Plans – as Programme Director for Metronet’s AMR Development programme I had overall responsibility for delivery of business and IM change and improvement projects, using both internal and external resources. It was definitely an interesting time for Metronet, but I would say despite the bad-press the company got, its performance was within what was to be expected. We have to remember that when Metronet took over the infrastructure there was little information to base decisions on and the infrastructure was in a very poor state. I‘m not saying they did everything right, but they had at least identified the need for improvement and put in place a not insignificant programme to develop its asset management capability. I often get asked about lessons learnt from my time in both Metronet Rail and London Underground (I was the Interim Head of Asset Management Development there for 18months). I guess the real lessons are: -
  • Make sure key stakeholders are involved – we spent a lot of time in Metronet ensuring LU were on-board with our plans for asset management improvement. This really helped to gain support internally also as people could see their efforts were not wasted as the client was on board.
  • Understand where you are and where your going – both in LU and Metronet, my roles were about developing a function within the company – setting out a clear future ‘blueprint’ is vitally important as it helps to drive through the change process.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate – Communication is probably the most important lesson I would pass onto clients. It is absolutely vital that every is ‘on the same page’. Communicating through newsletters, briefings etc helps to achieve this.
I’m now with Gutteridge Haskins and Davey and in my role as practice manager for the UK’s management consulting services have the opportunity to put these lessons into practice in other areas of the rail industry and other sectors. Q2. Are there any real substantive differences between the way rail infrastructure asset management is conducted in the USA and the UK? Any crossover leading practices that you can share? Absolutely. I could answer the question quickly (rather bluntly) by saying, in general, asset management is not ‘done’ in the US and it is ‘done’ in the UK. However, this is a little unfair. The UK, I believe is effectively 15years ahead of the US. Many of the things I am talking to people about now, where being considered by the UK in the early 1990’s. The US has a very different regulatory framework than the UK – its safety only as opposed to safety and economic regulation in the UK. This results in different drivers for the industry – in the UK it is fair to say that regulators ‘kick started’ the asset management agenda in rail. There’s some things we (UK) can learn from the US also. Service delivery – there appears to be more focus in the US on meeting demands from customers than there is in the UK. New York for example spend considerable time planning their works to ensure no customer is inconvenienced more than once (they have extensive modeling capability to achieve this). The main cross over’s are learning from the Brits in terms of whole life asset management approaches to managing the infrastructure. I also believe that there is increasing interest in how the Federal Government can become more of an economic regulator, and so there is probably one or two things to be learnt there also. Q3. Given your involvement in the IAM, and global experience with Asset Management, are you seeing any movement towards AM Frameworks like the PAS-55? Or do you think that industry over there will look to develop its own guidelines? There are one or two industry specific frameworks, certainly in highways for example, which is more, mature and has guidelines. There is also interest in the International Infrastructure Management Manual (IIMM) and PAS-55. Some (National Grid for example) who have UK operations are seeking to learn internally from this – I know NG is looking to certify NG-USA. I guess at some point develop they will develop there own guidelines – however I would like to think that being active over there I can make the connect back to the UK and that any development is effectively advancing the subject rather than re-inventing it. Q4. You deal with big projects and big issues, almost exclusively. What is the number one issue when trying to embed change and what tips can you offer to others for dealing with this? I dabble with small projects also! The issue is no matter what you’re trying to change it’s always a big thing because people do not like change. As I said in one of the earlier questions the big issue with change is communicating, making sure everyone is on board and heading in the right direction (knowing the direction helps also). He some other tips:
  1. Boot Camp – Train all staff from a common starting point (from CEO down to at least Supervisor level) – and cultivate people rather than weed them out.
  2. Study the past – learn from yours and other organizations mistakes
  3. Create a sense of mission (the future blueprint for example) – issue a core values card (a mouse mat for example)
  4. Create a CEO’s reading list.
  5. Make the challenge to belong to the corporate – APPEAL
I have always used the book “Semper-Fi – Business Leadership the US Marine Corps Way” as guidance for my change projects – it sounds severe but the approach is both logic and applicable. Q5. In infrastructure particularly we see a dramatic drive to whole-of-life asset management. What are the present constraints on this and do you see any point in the future when the skills for this will become more widely available in the marketplace? (Or is this just not the issue I think it is) The main constraints are lack of information, and inadequate people understanding and awareness. I do see a point in the future – probably around 5yrs in the UK maybe out to 10yrs US, were these constraints are really lifted and effective decision making can happen. There is increasing interest in UK utility and transport providers on better education of asset management staff. I have already started talking to Universities around the UK about transferring GHD’s training programme which is linked to a MBA in Australia into the UK. Q6. Every time I get involved in any really big issues related to the rail industry you are somewhere near the heart of them. A fantastic track record, whats the next couple of "wow" projects you can share with us? Thank-you! I think its because Asset Management forefront of the rail industry for over ten years. Why? Because it brings together two major constraints – finances and condition of assets. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in some very interesting work working with some very interesting people and often learning as much from the process as the client. I hope to be working for at least another 30 years – in that time I believe AM will be a firm foundation in rail businesses. I believe the biggest opportunities now are looking at business transformation in US rail and transit. There is a clear indication that organizations and government wish to be doing things better – this with increasing awareness of climate change, and the increasing costs of gas are causing man more people to re-think transportation in the US (moving away from car and air travel to greener mass and rapid transit systems). In the UK Underground there is still much to be done, things are starting to happen and there is a fantastic interest around the place in really making it happen. I guess my experiences to date have been quite unique – another couple of years I’ll probably follow your lead and write a book – “Making Asset Management Happen” – you heard it hear first! If you enjoyed this post please consider subscribing in a reader, or you can also receive The Art of Change by Email.