Adam Roberts - Innovation



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Papers > Innovation


An innovative approach to Multi-Skilling on the Subterranean Railway (STR)

Adam A P Roberts



London Underground, like many organisations, has many competitive pressures from its stakeholders. These include: passenger hopes for better ticket prices and service and includes the employee’s expectation of job security. Central to achieving these improvements is the more efficient delivery of the service and asset maintenance. Consequently, an innovative leap in operational efficiency would be desirable. 

This paper examines a proposal for such an idea and investigates the issue of an innovative project development and delivery, to better understand the challenge. It is suggested that by reviewing the concept of multi-skilling station staff and introducing an engineering contingent during the day, allowing them to take over some operational function when required, would serve to address many of these issues. This is not a new concept as it has previously, been introduced into other industries, with apparent success.

London Underground currently utilise a single engineering contractor to maintain the majority of their stations electrical, mechanical, fire and communications assets. This paper suggests that part of this engineering work force could complete their duties on the station during traffic hours, allowing operatives to conduct various planned maintenance tasks and at the same time. In the event that the station requires additional operational staff during the day, the engineer would be available to fulfil this role.

This will not only have the potential to increase engineering productivity by up to 50%, but will also solve the issues of a reduced specialised operational workforce during peak times, suggesting a further cost saving.  

Word Count: 4902

Key Words: Innovation, Multi-Skilling, Strategic, Success, People


The purpose of this paper is to look at an innovative method of reducing operational costs to a subterranean railway (STR). The railway is currently being subsidised by public funding and that the company has been tasked with reducing this requirement by the year 2020. There are several areas that may be addressed to assist in reducing the cost to a STR, however for the purpose of this paper, a single innovative method of reducing the cost of the STR’s labour requirement at stations, will be the focus.

Research has been, on the labour required to manage the STR inclusive of operations, maintenance and project staffing, resulting in an innovative approach on how to make use of fewer personnel in a multi functional or multi skilled role. Williamson (1992); Cross (1996); Burleson et al. (1998) suggest that research results indicate that multiskilling can increase the productivity, quality, and continuity of work, while providing for a safer workplace and providing managers more flexibility in assigning tasks.

The network currently have a plan in place to reduce the number of employees and to increase the service cost to the public by a rate that exceeds the annual inflation rate. This is unacceptable to both the unions, who are obviously adverse to job cuts or pay cuts of any description and to the public who are adverse to any reduction of service and any increase in service charges. However, this course of action is inevitable and unavoidable as the network is currently not self-sustaining and relies on public funding. Unless a new and innovative method is introduced which protects the employees, increases the service levels, allows for commuter pricing to be increased at an acceptable rate year on year and decreases the overall business outturn costs, the prices will continue to rise and jobs will continue to be lost, having a negative effect on the service provided.

This paper will focus on an innovative method of how the industry can reduce their existing labour cost, by introducing a strategic approach in multi skilling and will argue that this approach will also increase productivity of the network without having a detrimental effect on public service. Gomar, Haas and Morton (2012), define a multi skilled workforce as one in which the workers possess a range of skills that allow them to participate in more than one work process.

Research on non-related industries that have previously implemented similar types of change in their organisations, was carried out detailing how these industries have reduced their labour requirements and increased productivity in the past and how similar techniques may be adjusted to allow implementation of this type of innovation in the rail industry. 

White papers and textbooks have been reviewed looking at both opposing and non-opposing views of similar innovations implemented around the globe and a discussion on how this would affect the STR and what would need to be done differently to avoid any pitfalls experienced by other industries.

Open dialog, between different groups of individuals that work within the industry, is reviewed detailing the consensus of acceptance and resistance of such an innovation. 


London Underground (LU) has gone through consultation to investigate the best way to reduce costs. Transport for London (TfL), the main transport body have come up with “Project Horizon” an initiative which effectively streamlines the processes of the multiple transport companies, reducing the requirement for duplicating jobs. TfL (2012)The purpose of the review was to design a new structure and ways of working” as LU forms a part of the main transport body, they are expected to align their cost reduction methods with the parent company. The total amount of jobs that were being targeted across the board at TfL, were 3,700; TfL (2012)3,700 were directly in scope. Of these, 306 people had a request for Early Voluntary Severance agreed and a further 131 were unsuccessful in securing a role through selection and assessment.” Although TfL did not expect the changes to have a negative impact on service, the loss of jobs has a reputational disadvantage to the company.

LU had to make their own changes, and they made the decision to cut over 1000 jobs. The Union’s however do not see the cost saving as a positive step and have released articles describing the negative impact that they believe that the staff reductions will have on the network. RMT London Calling <02/03/2012>1,000+ jobs, mainly admin, cut under Project Horizon so far” “On 18 November 2012, RMT marked the 25th anniversary of the King’s Cross fire, in which 31 people died. To prevent tragedies like this happening again, we must protect LU’s safety standards and staffing levels” They also draw attention to the requirement for additional staff at stations and not for a reduction of station staff. “We can already feel the effects of short staffing and underfunding: ticket offices closed; station staff rushed off our feet or working alone….”

The public also voiced their concern by calling for a meeting regarding the unmanned ticket offices, which they feel may result in safety issues. London Calling <02/03/2013>  “Despite the promises made by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson before his election, that staff and services would remain intact on London Underground, TfL has announced that 700-800 posts are to be removed. London Underground wants to get rid of up to 650 multi-functional and Customer Service Assistant positions along with 150 other staff”

LU currently has an annual staff bill of around £1 Billion, which would suggest that the reason for the job cuts is a direct method of cost saving. Mayor Watch <02/03/2013>Boris Johnson has revealed it cost £1.05 billion to staff the Tube in the 2011/12 financial year”. This implies that LU is required to cut costs, deliver a ‘world-class’ service, to protect its reputation, while preserving its work force. There is also the added issue that although they are looking to reduce the permanent work force by large numbers, they have large external contractors operating within the network, performing a maintenance role for the company. In addition, they have an internal contract labour force known as NPL (Non Permanent Labour) working for the company in a variety of different roles. Mayor Watch <02/03/2013>The figures exclude the costs of contractors and staff employed by private companies delivering TfL services”

LU has adopted various strategies to combat their issues and are continually making adjustments to achieve the best results possible. The purpose of this paper is to offer an alternative option, which can be implemented in a staged approach, which could, if required, only effect small areas at any given time making the transition seamless.

The ideas that are provided in this paper have been adopted in other non related industries across the globe where they have had success, however it would be an innovative approach for the railway,, as it is unknown if this approach has ever been adopted by any other railway’s in the world before now.

Davila, Epstein & Shelton (2006) <Kindle Ref 313 of 5708>For any organisation, innovation represents not only the opportunity to grow and survive but also the opportunity to significantly influence the direction of the industry” This implies that change and innovation are closely related and unless companies continue to change, they are in danger of stagnating and possibly failing. Davila, Epstein & Shelton (2006) <Kindle Ref 527 of 5708> goes on to say, “Innovation is a fundamental element of long term success”

Mondi Paper (South Africa) introduced an idea of integrating the engineering work force with their operational work force in the early 90’s. This idea came from the requirement to reduce overheads and to increase productivity. It is not possible to maintain a paper machine whilst producing paper; similarly, production is not possible during maintenance of the paper machine. Mondi planned to multi skill (up skill) both the operational staff and the engineering staff to be competent in carrying out both roles. When the paper machine was running the engineering staff were competent to work alongside the operational staff ensuring the safe operation of the equipment. In the event that the equipment was to break down or shut down, the operational staff was competent to work with the engineers ensuring that the equipment was repaired or maintained. Bethlehem (1993)Workers are multi-skilled, and arrange their own work methods. Output at the mill has increased rapidly under this system (ILO 1992)” This process has similar characteristics as in the STR industry, whereby maintenance is unrealistic during rail operational hours and the majority of operational staff do not work during maintenance hours. Anthony (2012)The most reliable way to innovate is to borrow an idea from another field

Currently, the majority of maintenance at LU happens between 00h30 and 04h30, known as “Engineering hours”. TfL <02/03/2013>London Underground define Engineering hours as: “- The period of time between the published time or actual time, if later, traction current is switched off and the published time or amended time, if earlier, traction current is switched on. Note therefore that Engineering Hours cannot be extended” which would suggest that although the maintenance workers would still receive full payment for an 8 hour shift, they could not possibly produce more than 4 hours productivity. This would imply that the current efficiency of the maintenance team working at LU can not exceed 50%.


A root cause analysis was carried out on the available documentation, to obtain a better understanding of the insufficient funding at LU.

A review of white papers written about similar obstacles that non-related industries have experienced in the past have been completed and ideas have been extrapolated to form the basis of the innovation that has been identified as a result of this paper.

A group of project professionals working for both the London Underground Limited (LUL) and working for various contractors and sub contractors, where interviewed in an open type discussion. Further meetings took place with people from different backgrounds and with individuals that travel on the Underground and live in the area in order to attempt to extract opposing ideas and theories.


Open discussion 1
An open discussion between four individuals with over 50 years engineering experience, working on various LU projects, was held in a relaxed environment. The individuals were encouraged to look for fault and to offer ideas to enhance the innovation. All individuals thought that the innovation was a good idea, however in order for the innovation to be effective it would need rigorous testing and research. The majority of the test group raised the concern that operational staff may not have the aptitude to work within an engineering field. Other concerns were that it might not be conducive for an engineer to have to stop working on a potentially “dirty” or urgent engineering task to assist in an operational task that may require customer interface. This would then be compounded if the operational staff that is assigned to assist the engineer may now also be unable to assist in the operational emergency due to being required to complete the engineering task or by not being appropriately attired to interface with the public. Members of the group in further discussions mitigated all concerns discussed and suggested that in reality any tasks that had the potential to cause the engineers clothing to become soiled would not be planned during the day, unless it was an emergency or a breakdown that required immediate attention. Not all operational staff would be required to take on engineering tasks and visa versa, as there would still be a requirement for specialised operational staff and engineers.


Anthony (2012)defines Innovation as “Something different that has impact” this again implies that change and innovation are closely linked and as LU are continually changing and are always looking for new methods to increase their service levels and decrease expenses they may be open to an innovative idea to obtain those goals and objectives. 

The innovation in summary

LUL employ both operational and engineering staff who, due to the nature of the operational railway, are generally not working at the same time. The engineering workforce is currently only capable of producing a 4 hours window of productivity through a 24-hour period due to the working railway constraints. The operational staff on the other hand are able to work through 20 hours of the 24 hour day, but due to the off peak times where the passenger numbers are low there is no requirement for such large numbers of operational staff at each station.

It is possible to complete some engineering activities during “traffic hours” but not viable as many activities can be started during traffic hours but may need to be completed during engineering hours. The thinking behind this innovation is that LU could train their operational staff to become multi-skilled. In this way the current operational staff would then be capable of assisting engineers in their tasks that can be completed during the normal operational hours of the railway, thus with their operational knowledge they could ensure that all operational policies and procedures were followed and that there was no danger to passenger.
In the same manner the engineers can be trained to become multi-skilled in operations, thus in the event of an emergency or a sudden influx in passengers through a station the engineer would be capable of assisting the operational staff with passenger control.

Anderson (2010)One study of 131 US companies by the Texas Center for Productivity and Quality of Work Life showed that profits increased by up to 40% as a result of multi-skilling and other innovative work practices

This would seem to solve many of LU’s problems:

·       The station operational staff numbers will in effect not be reduced, removing the safety case raised by the public and Unions, as although the operational staff numbers will be reduced there would still be sufficient staff at the station to respond to any issues if required.

·       By completing some less intrusive maintenance work during the day (any back of house maintenance, e.g. lighting, air-conditioning faults, etc.), this would allow more time to complete critical engineering tasks, that cannot be completed during the day, during the 4 hour engineering time slot every night.

·       This would also have the added benefit of increasing the engineer’s productivity from 4 to 8 hours per 24-hour period. Any reduction in working hours, due to a short engineering shift, would be absorbed by the operational duties that the engineer would be required to continue with during operational hours.

·       This will also have the added benefit of having engineers on site 24 hours a day, which will most certainly increase the current service level offered to the public, by being able to respond to any engineering issues raised during traffic hours, with an almost immediate effect.

·       Most importantly, this would have an impact on LU’s expenses, allowing them to increase profitability.prefer to concentrate on the routine things they perform well”. In this case, it is evident that change is required and that LU’s management teams are constantly searching for the best innovation to move them forward. An incorrect innovation however could cause irreparable damage to the company and the company’s reputation.

It may be argued that the merging of the operational and engineering teams could prove to be ineffective, due to the fact that operational staff have both the aptitude and interest to work with the public, whereby the engineering staff may not have these interests or interpersonal skills. In the same respect, operational staff may not have the technical acumen or interest to work within an engineering environment and may not have any interest in sharing the engineering roles and responsibilities.

Greenstreet Berman Ltd (2001) produced a document for the Health and Safety executive, on the effects that Multi-skilling has on health and safety. Although they were inconclusive in their report regarding the positive / negative impact that multi-skilling has on health and safety, they were able to produce some valid observations stating that the multi-skilling of operators and engineers was a proactive way of reducing downtime. “In this way process operators are reducing the likelihood of downtime, as well as actually reducing downtime by assisting maintenance personnel to carry out maintenance tasks” in the case of LU the process operator would be the station operational staff.

There is also the issue that a multi-skilled employee could expect additional remuneration and some of the cost saving that would be expected by the merging of the departments would be lost. This innovation will also not necessarily appease the unions, as one would not expect that the unions would be happy with the loss of any jobs (members); although this innovation addresses the public concern by maintaining the operational staff numbers on the station it will still result job losses.

Adversely, the unions may support this approach, as it would allow their remaining members to receive further training, resulting in additional skills. The influx of engineers into the stations would also offer the unions the opportunity to attract new members, although there would still be a reduction in the total number of personnel.


Service provider




Personnel cost reduction

Enhanced quality of work

Faster response time

Higher retention rates

Unlock hidden personnel talents

.     Job variety

.     Higher pay

.     Better promotion prospects

.     Increased job satisfaction and 

.     Additional skills acquisition

• Lower contract costs

• Improved service quality


Higher training costs

Disruption to organisation

Contract risk

•    Some employees may lose jobs

•    Role conflicts

•    Inability to perform new job

• Contract risk

 Anderson. M (2010) - Overview of benefits and drawbacks of multi-skilled job design

To assess the possible effectiveness of this innovation a number of tests could be conducted in isolation, this would allow for any inadequacies to be flushed out as early as possible.It would also be prudent to assume that this innovation is flawed, as there are a number of areas that will be interrelated and could have a knock on effect if implemented. McGrath (2009) states that “your first idea is wrong, so, as quickly as possible, implement a careful plan to learn which of your assumptions are flawed” This could also be down to confirmation bias, meaning that people will see what they want to see. “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest” - Paul Simon. It may be assumed, that any innovation will require testing to some degree and in this respect testing could be conducted on a single station, allowing problems to be identified in isolation of all other personnel and work groups.


Like any innovation, there are many reasons why this one may be unsuccessful, however it would be prudent to conduct further investigation and possibly run some tests, due to the potential cost saving and repair to the reputational damage caused by “Project Horizon”. Bearing in mind that this innovation also has the potential to reduce overall staff levels while limiting the detrimental effect to the service offered to passengers, creating a cost saving.

Carver(2013)Non inclusion of stakeholders will cause project failure” It would be beneficial to ensure that all major stakeholders (Unions, Engineers, public interfacing bodies, operational staff, etc.) are involved in any further investigations to ensure that there is total “buy in”, in the event that this, or any hybrid of this innovation, is adopted.

Further testing would also include foundation level consultation with operational staff, allowing operational staff the opportunity to voice their opinion and to offer further ideas that would enhance the innovation. Anderson (2010)The employees must be involved throughout the entire process” Anderson goes on to say in his conclusion that “We conclude that multiskilling does indeed increase job satisfaction if – and only if – the process of introducing multiskilling is handled properly

This innovation offers the opportunity of incremental implementation. It is possible that once all administrative investigating has been satisfied, that a small area of the network could be utilised to perform tests to ensure the viability of the innovation. For example: A single station at the end of the Piccadilly line could serve as a test case to implement this innovation. If in a remote or unforeseen circumstance a disruption as serious as a station closure were to happen, then it would have very little effect to the rest of the network. Only the last station on that line would experience disruption.

Taking into account of the “the first idea is wrong” would suggest that there are be potentially many flaws in this innovative approach to solving the issues within LU. Heathcote (2013) proposes that:  “impossible situations and paradoxes are likely to assist greater creativity and should be seen as a starting point for innovation, not a reason to avoid trying to solve them

It is evident, from the research and discussions that the direction of this innovation addresses many of the issues identified and many stakeholder concerns, resulting in repair to LU’s reputation.

TfL would be in a position to undertake a more principled based or Interest Based type of Negotiation (IBN) with the Unions and the media rather than the existing positional ‘stand off’ that LU seem to be in. Ury & Fisher (2011) before trying to reach agreement, invent options for mutual gain” In this instance, a mutual interest to preserve jobs and to develop existing staff is created, whilst increasing the service levels to the public; thus addressing the interests of both the business and the stakeholders.

It would make sense to further investigate this innovation, with the foresight to looking into its viability for a long-term solution.     


1.     Scott D Anthony (2012); The little Black book of Innovation – Harvard Business School

2.     Tony Davila, Marc. J Epstein & Robert Shelton (2006); Making Innovation Work – Pearson Education Inc.




6.     Lael Bethlehem (1994); An industrial strategy for the Pulp & Paper sector - UCT


8.     Williamson (1992); Cross (1996); Burleson et al. (1998)

9.     Gomar. J; Haas. C and Morton. D (2012)

10.  Steven Carver (2013) APM lecture – Project / Programme success and failure

11.  Morten Kamp Anderson (2010) - Multiskilling and Job satisfaction in outsourcing – White Paper

12.  Greenstreet Berman Ltd (2001) - Development of a multiskilling life cycle model – Health and Safety Executive

13.  Laurie J. Mullins (2010); Management & Organisational behaviour 9th Edition – Prentice Hall

14.  John Heatcote (2013); Innovation - School of the Built Environment & Engineering, Leeds Metropolitan University

15.  Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister (2003); Waltzing with Bears – Managing Risk on software projects – Dorset House

16.  William Ury, Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton (2011); Getting to Yes – Penguin Books


ASTAD Project Management - QATAR, Doha


London Underground Limited 


NHS Homerton Trust


M J Quinn




Tube Lines Limited


RBEBS Limited Various


eVentFil Closed Corporation 


Filtra (Pty) LTD