The significant disruption to Queensland Rail passengers on Christmas Day points to the risks and costs of failing to properly transform Workforce Management (WFM) systems.

Christmas Day 2016 is a day that South East Queensland commuters are unlikely to forget. As Australians around the country settled in to enjoy festivities with family and friends, many Queenslanders were left stranded as a significant number of trains were late or did not turn up at all.

Of the 730 scheduled services on the Queensland Train Network (SEQ), 235 were canceled. That’s more than 30 per cent of its services unavailable.

By any measure, it’s a serious failing of public transport. So what led to such a debacle on Christmas Day of all days?

Seeking the Root Cause for a Political Hot Potato

Companies and organisations that provide essential services are at risk of significant brand damage when users experience unexpected service outages – you only need look at Vodafone and Telstra to see the potential backlash from customers who are inconvenienced by an unexpected lack of access to a service that is part of daily life.

For it to have occurred on Christmas Day, the cancellation of over 30 per cent of scheduled train services in South East Queensland was an unexpected disruption for commuters and created an enormous backlash from the public who had few alternatives to travel.

As the backlash bit and the PR blame game got underway between the stakeholders, the true root causes of the Christmas Day transport failures weren’t immediately apparent. The issue appeared to be a straightforward operational issue of a shortage of train drivers.

But is the lack of train drivers the beginning and the end of the story or does it point to more fundamental issues with of an organisation failing to adequately transform itself, in particular with a critical business system like WFM?

A Significant Disruption Mired by Limited Flexibility to Respond

We may never know the full extent of the issues that lead up to the challenges on Christmas Day.

However, reports from Queensland Rail and other agencies point to a significant transformation failure that has been years in the making: Driver availability issues arising due to rostering requirements in enterprise agreements (EBA), higher than anticipated absences, and an often times manual rostering system with limited flexibility to respond to unexpected change are all factors identified as points of failure.

Queensland Rail’s report states that ‘… rostering arrangements and rules applicable to train crew are complex and the electronic systems utilised by Queensland Rail for timetable services and roster train crew are aged and heavily dependent on manual intervention where changes are required….” (p 6, Report on service disruptions on 25 December 2016, Queensland Rail).

Current driver resourcing levels are kept relatively low which mean Queensland Rail is reliant on the discretionary acceptance of additional shifts and overtime by train crews to meet service levels.

Read that again: the business model relies upon discretionary overtime to be regularly taken up to maintain a base-level service.

The Queensland Rail report to the Queensland Minister for Transport stated that the on-going reliance on the discretionary take up of shifts was a significant issue. This situation was greatly exacerbated by the further reduction in the number of drivers available to be rostered due to the rostering requirements specified in the train crew’s EBAWhen assessed, QR revealed that only 92 drivers out of 521 (17%) were available to be rostered on Christmas day.

The Whole View: Strategic Transformation vs Tactical Automation

The current business model points to fundamental challenges for QR, such as being reliant on tactical solutions, often requiring manual intervention, rather than viewing the whole workforce management planning as a transformation and change strategy.

A Rosteror must understand client side demand, service supply and demand including the EBA rules which govern the supply of workforce. It is imperative that organisations have data driven insights to predict, interpret and adequately optimise and manage their workforce. In short these can only be effectively delivered by robust automated systems.

QR went on to openly state that their existing rostering systems and processes were under considerable pressure due to the need to manually manage timetable and job card changes resulting in significant effort to reschedule when the unavailability of train crew arose (taking days not hours).

What rubs salt into the wound for public transport customers is that QR knew they had a problem with rostering but were unable to define the extent of it and its impact on service delivery via a robust business case, again a standard project deliverable, that could have been the catalyst for transformational change.

QR has acknowledged the need to implement a new, automated Workforce Management System – the planning and implementation of which had been delayed over many years due to poor disciplines and a lack of leadership in the project space.

While it is due to implement new software systems as part of the Workforce Management Systems Project to manage its roster and schedule resources, there are more than just demand patterns and service capacity to consider.

What can similar organisations learn from these failures?

The starting point is an acknowledgment that Rostering is a function however it exists within a broader process we call People to Pay. And it is a critical business function that must be automated wherever possible.

At the highest level organisations need to be able to seamlessly integrate their People System, their Rostering System, their Time and Attendance System and their Pay.

These integration activities are often driven by projects. Integration, however, is one part of the workforce strategy process. WFM transformation requires a broader perspective and alignment with strategy, supported an understanding of the data available within the organisation and of the human behaviours that influence the workforce.

To be truly dynamic, responsive, and customer-centric, an organisation needs to gather data and generate insights from all of its workforce management, HCM, and other systems to generate appropriate rosters, manage a flexible workforce, and respond to changing business conditions in a timely manner so that they can effectively communicate with their customers about any disruptions to service.

To do this, an organisation must always be ready to transform when the need arises, particularly in the WFM and HCM space, and be able to have the important strategic conversations that will in time lead to targeted project activities. BAU will often only cut it for so long – at some point, you need to bring in the transformation project professionals to take your business to the next level.

Failures in WFM transformation can cripple your business. The final costs, be they financial, operational or reputational, are not always immediately clear. But you can guarantee these cost impacts will include workforce disengagement, customer dissatisfaction, and on-going brand damage. For organisations faced with the above risks to their business due to their reliance on antiquated WFM systems and practices surely the question to transform their WFM is really a one of ‘how and when’ not ‘if’.

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