04-12-2018 Door: Adrian Reed

Real Control versus 'Driving the DLR'

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The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is an automated light railway system that helps people transit around the bustling metropolis of London. Unlike the underground 'tube' and the main rail network, the DLR is driverless. The trains shuttle about their duty, computer controlled and remotely monitored.

The fact that they are automated and driverless means that you can sit right at the front—and more than once I’ve seen a kid at the front pretending she or he is the driver. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some adults doing the same! Of course, the reality is that however much they pretend to control the train, however much they pretend to pull levers and look at dials, nothing they can do will affect the journey. The only way they could immediately affect the journey is to pull the emergency stop handle (which would be a very bad idea on a busy commuter train!).

As I watched someone playfully ‘pretending’ to drive the DLR, it struck me that far too many projects (and organisations) are run this way. There is someone in charge - perhaps because they have been given the role, or perhaps by virtue of their level of seniority - and they spend time looking at reports, enquiring as to why things are ‘red’ and ‘amber’ and seeking to steer the project (or organisation) in a particular direction. The challenge is that organisations are not always “wired” to ensure that the ‘drivers’ get the feedback that they need, when they need it—meaning they can’t make the corrective action that they need to make. They only see things when it is too late, their options are limited and so often they have to take drastic and sudden action. The only control open to them at this point is to pull the emergency brake.

Nested Feedback Signals
Presumably, the DLR functions because a computer keeps a constant eye on speed, obstructions on the track and other vital signs. The location of each DLR is monitored, and if anything unexpected happens, presumably someone in a control room is paged to work out what action to take (and whether it’s necessary to re-route trains). I’d expect that feedback signals are monitored at varying levels—carriage, train, network etc. Of course, if all else fails, there is a big red handle that anyone can pull in an emergency—if something so unexpected happens that it hadn’t been foreseen, there is still a way of halting the train. Although the train system in the UK is far from perfect, in some ways it is amazing it works at all given the complex mixture of routes, rolling-stock and resources that are needed to make it run.

This is similar to projects in an organisation. Projects, like trains, run around gaining momentum. Yet does feedback really get to leaders and decision makers quickly enough? Or are there projects that are ‘green with a desperate shade of red’? And even if each project in isolation is being managed well, who is managing the ‘rail network’ of projects? Or are we all just individual train drivers reaching a (totally predictable) bottleneck proclaiming that ‘our train (project) is the most important’?

Good analysis enables timely decision making
As business analysts, we have a crucial role to play here.  We can ensure that the right types of metric are defined and collected during the project and once the change goes live to indicate successful and functional operation of the change.  We can help people decide in advance what would cause them to slow down, halt or change direction. So often, we are in a position to see risks that others can’t, and it’s crucial that we articulate this. We can build in ‘emergency stop handles’ at different levels in the project. Sometimes a stakeholder might just need to stop a particular piece of work as they feel it is going off track. This can be as simple as raising a red card in a workshop. Other times, we might need to collectively ‘put the brakes’ on a project because something externally has fundamentally changed. This might be a painful conversation, but nowhere near as painful as delivering something that is functionally fantastic but now totally irrelevant. By ensuring subtle signals are conveyed first, we aim to avoid this type of more drastic action.

So, do the decision makers in your organisation get the data and feedback they need to make informed decisions and subtle corrections? Or are they ‘driving the DLR’, with only one option: suddenly hit the emergency brake.

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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