Customer driven: Delivering roads for the future
When Highways England was established in 2015, it rightly introduced a much stronger focus on the customer. This has required a big change of focus for the industry which is not, somewhat oddly perhaps, instinctively used to considering the customer in its operations.
Balfour Beatty has therefore begun its own journey to better understand the customer and to design, build and innovate
to improve the customer experience, broadening out the
customer-focused culture from the rest of our business into
our Highways division.
This is not a journey without challenges. For example, the term “customer” in the highways sector, refers to different groups with sometimes conflicting needs and priorities. Nor are the customer’s priorities likely to remain static, which means that we must take what we know and project what that means for the future, to ensure we are investing in the right systems, skills and capabilities to be able to deliver. In short, while the customer is at the heart of how the rest of Balfour Beatty operates, becoming customer-focused has required our Highways business to change not only how it operates, but also how it thinks. But this is only as it should be. It is right that contractors step up to the plate and play their part in responding to the needs of the customer.
Beyond our own business, the industry as a whole will have to adapt in order to make these changes to deliver for the customer now and in the future based around Highways England’s three imperatives: safety, customer service and delivery. We will need to build on the pockets of collaboration that exist within the sector. We must work closely with Highways England and the Government in supporting them to deliver a more customer-focussed Strategic Roads Network (SRN), pushing the changes down to our own supply chains. And we will have to train and recruit the right people to ensure that they are equipped both with a customer-focussed mind-set and with the right skills to deliver the SRN for the future.
About Balfour Beatty
The UK’s largest construction contractor, Balfour Beatty, was founded in 1909 and is listed on the London Stock Exchange. With 15,000 employees and over 40 offices in the UK, Balfour Beatty finances, develops, builds and maintains the increasingly complex infrastructure that underpins the UK’s daily life. With a legacy of projects across transportation, power and utility systems, social and commercial buildings: from Crossrail and Heathrow T2b to the M25 and M4/M5; and Sellafield; to the Olympics Aquatic Centre, we are proud to be a British company delivering iconic structures, bold engineering feats, behind-the-scenes innovation and joined-up thinking, financing and partnerships.
Balfour Beatty has been an acknowledged leader in the transport sector for over a century. We specialise in delivering large, complex transport projects in partnership with our customers and are a leading provider of services to Highways England. Since 2009 Balfour Beatty has been working in partnership with Skanska, Atkins and Egis to deliver the £6.2 billion M25 DBFO project for Highways England, including the widening over 100km of the motorway to four lanes and conversion to all‐lane running, or ‘smart’ technology (the first fully operational scheme of its type in the UK). Other schemes delivered previously include the £371 million A3 Hindhead Tunnel, the £88 million M4/M5 ‘smart motorway’ scheme and the £360 million A46 Newark to Widmerpool Improvement Scheme.
Key points and recommendations
The Highways construction industry has not traditionally focussed directly on delivering for the customer. This must change: customer-focus must become an integral part of the sector’s strategic planning as well as underpinning our operational activity. Decisions must begin with what the customer needs.
- Constructing new roads and upgrading existing ones to meet the needs of the future road user has a significant impact on both today’s road user and on local communities around the schemes. The key focus must be on how to minimise this disruption, delivering for the customer’s future needs while reducing the impact on the customer today.
- Communication with road users and local communities must be improved, and must become more reliable, making full use of all communications channels and technology such as bespoke customer apps for each project.
- Innovative construction techniques and digital technology such as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) can reduce build time by 30-50% by allowing the work on two phases or more to take place simultaneously, reducing costs, time onsite and the impact on the motorist and local communities.
- New skills will be needed in the existing and future highways construction workforce to ensure customer focus and to ensure that the sector has the digitally trained workforce needed to undertake more construction offsite.
- Ensuring the SRN is well supported by high quality local roads and a robust new Major Road Network will also help network resilience.
- Balfour Beatty welcomes proposals to create a Local Priorities Fund. Ways of securing long-term investment must also be secured, for example, allowing local authorities to raise more money for road maintenance and improvements.
- Serious consideration must be given to making the SRN self-financing over the long-term, with the aim of ultimately achieving zero maintenance costs by creating additional value through the asset – such as using the asset to generate electricity to sell back to the grid.
With 4 million people using the SRN every day1 and demand forecast to grow by over 40% by 20402, it is a core national asset and the backbone of the British economy. Its smooth, safe operation is essential to keep the country moving. But alongside the need to keep this critical infrastructure in good condition for today and ensure it is ready to meet future demand, this there is an additional challenge: to improve the focus on the customer.
Although it may seem obvious that the highways industry, as most other industries, should be focussed on what the customer wants, it is not how the sector has traditionally operated. On top of the evolution to a more customer-centric approach is the additional challenge that the customer is not a uniform bloc with simple, unified needs. “The customer” simultaneously encompasses the road user, who wants safe, reliable, stress-free journeys; those living and working in communities around the network, who want it to impose as little as possible on their environment and daily lives; and the taxpayer, who wants the best possible price for building and maintaining of the network. A further complication in this equation is the drive for value for money for the public pound, which should lead to the consideration of both whole-life costs and social value, but often still relies on lowest price cost.
Furthermore, given the lead-in times on both maintenance and new schemes and the speed at which technology is evolving, the industry must respond not only to the existing needs of the customer, but also to what the customer will need in the future.
At the heart of becoming centred around the customer is understanding and responding to what the customer wants from the SRN. Highways England has identified five key customer priorities3 which should guide this:
- Feeling safe on the network;
- Trusting what they’re being told;
- Being listened to;
- Stress-free journeys;
- And being in control of their journeys.
Balfour Beatty’s Highways business has started its journey to become a truly customer-centred organisation. The process has led us to develop a cache of new ideas which will add real value to the customer. For example, Balfour Beatty believes that several of the above priorities can be best addressed in the short-term by improving the way that Highways England and its contractors communicate with customers. In the next few years, we believe that taking the successful technology that has been used on Smart Motorways and building on it, is the best approach. This includes approaches such as using existing 3D interactive models of schemes to test how signage can be used to minimise delay and incidents. Communicating better with the customer by providing more reliable information about road works, more detailed, updated in real-time, with projected traffic wait times and automatically recalibrated diversion routes to help manage the flow of traffic. We must provide information the road user can trust to ensure that they get the safe, stress-free journey they want.
In the medium-to-long-term, we are planning how to do away altogether with the roadworks we know customers hate – or at least how to keep to them to a minimum and to ensure that they cause as little disruption as possible. This could be based on a combination of increasing the use off offsite, modular ‘click and fit’ approaches; using mobile factories which are able to be moved around; 3D printing; and the use of self-healing surfaces. We will also aim to reduce the number of people working onsite, increasing the amount of automation, to improve safety and speed and to keep costs down.
Over this timeframe, contractors will not be putting out cones or widening motorways anymore. With self-driving cars rapidly becoming a reality, the roads themselves will also need to change completely to accommodate the new technology, resulting in a signage-free network without gantries, with roads surfaces embedded with solar panels. As investments in road infrastructure are expensive, we believe that serious consideration must be given to making the SRN self-financing, with the aim of achieving zero build and maintenance costs for the taxpayer, through innovative approaches such as selling electricity to the grid. In an understandably risk-averse industry, it can sometimes be hard to build a groundswell of support to make changes such as these, so we will stand ready to lend our support and expertise to bringing about change.
This is a significant agenda. Becoming more customer-focussed therefore calls for a change both to what the industry does and to how it goes about doing it. A step-change in how things have worked before. We look forward to playing our part in responding to the existing and future needs of the customer and in delivering safe, efficient and reliable journeys.
Addressing the tension between the needs of current and future customers
The Government estimates traffic on England’s roads could increase by up to 55% by 20404, while the cost of congestion is expected to increase 63% by 20305. The SRN must be ready to cope. Balfour Beatty welcomes the bold vision put forward by Highways England in its Strategic Road Network Initial Report6 which outlines a number of forward-leaning ideas to maximize the potential of technology to keep the country moving. These include the use of the Internet of Things to better manage traffic on Smart Motorways, and steps to ensure the network is ready for autonomous vehicles. These changes, aimed at future-proofing the network, will have a significant impact on the design, delivery and management of UK roads moving forward and will result in considerable improvements for road users.
In addition to these individual points, the Report outlines the overarching objective of delivering more reliable, seamless journeys for motorists using the SRN. While this is the right objective, it is also, in our view, the key area of tension between the needs of current and future customers. This is because improving journey times and reducing levels of congestion for the long-term requires road closures and roadworks in the short-term, as has been demonstrated following the unprecedented levels of investment
in the SRN flowing from the introduction of the first ever
Road Investment Strategy (RIS)1 in 2015. While these improvements are necessary, especially in the context of the
under-investment in the SRN in the decades preceding, it is the current customer who has to endure the negative impacts of major road schemes during the time they are construction projects, from the roadworks which slow or restrict traffic and which are motorists’ key cause for complaint to Highways England7, to the noise, dust and other disruption to local communities and businesses.
Much has already been done to try and minimise the frustration resulting from roadworks, with clearer signposting, real time journey information before and within roadworks zones, and many roadworks now taking place overnight. However, they remain a key cause for road user and local community dissatisfaction. Reducing the disruption stemming from roadworks will become an even greater challenge moving into RIS2, which will see further investment in the network beyond 2020. All those involved in working on and upgrading the SRN must therefore be focussed on how to minimise this disruption in order to square the circle of delivering for the customer’s future needs while reducing the impact on the customer today.
Balfour Beatty has developed a number of ideas to address this specific issue, based around two key themes:
- Improving the customer experience through better communication.
For those working on the SRN, the focus has understandably traditionally been on managing new upgrade work effectively and responding to and resolving incidents as quickly as possible. However, this approach makes worse what is already a frustrating situation for the motorist due to the increased journey times and uncertainty, by failing to treat them as people deserving of information about issues impacting their daily lives. Furthermore, poorly signposted diversions and confusing signage, delays in switching off traffic information signs once problems have been cleared, a perceived lack of urgency to complete roadworks, due to closed off lanes with no identifiable work taking place, and poorly programmed works which increase congestion, damage customer trust and increase frustration.
At the same time, customer expectations about the amount of information they receive, how regularly and in what format, have increased. We live in an age where information can be instantaneously updated and disseminated to a mass digital audience, who are able to access it via devices in their cars as easily as anywhere else. Those working in highways construction have, thus far, not kept pace.
Balfour Beatty therefore believes that the impact on the customer must be better managed via improved communication including the use of bespoke customer apps for each project to provide a more effective feedback mechanism to help refine communications during schemes, teamed with a Customer Insight Portal of information including live delay notifications, photos of progress, and advance warning of delays to keep customers informed. Building on our pioneering work in this area on customer insights and behavioural research, the Customer Insight Portal would also serve the purpose of providing more information about the customer and their needs in a feedback loop. For example, it is not just about what we communicate, but also how we do so. Part of that involves understanding what communications channels customers use and creating a communications strategy that works for them, applying skills and successful ideas from other sectors such as retail, rail travel and leisure – markets that excel at building trusted brands.
- Reducing the amount of time roadworks take, using new technology – with the ultimate goal of roadworks rarely being necessary.
Over the past decades, the way roads are built has seen only incremental changes. However, it is time to reimagine road construction in order to better deliver for the customer.
Much of this will require the increased use of innovative construction techniques and digital technology. For example, DfMA approaches, where structural components are manufactured off-site and assembled on site by small teams. This type of construction can reduce build time by 30-50% by allowing the work on two phases or more to take place simultaneously: while one part of the scheme is being completed onsite, the elements needed for the next phase can be constructed elsewhere. As well as delivering more quickly for the motorist, less time on-site means less impact on those living and working in the area surrounding the scheme, while a shorter construction time also minimises labour costs, leading to a more efficient scheme. With many motorists and local businesses calling for more accurate information relating to how long roadworks will take and when they will be completed8, the more reliable construction times these techniques allow are a key way of delivering for the customer.
Balfour Beatty is using new technology to improve the way we work in a number of other ways. For example using immersive technology to help develop schemes in a three-dimensional space. This has many benefits, but key amongst them are improving safety and quality. The benefits in both areas stem from the ability of those working on the schemes to experience them before it is built:
– In relation to improving quality, there are some issues which arise only once construction is underway, forcing work to come to a halt while it is resolved, increasing construction times and frustration for motorists and local communities and businesses. Virtual Reality enables those working on the scheme to view it from every angle and rehearse the build so they are able to spot issues in advance and develop and test solutions before construction begins.
– In terms of safety, Virtual Reality has the potential to significantly reduce the number of onsite accidents and improve highways construction safety. It achieves this by putting those working on the scheme into the situation they will experience in a fully immersive scenario, without the live risk, rather than briefing them orally, thus helping them retain the information better.
Building on success
Since its launch in 2015 Balfour Beatty’s Build to Last transformation programme has been aligning us more closely to our customers and their customers’ needs.
As part of this drive, Balfour Beatty’s Highways division has been building its customer insight expertise and ensuring we have a thorough understanding of the changing needs of the road user and of those living and working in communities around the schemes we undertake on the SRN. This includes bringing in individuals skilled in fostering better customer relationships, in communicating and providing excellent customer service, and in understanding how people interact with transport and technology, using that knowledge and information to help shape future transport solutions.
We are now building on the individual successes we have had and mapping beyond the current project level approach, to ensure that elements such as customer service are applied consistently across programmes.
Moving to off-site manufacturing
While many companies are beginning to consider off-site and modularisation on a case-by-case basis for new schemes, Balfour Beatty has made it a core part of our strategy. We have committed to reducing on-site activity by 25% by 2025. Supporting the Government’s 2025 strategy for lower cost, lower emissions and faster delivery, we aim to remove those activities we can from sites in order to free up our workforce’s time to focus on delivery.
We are building a culture where off-site eventually becomes the norm. Under our 25 by 2025 strategy, our Highways team have developed a philosophy of ‘Design in a day, change in a minute and build in a week.’ To help us deliver this, we are building a ‘digital core’ which will enable us to create standard solutions, develop libraries of standard products and to test their principles and buildability in a ‘Digital Rehearsal Room’. This space will enable us to test, destruct and refine solutions to deliver the best possible product.
Flowing from this is a move to autonomous design – our aspiration is to get to 70% autonomous design where standard solutions and standard products are plugged into 5D BIM models.
The interface between the SRN and local road network
Highways England has rightly recognised that most journeys do not begin or end on the SRN. The road user in many cases is not aware of the differences between the networks and will not differentiate between them. Ensuring that Highways England joins up more effectively with neighbouring highway authorities is therefore important in order to ensure that the road user has door-to-door journeys that are as seamless as possible. Ensuring the SRN is well supported by high quality local roads and a robust new
Major Road Network will also help network resilience.
Although local roads account for 98% of the network9 and carry two-thirds of the country’s traffic, the tight fiscal envelope local authorities operate within means that these roads often do not receive the investment they need resulting in poorly maintained local roads in some cases. Balfour Beatty therefore welcomes proposals to create a Local Priorities Fund as a way of providing increased funding certainty. However, it will be important that both Highways England and contractors working on the different networks interact and communicate effectively in order to deliver the seamless journeys and increased reliability the customer needs.
Other steps should also be taken to ensure investment continues over the long-term, for example, considering ways to enable to local authorities to raise more money for road maintenance and improvements.
Refocusing: becoming customer-centred
For the highways construction industry, addressing these points and becoming customer-centred requires a culture change. Customer-focus must become an integral part of our strategic planning as well as underpinning our operational activity. Decisions must begin with what the customer needs. The fact that this is not how the industry is used to operating, teamed with increasing customer expectations, means that there is an element of catch-up for the sector. Balfour Beatty believes that the sector’s approach should focus on three initial key steps:
- Understanding the customer: Using existing data more effectively to understand the customer and acting on it by making better decisions to improve the customer experience.
- Improving communication in both directions: Capitalising on the dynamic technology environment to pass reliable information on more quickly to the customer and receive feedback.
- Measure and optimise: Constantly check the impact of work on the customer via a feedback loop including surveys, call-centre logs, complaint lines, web feedback, and social media commentary. Then use the information to develop and improve.
Much of the imperative to refocus around the customer calls for new skills in the existing and future highways construction workforce. Not only to ensure that what the customer needs underpins all decisions, but also so that the sector has the digitally trained workforce needed.
With the move to off-site and other new construction techniques, the skills that the industry needs are changing dramatically. While traditional construction techniques are time-consuming and labour intensive on-site, off-site manufacturing requires a completely different approach. It requires highly-skilled and trained people to set it up, but fewer people. We also believe that the off-site workforce will be increasingly made up of multi-skilled operatives – people who can do many trades on-site rather than just one, so the balance of training will change.
There will also be a need for other, new skills to be invested in and developed. For example, those needed for the digital management of infrastructure. Off-site also requires infrastructure to be designed in detail at planning stage, which calls for the technical and design teams to work more closely together supported by greater use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and other integrated digital platforms.
This calls for both significant investment in the new skills the industry will need in the future from the sector itself, and for training and education providers to ensure they are ready with the training and apprenticeship programmes in off-site manufacture and management which will be needed.
Balfour Beatty supports moves to focus more attention on customers and has made good progress in its own journey to become customer-centred. We believe it is incumbent on contractors to keep the customer impact of work on the SRN to a minimum: to improve journey times, improve reliability and complete infrastructure upgrades as quickly and efficiently as possible. Contractors must also seek out innovative ways of doing so in the future to ensure that the SRN continues to deliver for all of those using it now and in the future.
1 Highways England, 2018
3 Customer Service strategy – Better journeys, better conversations, Highways England
4 Department for Transport, Transport Investment Strategy, 2017
5 The Centre for Economics and Business Research, October 2014
6 Strategic Road Network Initial Report, Highways England, December 2017
7 The National Road Users’ Satisfaction Survey, Transport Focus, July 2017
8 The National Road Users’ Satisfaction Survey, Transport Focus, July 2017
8 The National Road Users’ Satisfaction Survey, Transport Focus, July 2017