Over the last two years, a department of London Underground (LU) has delivered over £10m of repeatable savings and liberated over 50,000 working hours. Graeme Shaw, Head of Station Upgrades, describes the reasons for choosing lean and the design of the Lean Transformation Programme. 

Formerly part of the private sector infrastructure company Metronet, and latterly subsumed into LU, the Station Upgrades Division was viewed as fractured and inefficient. Worn down by bureaucratic procedures, it had a reputation for cost overruns. It was the antithesis of a lean organisation.

We introduced visualisation as a way of establishing open, honest and timely reporting, not as a conscious deployment of lean. However, this sparked further thoughts, from which the LTP was developed.

We were an amalgam of around 450 former private and public sector employees, and visible ownership of project wasn’t the norm. Attribution of blame and low morale were common.

But there was no shortage of improvement ideas. However, a lack of belief in the ability of the workforce left senior managers despondent: they were aware of the need for change, but doubtful the teams could rise to additional challenges.

Ideas required approval by committee, and red tape meant they took too long to enact. Positive outcomes were considered to be out of reach and ‘over the horizon’. It was obvious that we needed fast, effective and believable improvement.


The visualisation elements, introduced with the help of Spitfire Consultancy, were adapted from the automotive sector. We knew lean works in a production environment, but could it work in a public sector construction division?

The initial belief was that a repetitive production line did not exist. But then we realised that daytime staff existed solely to ensure that the night shift could work productively: a production line did exist, it just involved paper.

Following wider investigation, a raft of repeatable processes was uncovered. It became evident that lean could provide a non-confrontational way of identifying inefficiencies and develop a common aim: the eradication of waste.

Course design began in July 2010, with the aim to provide a skilled workforce that could be deployed immediately, recording their successes as they progressed.


In addition to delivering lean skills, there was an opportunity to elicit cultural change, removing in one move as many barriers to success as possible and allowing for empowerment to take roots. We needed a paradigm shift.

Tackling the working hours elements of the paradigm first, training was designed to run from 8am to 6pm, a voluntary extension of the working week, stretching some participants whilst signalling that change was real and immediate.

The programme unashamedly stole elements from other courses, including Operational Sea Training ideas from the Royal Navy, as well as aspects of leadership modules taught at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. It looked at the formation of teams, how they could better function, and how they did (or did not) share their ideas and opinions.

By incorporating Belbin Team Role elements, teams were established which were properly equipped to succeed from the outset. Everyone, regardless of grade or contract terms, was allowed to contribute, be heard, and to be part of the decision-making process.

We tackled the need for a physical and mental space in which to experiment safely, to eliminate fear and negativity, through initial Lean Breakthrough Events (LBEs) – the project-based application of the training – which were restricted to processes wholly under the influence of the divisional head. Wider application would follow as bravery developed.


Unsurprisingly, problems soon appeared. The opinion was clear – people were too busy with the day job to be trained to eradicate waste; it would cost money to deliver the course and there was no room to deliver it; it had been tried before in the public sector and failure was assured.

Evidence of future success was required before a pilot would be sanctioned, and this evidence would need endorsing by various committees. The choice was to stand down or to run a trial despite being told not to. We chose the latter.

The course wasn’t advertised: curiosity was a better salesman. Resolute in the belief that teams had ample spare capacity, managers chose 12 initial candidates, each of whom agreed that their roles did not need back-filling whilst they undertook the course. Delegation would plug the gap.

The candidates, an equal mix of strong supporters and harsh critics of lean, were the proving ground: if they could be convinced of the value of lean, they would become the advocates of the programme.

Latent potential existed in abundance. They had released the time to train, at no additional cost. With all immediate blockers eradicated, nothing stood in the way of the trial course running – permission was no longer a necessity.

The division’s senior leaders were given a compressed version of the training, pre-positioning their acceptance and support. The pilot scheme included the head of the division as a delegate, demonstrating the commitment. The course ran in glass sided rooms in the dining area of the division’s HQ building. Faces pressed against the glass walls proved the stirring of interest and curiosity.

Early LBE successes were vital, ones which would resonate with the most senior levels of London Underground. This success had to be based upon unquestionable empirical evidence, as doubters remained.

Culture change became an imperative; to challenge the necessity of a task and to see that challenge as a positive, not confrontation. We achieved this through process mapping.

Most LBE team members had little or no experience of the process they were to look at: they could ask “why” from a position of ignorance. Preconceived solutions were ignored until root causes were established.

This was a revelation to the senior managers, highlighting flawed opinions and showing how previously well-intentioned solutions exacerbated some problems.

An almost child-like innocence in asking questions developed. Devoid of preconceptions this had a massively disarming effect on process owners. Invariably, their responses to “why” would be to show even more waste, and be delighted to do so. They were grateful their pain was being shared, and that solutions were coming into view. Empowerment was being delivered without ever being discussed.

Rapid solution implementation became the energy of the programme, allowing experimentation to happen as soon as it was identified, and demonstrating that change was immediate and added value. Every single LBE generated countless other opportunities.

However, the programme remained a leap of faith. Without explicit senior support it would flounder.  The magnitude and importance of early LBEs grabbed attention. The data produced was robust, and unchallengeable. Only once that data was available, and thoroughly tested, did wider publicity begin.

Staff from other directorates was added to subsequent courses, slowly weaving into the collective. Delivering cross-silo LBEs showcased the biggest successes of the programme: cost savings and cultural change. People that were previously fighting each other now fought to remove waste.

External validation and benchmarking was an important part of the sell. Seeking advice from colleagues in other sectors, we developed the course and gathered useful external comparators.

Eventually, we offered the Mayor of London’s Independent Investment Programme Advisory Group the opportunity to scrutinise. IIPAG’s endorsement finally cemented the need to sustain the programme.


Most of us now see waste as an opportunity. Aiming to improve a cost base by 30% sounds terrifying. However, when that cost base is typically 95% waste, reducing that waste to 93% sounds a much easier journey. Significant improvement seems achievable.

The simplest measure of the programme’s success is increased noise levels. People live a common aim and feel empowered to make a change, rather than being hit with a stick and told to improve.  They are showing increased ownership of their processes.

There is no clearer manifestation of this than in the relationship with other divisions. Long-built silos have begun to crumble. Enlightened parts of the supply chain have joined the throng, sharing LBEs and offering new perspectives on project delivery. Tension has been released, and better working relationships have resulted from a deeper understanding of each others’ problems. There is a growing willingness to trust.

Pitfalls remain though. Empowerment is scary, and can be seen as dissolution of authority. People naturally align lean with less people, and learning to measure the gains in different ways is essential.  Re-deployment of savings (to do more with less) disarmed many harsh critics. However, critics do remain, and occasionally snipe. Vocalisation of their scepticism implies that the paradigm has shifted.

Some still doubt that this success can be replicated elsewhere, but with correct leadership, tailored training and a little vision it is possible. If appropriate staff is chosen to become the first advocates, and if this aligned with carefully selected LBEs, a similar programme can succeed.

Everyone can contribute to lean. They just need to be allowed to experiment. Some of the most successful LBEs have been delivered by administrative assistants and staff with no domain knowledge.

The team is now regularly asked where they found the good people: they were there all along, but were rarely given a safe opportunity to demonstrate their worth.

The next challenge is to sustain change, expanding the application of lean. Over 270 people are deployed with the skills needed to make improvement activity the norm. LBEs will become braver, requiring interaction with all functions, and all of LU’s supply chain.