Decision-making challenges in system integration – insights from the Railforum conference

On Tuesday, 20th November we visited the Railforum conference on system integration in the railway sector. The objective of this event was to create a shared understanding of system integration in the railway sector by sharing knowledge and experience.

The event was organized as follows; after a short introduction to the conference stressing the importance and objectives of the Railforum event, a model was presented that outlined all the stakeholders involved in system integration, the services they provide and their potential interaction. Afterwards, four different cases were presented that shed light into the past experiences with system integration. Primarily it focused on the challenges encountered during the integration and how to deal with these challenges. Two cases were sector-specific, one addressed the challenges during the testing of the new Amsterdam metro line (North-South line) and the other case introduced the challenges encountered by NS during the introduction of new material for the sprinter FLIRT. It was followed by two presentations introducing the problems of system integration identified in other industries. One of these presentations was shedding light on the integration challenges of a racket explained by Airbus and the other one summarized the issues recognized during the testing of tunnels presented by the Dutch ministry for water and infrastructure. The conference closed with a panel discussion participated by all presenters and the public.

Since this review focuses on the decision-making in system integration, in the following some interesting insights from the conference are outlined. The focus is primarily on the generic model and the two sector-specific cases. Decision-making in system integration focuses on balancing time, cost, risks and performance by preparing for uncertain events in a multidisciplinary (often multi-organizational) environment. All those aspects played an important role in the presentations demonstrated.

The system integration model reflects quite a generic view, emphasizing the importance of interdisciplinary and inter-organizational collaboration between key stakeholders in system integration in order to facilitate proper system integration. By creating a shared goal – to improve the performance of the railway system for customers and cargo companies by simultaneously decreasing the costs involved – the whole system can be optimized with a focus on collaboration and shared understanding. Decisions at one location of the system might generate a huge cost advantage at another location of the system. Thus, collaboration and communication is key to the success. Moreover, the government was brought forward as they influence decisions of all parties in the railway sector.

In the first case presentation stakeholders from NS informed about their experiences with the introduction of new material for the sprinter FLIRT. Problems related to the short integration time were encountered during the integration of the new trains, which resulted in not well-defined specifications (insufficient documentation) and trust issues between the organization and the supplier. More collaboration and alignment between stakeholders from NS and the supplier, STADLER, might have mitigated the risks of improper integration in the first place. After the integration some measures were taken that improved the system reliability, which are interesting to consider from a decision-making perspective. In order to overcome these integration issues they invested in aligning the organization better, since trust had to be regained and measures for improvement had to be initiated. The shared goal to increasing system reliability helped stakeholders to align. Only when stakeholders are well-aligned they can arrive at a well-supported decision investing minimal time. Expert sessions are a powerful tool to align multidisciplinary stakeholders and make use of tacit knowledge for decision-making (Smith & Hinchcliffe, 2003). To reduce the time of decision-making in multi-stakeholder decisions, scenarios can help to prepare the organization well for contingencies (Chermack, 2004). The overall message that can be retrieved from the system integration of the FLIRT sprinters showed that stakeholder alignment achieved through better communication and collaboration and shared objectives is a powerful requirement for good decision-making in a multi-stakeholder environment.

The second case revealing integration issues of the new Amsterdam metro line (North-South line). The testing of the new system could not align to the planned time schedule, as 80% of the testing had to be repeated. Reasons therefore were technical limitations, insufficiently trained personnel and problems in the integration of different system elements. Again a critical aspect was stakeholder alignment; it was mentioned that working in multidisciplinary teams and encouraging the diversity of teams was one of the success factors that has been recognized afterwards. On top of that, creating a positive attitude towards decisions and incorporating stage gates helped to stepwise improve the integration and thus the configuration of the system until the solution was acceptable. They were able to use stage gates and upgrade the testing configurations continuously because they operate in an isolated environment. It shows very well how effective this method is to deal with the time of decision-making, however not every system has the opportunity to be tested in isolation.

Summarizing, both case presentations suggests that decisions for integration in the railway sector are faced with the challenge of decreasing integration time and simultaneously increasing the performance (quality) of the integrated system. A critical success factor for this objective is stakeholder alignment. Often system elements are designed in silos that can work alone, but once they are integrated the insufficient alignment between stakeholders (and system elements) is revealed. The challenge is to provide enough information to the stakeholders early on in the process, so that aligned decisions can be made that facilitate proper system integration later on. Creating stakeholder alignment is a challenge within one organization, let alone between multiple organizations like the railway sector. Nevertheless, it is essential in order to facilitate proper system integration.

References:

Chermack, T. J. (2004). Improving decision-making with scenario planning. Future, 36, 295–309.

Smith, A. M., & Hinchcliffe, G. R. (2003). RCM – Gateway to Worldclass Maintenance. Elsevier.

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