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Lessons from Crossrail

A next-generation approach for delivering complex programmes

We congratulate the Crossrail team on opening the Elizabeth Line’s central section, delivering a step change in London’s transport capacity and capability.

  • Huge congratulations to Transport for London on opening the Elizabeth line’s central section, delivering a step change in London’s transport capacity and capability
  • Deloitte was privileged to work with Crossrail in 2010-12 to help them get ‘match fit’ for construction, and from 2019-2021 to help recover the programme
  • Deloitte continuously embraces lessons from Crossrail and other projects into our own, additive approach to delivering major programmes – we call this Programme Aerodynamics®.

This is an historic moment for public transport in London. Some thirteen years after shovels first hit the ground in Canary Wharf, Transport for London’s Elizabeth line is open. Passengers can now travel on state-of-the-art trains from Abbey Wood to Paddington in just half the time it used to take – and this is just the beginning. When fully open, the Elizabeth line will connect 41 stations from Berkshire to Essex, increasing central London rail capacity by ten per cent and can support over 200 million passenger journeys each year.

The size of the Crossrail project is truly extraordinary. It is one of the UK’s most significant infrastructure investments, creating 42 kilometres of new rail tunnels under London and ten new stations.

Deloitte is enormously proud to have supported Crossrail Ltd in navigating that complexity, working alongside an exceptional team that brought the project to where it is now. This article shares some of our story as well as practical lessons we learned from the Crossrail programme that now form part of our Programme Aerodynamics® approach to major projects.

Programme Aerodynamics®

The Crossrail and Deloitte story


Deloitte first started working with Crossrail Ltd back in 2010, initially spending two years to help the project get ‘match fit’ for construction. Our team was instrumental in setting up the necessary programme controls to meet regulatory requirements.

The Elizabeth line is one of the world’s most complex railways, bringing together three different signalling systems, brand new trains and software systems to deliver a state-of-the-art railway with ten new centrally controlled stations. Crossrail announced in summer 2018 that the opening of the Elizabeth line in December 2018 was no longer achievable. A new Crossrail leadership team was put in place to complete the railway.

While the major civil works and tunnelling were successfully completed, systems integration has been the defining challenge on Crossrail. The complexity was not sufficiently recognised at the outset by the previous Crossrail team. Transitioning the programme to an operational railway is a huge and incredibly complex task. It involves many complicated integration processes which need time to complete.

One of the reasons the project entered into difficulty was the lack of a real understanding of the work left to do and no viable plan for completing the railway. Inadequate management reporting and programme transparency meant overruns on budget and schedule were not spotted and eventually snowballed.

In response, Deloitte was engaged by Crossrail to work with new Chief Executive Officer Mark Wild and his leadership team. Together, we helped to rearchitect the programme and to create the right conditions for success. This included identifying remediation activities, developing a recovery plan that re-established robust governance, and developing a risk framework so that Crossrail’s leadership could recognise and manage strategic risks.

From there, Deloitte worked with Crossrail on a revised schedule and embedded people across cost, risk, reporting, planning and leadership disciplines. Every step required relentless rigour to surface complex issues that had not previously been fully understood or documented. We also re-assessed Crossrail’s programme controls – essentially all the programme management processes and systems needed to monitor the delivery of the project – and helped raise capabilities to the level of match fitness that would be needed to get the job done. Then, when COVID struck in 2020, we supported Crossrail in their response, modelling the pandemic’s potential impact on the programme and helping smooth the transition to remote working. And finally, Deloitte helped set up a new function that managed the handover from construction to management as a step towards the fully operational railway.

Daniel Garrity

Practical lessons in major programme delivery


Recent years have seen an encouraging trend of identifying lessons from both successes and failures in major programme delivery, and especially those in government.

Significant work has been undertaken by Crossrail, Transport for London and the Department for Transport to capture the key learnings from the Crossrail project for current and future major infrastructure programmes. Crossrail’s Learning Legacy programme continues and will share further insight as the project concludes.

Last month, The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) published its own assessment of five major projects, including Crossrail. It’s a thoughtful study that demands serious reflection, and it makes three conclusions worth exploring in relation to Deloitte’s experience.

First, the ICE report surfaces an important point about agility. Major programme structures are often designed to be fit for purpose at their initial phases, but when events require a change of plan, that static structure can be slow to react. The Institution argues that changes to a programme and their impact must be understood within hours rather than weeks. That’s true, but our experience suggests that the only way to achieve that is to bake agility into the programme design. Major projects need a flexible architecture so that its leaders can reallocate resources and adapt – that’s the only way to thrive in environments that are invariably volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Crossrail’s original procurement strategy is a good example. It gave more than 30 major contractors a degree of latitude to alter their plans but didn’t maintain sufficient central capability and authority to assess and manage the wider consequences of any alterations. The Institution’s report recognises that decision, in retrospect, as a mistake. The Crossrail approach was in stark contrast to the approach taken on the Tideway project. Tideway was clear that it did not want the joint-venture delivery partners unpicking the central design so put in place stronger change control procedures, limiting significant design changes, which has operated on more than 20 sites across 14 London boroughs.

To work around integration problems, Deloitte’s methodology promotes greater adoption of digital as a catalyst, which was refined during our time with Crossrail. The digital catalyst uses the latest technology, fuelled by layers of project data, to make sure programme leaders are sighted on performance, able to dive deep into what’s going on and get to the root cause of any issues.

Second, the Institute makes a strong case for leadership handovers so that a programme’s top team always has the right skills for the right phase of the project. Major projects do indeed need the right people at the right time. It’s also crucial for programme management at every stage to resist the urge to overly fixate on detailed planning and stability. Control-focused approaches are unlikely, in isolation, to succeed in the face of unanticipated events because they are too invested in detailed plans, rigid milestones and siloed organisations. In attempting to control the uncontrollable, one risks hard-wiring in potential failure from the outset.

Our experience suggests that it’s not just the leadership team that needs to evolve over the course of a major programme. A 2019 paper from the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) argued that governance, reporting and oversight also need to adapt over a project lifecycle, as well as the capabilities of its delivery. That certainly rings true in Deloitte’s experience – the governance and personnel needed for the design of a major project are not necessarily the same as those needed for its construction, commissioning or operations. An approach that can succeed in one phase can fail in another, which is why Deloitte recommends regular reviews of governance and structures as well as the skills and experience of board members and executives to make sure that programme architecture stays in step with the project’s needs. An early understanding of key inflection points is vital if skills, programme architecture, governance and organisational design are to remain optimised and totally aligned to the achievement of the desired outcome.

One crucial transition for Crossrail was to transfer its assets from the teams that built them to the teams required to manage them as working infrastructure. Deloitte worked with Crossrail to establish an entirely new function to manage that critical handover.

The third notable observation from the ICE’s report is that starting a major project with the end in mind – whilst vital – is not sufficient to ensure success. The Institution argues that projects need to be set up so that the intended outcomes continually drive decisions. Our Programme Aerodynamics® approach aligns with that, emphasising the need to deliver the right outcomes and not just the right plans. But our methodology explicitly goes a step further, establishing a flexible outlook for major programme leaders so they persistently scan the horizon for inflection points and plan for them in advance.

From single strategy to continuous strategy


Deloitte’s engagement on Crossrail, as well as other major projects like the COVID-19 testing programme, allow us to continually learn and refine our Programme Aerodynamics® methodology. When asked for his observations on the challenges around major programmes, Crossrail Chief Executive Mark Wild said: ‘in the age of digitisation and hyper complexity, the real issue is uncertainty’. Deloitte has taken that as one of the underlying principles of our approach.

Programme Aerodynamics® is certainly not a substitute for traditional programme planning, but is additive and aims to create a new, disciplined mindset that is focussed on the outcome. This enables leaders to shift from a single strategy to a continuous strategy that is better suited to the complexity and uncertainty that are inherent in today’s major programmes.

Crossrail’s Mark Wild went on to highlight the opportunity presented for ‘clients, governments and future leaders of major programmes to take advanced techniques like Programme Aerodynamics® and build them in at the beginning, alongside a conventional programme control set’. That’s a hugely encouraging takeaway.

Deloitte is delighted to congratulate the entire Crossrail and Transport for London team on the Elizabeth line’s launch. If you would like to read more about Programme Aerodynamics®, please click here or get in touch.

1 A Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery is available at ice_systems_report_2_v31_jm_digital.pdf.

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