Hearts, heads and hands. Why cultural change is needed to power digital maintenance

Chris Dyer, Partner
03 April 2023
Image of a cityscape.
Speak to an expert about your challenge

Construction of new infrastructure tends to grab the headlines. But improving the way existing assets are efficiently and safely maintained is critical. Chris Dyer, partner at Amey Consulting, explains why cultural change is needed to accelerate the use of digital maintenance.

Reluctance to change

Maintaining the nation’s road, rail, communication and energy networks is an essential but complex, expensive and resource-intensive business.

But it is also potentially very dangerous for the professional teams who, every day, pore over the assets to keep our critical infrastructure working effectively.

Digital maintenance is key to transforming this entire activity, using remote monitoring and digital tools to help professionals to really understand asset performance, accelerate decision making and improve the safety of on-site activities.

Sadly, the infrastructure sector’s traditional mindset, a reluctance to change from the “tried and tested” and an over-reliance on standard methodologies is holding back this much needed transformation. Cultural change is long overdue.

For decades we have understood that regular, systematic inspection of assets is the key to monitoring performance and central to not only identifying faults and carrying out vital repairs, but also to planning the routine maintenance which ultimately prevents failure in the first place.

Many clients get this, and they have been prepared to invest, first in the teams to carry out the regular daily, weekly, monthly or annual inspections, and more recently in the technology required to automate and expand the scope of inspections.

Transformative technology

The technology available ranges from remote strain gauges, accelerometers and other movement detectors, to CCTV cameras and weather monitors, to programmed drone inspections. All are supported by data analytics and artificial intelligence-backed prediction tools which enable our professional teams to “see” the real condition of assets and focus their experience on making the right decisions over necessary interventions.

As such, at Amey Consulting, we are already seeing technology being successfully incorporated into activities across the highways network for National Highways, the rail system for Network Rail and helping to keep infrastructure functioning at Heathrow Airport.

In addition, the use of remote sensors to monitor loading levels, structural performance and highlight sudden changes in the environment is rewriting the way that we approach asset management on the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

And while we are able to pass on benefits to our clients in terms of cost efficiencies and carbon reduction, it is the huge improvements in safety that really makes a difference. Put simply, this is achieved by taking our engineers and inspectors out of live traffic and operational environments. Instead, they are able to put their skills to work, out of harm’s way, taking decisions based on the data fed to them either live or post analysis.

The benefits that we see from this way of working are transformational. Certainly, we still have experienced eyes looking at our structures, but now they see these assets through the new lens of data.

Ways of working

All of which begs the question: why is this way of working not the norm? Why are we not able to take full advantage of the huge safety, cost and carbon reduction benefits that digital maintenance offers and provide clients with fundamentally better outcomes?

The answer, of course is human behaviour and a reluctance to embrace the risks associated with change. Engineers tend to like a technology problem to solve; this requires an emotional, social, cultural response making it harder to change.

Our industry also has an ageing workforce, particularly in the asset management sector, who prefer to rely on experience rather than data. Inevitably, people feel threatened – “if I'm not doing this then what's my purpose?”.

As such, too often we hear comments such as “I know the answer; I therefore don’t believe the data – it must be wrong”. Of course, it is vital to retain a questioning mindset when it comes to data interpretation, but similarly it is also critical to understand and build credibility in that data.

The case for change

The private sector understands the business case for change. Companies like Heathrow and Rolls Royce have changed to embrace a new culture and embedded technology and the use of data into their businesses. And parts of the public sector are starting to embrace change based on the growing need to serve the public better.

Yet current traditional thinking still tends to insist that to maintain safe assets, you need to inspect, “in this way and at this frequency”. While it is possible to invest in technology, create the required sensor networks and bring data together, the key stumbling block too often is the rules-based industry, driven by “what we always do”.

There’s often a disconnection. We see technologists and forward-thinking people pushing for change, alongside traditionalists arguing that there's going to be a problem. And in the middle of this we have the people who are open to change but perhaps don’t have the knowledge or skill set to do so confidently.

Much of this comes down to a fear of things going wrong and the desire to be able to defend themselves with policy, procedure and standards. Ironically, the use of data and digital tools is actually central to providing the evidence that offers the true defence to mistakes.

What is needed to really drive forward with the use of technology is more flexible minds to embrace new approaches. That doesn’t necessarily mean pitting the technologists against the traditionalists, but it does mean being prepared to have some tough perhaps quite difficult conversations.

There is a need for the supply chain to increase its push rather than simply rely on the clients to pull the industry towards innovation.

Most other industrial sectors already have this kind of thinking in play and are reaping better cost, carbon and safety outcome benefits. There is no question that we need to turn up the dial to accelerate the change and embrace digital maintenance in the built environment.

Speak to an expert about your challenge.