Business improvement strategies in the highways agency
The Highways Agency is responsible for England’s strategic road network, a network that consists of 9400 km (5481 miles) of motorways and trunk roads and carries a third of all road traffic and two-thirds of all freight traffic in the country. This equates to an annual total of around 153 billion kilometers traveled. As an Executive Agency for the Department for Transport the Highways Agency priorities are to:
- Continue to maintain the network in good condition to ensure that it is safe and available for use.
- Maximize performance from the existing network.
- Improve the network where necessary.
At the end of the 1990s the UK Cabinet Office introduced a Better Quality Services Review (BQSR) program in response to the Government’s white paper ‘Modernising Government’. As part of that program the Highways Agency undertook a review of the performance of its activities with a view to considering one of five options:
- Market testing
- Contracting out
- Privatization or
- Internal improvement
The Highways Agency Management Board realized the potential of the BQSR proposals, particularly the opportunity to incorporate a long held policy to improve the management and operation of the organization. The first step was to set up a small team to consider how such a program could be delivered and by April 1999 this ‘Business Improvement Team’ presented a paper to the board detailing a potential improvement strategy, which linked the need to implement a program of better quality service reviews to a structured approach to improving the business.
The proposed BQSR program was authorized by the Highways Agency Management Board and was due for completion in April 2004. Alongside the authorization of the program the board approved the establishment of a Business Improvement Co-ordinator in each of its 23 divisions. This role was to be supported by the Business Improvement Team who were charged with facilitating program delivery.
The approach that was adopted by the Agency was to use a small team of internal consultants supported by external expertise to identify good business practices and assist the functional directorates of the Agency to analyze the services provided using the BQSR criteria, identify areas for improvement and implement any improvements. Each of the services identified would then be subjected to a comparative benchmark with a view to aiding the final BQSR decision-making process. Figure C8.1 is a visual representation of the approach that each directorate used.
The Business Improvement Team worked with the management teams in each area to decide on the service strategy for each of the previously identified directorate key activities. This was effectively the first BQSR analysis designed to identify those services which could be abolished or where there was already consideration of outsourcing. This exercise provided a strategic review helping directorates to clarify their purpose. The end of 1999 saw the completion of this part of the program with a limited number of services put forward as having the potential for outsourcing. Those services that were put forward were subjected to a comparative benchmark and a subsequent improvement program was devised.
The Business Improvement Team then facilitated the delivery of the second phase of the framework – ‘Self-assessment using the EFQM Excellence Model’. Several of the divisions were already using the EFQM Excellence Model to identify and plan improvements, so it was decided early in the program that self-assessment against the Excellence Model was likely to be the most effective way to identify, in a holistic sense, the areas that each functional directorate of the Agency should consider for improvement. The Business Improvement Team assessed a number of methods for self-assessment and eventually settled on two. The first of these would be a simple questionnaire-based self-assessment, designed for use with the smaller directorates, where all staff would participate. The second form of self-assessment, to be utilized by larger directorates, would involve training a small group of staff as EFQM assessors who would then gather evidence of business practice, assess that evidence, identify areas for improvement and plan the implementation.
By mid-2001 over 90 percent of the organization had undergone one of the two forms of self- assessment and a clearer picture of the key areas for improvement was evident. Indeed a number of directorates had already agreed improvement action plans and were well into the delivery of improvement.
The improvement strategy has had an impact on the way the Highways Agency manages and operates its day-to-day business. For example, work completed in the financial payments division has led to improvements in key performance, particularly in terms of the handling time of invoices for payment (down from an average of over 15 minutes to less than four minutes per invoice). This has led to an improvement in the prompt payment initiative targets, from less than 75 percent being paid within the mandated 28 days to greater than 95 percent being paid on time, with fewer staff employed in the process.