Meet the team at OTB Engineering: Jon Austin, chairman and engineering professional services director
Major infrastructure projects address the most fundamental challenges we face and are designed to deliver societal benefits that will shape lives and economies for generations to come. But when they hit the headlines it’s often for the wrong reasons; safety issues, delays, budget overruns. The projects are inherently complicated: from the task at hand to the planning and design, to the delivery managed by complex cross-industry consortia.
But while the solutions demand cutting-edge design, deep technical expertise and specialist delivery, one of the biggest contributors to major infrastructure project success is less tangible. It’s culture.
Jon Austin, Engineering Professional Services Director and Chairman at OTB Engineering, has thirty years of railway construction and assurance experience under his belt.
We’re all one team
He says “The notion of a “One Team Approach” is often bandied around in our industry but sometimes the team doesn’t live it. Rather than a true sense of ‘we’re all in it together’, the phrase is just lip service.”
But when the One Team Approach works, the results speak for themselves. Jon refers to a particularly successful project where at the outset the project team worked on getting the culture right. Working on the Bakerloo Line Link tunnel, TfL and the contractor Costain/Skanska JV co-located in OTB’s offices.
“One of the biggest risks with infrastructure projects is getting the necessary consents, i.e. approvals from third parties. Part of that consent process is the technical assurance: satisfying the third party that what you're going to build is not going to adversely affect their asset, its operation and that it's going to be assured for a 120 year design life.”
Working directly alongside the client meant the project team could consult early and directly on key design and documentation issues.
“Getting the culture right and getting the people in the same room, is a significant step in terms of programme and delivery. It's a matrix of personality traits, behaviours, relationships and technical competence that helps a team bond and gel. And if you can get that mix right, then you get mutual respect, such that each party understands each other's strengths and plays to them.”
How can we fast-track that sense of belonging to one team?
“Having served in the Royal Engineers, I saw first-hand the power of teamwork, camaraderie and a sense of belonging. It was like a family. One way you get that bond is through shared hardships and shared good times, the feeling that you're all in it together. It very quickly focuses the mind. You suffer and you succeed together - it’s almost a sense that ‘this thing isn’t going to beat us’. I'm not suggesting that we send teams off to the Brecon Beacons for survival training. But sometimes the project itself can be so challenging, that if you're all feeling that pain, that is probably the biggest motivator to pull together. It's not just about going for drinks on a Friday night.”
Competence is key
Key to the culture working is mutual trust and respect. Jon encourages teams to be open and honest in sharing ideas and learning from experience.
In mixed consortia it can be difficult to allow healthy debate and productive sharing of opinions. It’s important that the right weight is given to encouraging more junior voices to contribute while ensuring more senior hands can effectively guide the project - based on experience. But this is where critical learning takes place.
“This is one of the hardest things in the industry. When I first started my career, people seemed to have more time to mentor and encourage. Nowadays, people are so stressed, so overworked. But it's a catch-22 situation: if you want to develop people, you need to find time but that can get in the way of project progress. But if you don't find time, then more junior hands won't develop and the project still won't progress.”
Ensuring the team stays safe in a railway environment
When a team has that clarity of purpose and gels together, they want to get into work in the morning and work hard. It’s great for productivity and progress on the project. But it’s also essential when a team is living and breathing a job, that managers keep an eye on their safety, health and wellbeing.
Successful teams work hard and play hard. But it’s key they don’t get so caught up in the progress of the project that they let safety slip. Managing risk and safety for teams and the stakeholders around a project has to be the first priority for the construction industry given its inherent dangers.
This last point has to be a guiding principle for the industry and is something Jon is passionate about.
“This comes from hard experience and it comes from the heart. It sounds simple, but programme and cost pressures should never compromise safety. We’re focused on maximising construction outputs while never jeopardising the safety of the operational railway, its staff, customers and site operatives. After thirty years in the industry, that’s my motto.”