Viewpoint Driving innovation through operational excellence
Utilities Digital Solutions Europe

Viewpoint: Driving innovation through operational excellence

Wednesday, 28 June 2023

A real challenge is getting a culture of innovation embedded at all levels of a utility. Kieran Brocklebank, head of innovation at United Utilities, discusses why they are focusing on embedding innovation through an operational excellence and transformation programme.

Innovation shouldn’t stop

Like many companies in the water sector and beyond, United Utilities has benefited tremendously from the introduction of a portfolio of innovative ideas that are having a transformational effect on our business.

For the past six years we’ve been actively focusing on innovation and seeking out ideas and technologies that have the potential to shake up our business and the wider water sector. This focus has included the introduction of our pioneering and hugely effective Innovation Lab programme – a global talent trawl in which we invite new suppliers with fresh thinking to co-create the next series of products and services for the sector.

And I’m proud to see this going from strength to strength. But innovation can’t and doesn’t stop there – a real challenge is getting a culture of innovation embedded at all levels of the business.

In large organisations like ours, it can be difficult to keep on top of best practice and ensure that everyone is operating to the highest standards. And while new technologies undoubtedly unlock exciting opportunities, getting the building blocks of innovation in place enables us to deliver small scale, low risk improvements on a large scale across the organisation.

It’s also a great way of tapping into the most precious resource that any organisation has – its people. We’ve already been successfully tapping into our best talent through programmes like our CEO Challenge and internal crowdsourcing initiatives.

And we want to go even further. It’s for this reason we are focusing on embedding innovation through our operational excellence and transformation programme.

Embracing experimental learning

The water sector is very heavily regulated, in most cases we follow standardised processes and compliance with standards must be maintained. This doesn’t always encourage individuals or teams to experiment or test out new ways of working.
We want to shift that to a culture where experimental learning is embraced in a safe environment with the appropriate checks and measures in place. This means engaging people’s creativity and giving our employees the tools and confidence to not only suggest improvements, but to deliver them as well.

So, we’ve gone back to basics.
We introduced an Operational Excellence team – as well as using existing talent from within the business, we’ve brought new people in so we can learn from other sectors.
There’s a big emphasis on communication, it is vital that people understand what we are trying to ‘fix’ and that we’re aligned in our approach. We are sharing performance data much more widely than we have previously done – it is available for everyone to access and it is discussed at regular team meetings.

Training our people managers

We’ve also embarked on a programme of training our people managers to make sure they have the skills and confidence to embrace change themselves and to empower their teams to do the same in a way that is constructive, safe and can be replicated.

We’re also shaking up how we sequence our meetings to make the flow of information more sensible.
None of this sounds particularly innovative, but our definition of innovation includes ideas big and small to make us better at what we do, so this fits perfectly. We’re already seeing how we can deliver marginal gains at scale – in a company of our size that adds up to a huge win.

We know that 80 per cent of the improvements won’t be dramatic – they will be small scale wins, some of them will be barely noticeable on their own – but when we scale them up and raise standards across the business in a controlled and impactful way then it becomes dramatic.

It is also changing our culture in a positive way by breaking down silos, sharing knowledge and inviting people in to participate.

This is all still very much ongoing but it is encouraging to see that people are incredibly receptive and they are impatient for change. We have all the elements in place now and I’m excited to see what will be delivered.

- Kieran Brocklebank is the head of innovation at United Utilities.