FROM THE ARCHIVES: Shaping RSSB’s mission

  • This feature was published in RAIL 858 (August 1-August 14 2018).
Johnny Schute could never be described as a career railwayman. His formative years were not spent working in a ticket office, train cab or trackside, but in the British Army, where he spent 34 years.

In a long and distinguished career, he led battle groups of up to 800 personnel on deployments to Iraq, Northern Ireland and the UK mainland, while also managing headquarters, training officer cadets at Sandhurst, and even acting as principal advisor to the Royal Army of Oman.

By the time Schute eventually called time on his military career in 2015, he had reached the heights of chief environmental and safety officer to the British Army and led a team of 120 health and safety and environmental protection specialists.

Despite its innocuous-sounding title, it is this job role that explains his subsequent entry into the rail industry, and is why the Office of Rail and Road chose to secure his services as deputy director for policy, strategy and planning.

As the safety and economic regulator of Britain’s railways, ORR was keen to exploit the well-defined approaches towards risk management, accident investigation and trend analysis that Schute had honed from his experiences in protecting many of Britain’s servicemen and women from the lethal threats posed by armed conflict.

Meanwhile, as a former operational commander, Schute also possessed the obvious leadership, planning and communication skills needed to confidently develop health and safety policy for rail while successfully navigating the industry’s notoriously complex web of stakeholders and other European regulators.

Schute’s rise to prominence took another turn in December 2016 when he was promoted within ORR to deputy director for railway safety and deputy chief inspector of railways.

By leading teams of inspectors to ensure legal compliance, safety certification and continuous improvement among train operators, he became an increasingly familiar face to leading decision makers from organisations in all forms of rail, including preservation, metro and light rail.

These organisations included RSSB, where Schute had previously taken a team from ORR to conduct a quinquennial review of its direction, delivery and effectiveness as a rail standards body.

Published in November 2016, it was to be one of the review’s recommendations that would lead to his next and most recent career move.

He explains: “I came to the ORR about three years ago and, between May-December 2016, headed up the programme to review RSSB, which must be done by an independent body every five years as part of its constitution.

“It was a substantial piece of work that led to 15 recommendations, including the creation of a new role to fill the gap where a chief operating officer was needed. Mark Phillips has taken and implemented every single one of them, and I applied successfully to be appointed COO in February before then starting my new role in May.”

Schute says it was ‘a sad day’ when he decided to leave ORR where he had worked hard to develop its health and safety regulatory strategy and enhance policy making as directed by ORR’s board.

But a wide-ranging remit to effect wholesale change at RSSB proved to be too good an opportunity to turn down, with the chance to reshape the entire organisation according to the various recommendations made by the quinquennial report.

Having played such a central role in compiling the report, applying for the COO role felt like a natural progression from all his previous work at ORR.

“I left ORR with a great deal of sadness and had some fantastic times there,” he adds. “But when an opportunity appears you have to grab it. There’s a great deal of synergy between what they do and what we do here.

“I’ve been given responsibility for a roving delivery element of RSSB on standards, research and development, information management and technology, systems risk, health and safety and the Rail Technical Strategy delivery organisation. They all now sit within my remit and we are supported by a project management organisation that has also been created within RSSB’s new structure.

“Importantly, we’ve also created a business development and engagement organisation that has been constructed to meet the review recommendations, and the central premise of the review which was to create a new settlement between members and RSSB going forward.”

This new settlement between RSSB and its members from across the supply chain was recommended by Schute and his team at ORR in order to clearly define mutual obligations and expectations.

This would, in turn, make priorities more transparent, clarify RSSB’s core functions, improve the flow of communication and thus help turn it into a more proactive organisation that is increasingly responsive to its members’ wants and needs.

The new settlement is also designed to strengthen RSSB’s position as a thought leader on rail safety standards and drive improvements to deliver a safer, more efficient and sustainable rail system.

Schute is now tasked with hauling RSSB over the finishing line in that process in a cost-effective and non-disruptive fashion.

He adds: “The new settlement requires us to try and refocus the relationship between RSSB and its membership, and how we engage with one another. Let’s face it, it’s a febrile atmosphere out there in the industry at the moment and what the membership needs is good solutions, delivered swiftly for a good cost. We need to make sure we can respond to the kind of pressures they’re under.

“The other part of it was saying to the membership that you need to step up to the plate and play a bigger part with a louder voice, so that resetting the relationship will have mutual benefits on both sides.

“Any member-based organisation has to make sure it’s providing value for money and operating as efficiently as it can, while opportunities for growth should be examined. Ultimately I am responsible to our membership.”

Key to RSSB providing greater added value to its members will be through the continued development of the competencies, tools, models and capabilities it uses to support industry in different ways.

By employing more than 200 staff covering a range of technical disciplines, including operations, engineering, information technology and risk assessment, it has a key role in developing industry standards and underpinning knowledge-based decision making.

Its current remit includes managing Railway Group Standards on behalf of the industry, leading the development of long-term safety strategy and supporting cross-industry groups that address major areas of safety concern. It also facilitates implementation of the Rail Technical Strategy and supports innovation by providing both technical and financial support.

To remain fit for purpose, Schute says he must ensure that RSSB continues to deliver and develop these high-value products and services so it can remain an indispensable asset for rail companies.

He is confident that he will succeed, adding: “The implementation of the review is now pretty much in place and what I’m keen to do is make sure that where we have a project or particular product or service, there is a clear requirement and adequate resource for us to deliver it as we should. What’s not going to happen is allowing things which are suggested to us to disappear into a void for five years and then suddenly pop out but no longer be appropriate to the needs of the industry.

“We need to be absolutely au fait with what the industry desires, and I’ve been incredibly heartened, during the short time I’ve been here, by how strong the relationship is in many areas. There is, however, a lot more we can do in that regard.

“It’s evolution rather than revolution but, equally, nobody should underestimate the substantive efforts that Mark Phillips and the rest of the team have made to meet what the industry wants. I can’t emphasise enough how much we’re listening and looking to the wider membership, and we’re absolutely focused on what we need to do.

“I’m full of optimism and enthused and energised by the really good crew of people already here. It’s just a question of getting the industry to see what we’ve got here and for us to respond to that in a way they want, so there’s a huge amount to look forward to.”

Schute is well aware of the challenges he faces to turn RSSB into a more customer-focused business that engages more closely with its members.

Not least is the behavioural changes that must be made within an organisation more used to leading from the front and focusing on outputs, rather than the input of its members.

All this must be achieved against a backdrop of the need to operate a lean and efficient business as financial pressures on the industry grow, which ultimately affect most of RSSB’s funding.

Members are already being consulted on proposed levies they must pay to RSSB during Control Period 6 (Apr 2019-Mar 2024), which will be considered by the RSSB executive board before final agreement in November.

“For human beings, change can often be uncomfortable, and what we’re doing here does require something of a cultural shift. But I come from a very strong delivery background which meant making changes in very short spaces of times in austere circumstances.

“It will mean some changes to processes in how we do things but I’m pretty confident because the reservoir of technical knowledge here is second to none. When I was doing the review and benchmarking with European colleagues, I heard lots of people say ‘I wish we had an RSSB in our country’ so there’s no doubt that there’s a real appetite for what we do here.

“Resource will always be tight in an organisation like this and margins within the industry are wafer thin. We have a membership that is, in many cases, mandated as part of their license conditions so naturally they will be asking very demanding questions about whether we are acting as efficiently as possible.

“I need to make a compelling case for what we’re requesting so they can clearly see the benefit of what we’re doing, and that consultation has already kicked off ahead of our settlement for CP6.”

Complementing RSSB’s new settlement will be a greater onus on ‘horizon scanning’ by RSSB, says Schute, in response to his observation that the rail industry is much worse at anticipating future threats and opportunities than the armed forces.

One such change on the horizon could be the effects of Brexit, while the very structure of the industry itself has the potential to change should political events lead to a change in government.

But neither event is easy to plan for when the likelihood or potential scale of change is so ill-defined. Schute’s view is that RSSB must be prepared to respond positively whatever the outcome and not be caught on the back foot, while ready to assist its members to react to any changes forced upon them. 

“It’s a very dynamic atmosphere out there and the industry is going through some choppy waters at the moment. We’ve already seen one TOC handing its keys back in and one reads in the press that others are finding conditions demanding.

“Whether it leads to change or not, RSSB has to be on the front foot and our job is to be as flexible and responsive as possible, and not cut ourselves off. During my time in the military we spent a great deal of time horizon scanning and doing the radar sweep over where we might see an opportunity or threat. It’s something I’m really keen on here and RSSB has responded.

“There’s no doubt that when you look at opportunities or threats, there is going to be a requirement for innovation and well-targeted R&D to deal with whatever is thrown at us. I want RSSB to be very much at the forefront of that and absolutely on the money when things start to manifest themselves.”

So what does success look like to Johnny Schute on a mission that is already starting to bear some of the hallmarks of an operational deployment from his former life in uniform?

“That’s easy,” he says. “Success is when all our members tell us ‘being a member of RSSB is indispensable to us as an organisation’.

“If I could hear that then it would mean ‘mission accomplished’.”

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