The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Difficult – A Personal Account of Changing Operational Training and Competence

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"From personal experience in over 26 years in railway operations, including as head of training and professional head of operations, I can say that changing our training, development and competency processes is tough. There are reasons, some very rational, some less rational, why we encounter barriers to change at every responsibility level. We have to move away from the blame culture, build a better case for training and development, and get the right message across". – Justin Willett

Our approach to how we develop the skills, knowledge and competence of railway staff fundamentally has not fundamentally changed for decades. We know that it needs to change, if we want to have the right capabilities to compete in the transport market sector. However, we also know that there remain many constraints and obstacles on the route to innovation. From personal experience, I can say that changing our training, development and competency processes is tough, especially in the context of front-line operations. There are reasons, some very rational, some less rational, for the barriers to change encountered at every responsibility level, from managing director to front-line manager and rail operative. To succeed, we must build a better case for investment and get the right message across.

Hierarchical influence - the message from the top

Understandably, those with corporate responsibility need assurance that training and competence suitably cover the associated risks and requirements of the business. However, continually demanding data and information from intermediate management for assurance, instead of empowering and supporting change agents, can send the wrong message: that the leadership of the organisation are too risk averse to value the lessons of failure or to embrace the necessary trial and error accompanying real change.

Compliance or competence?

Many of the safety critical training and competency management systems have descended from historical understanding and lessons learnt. While this provides an excellent operational pedigree, learning is often focused on areas of compliance with the rulebook rather than on the ongoing development of new and existing skills. This can give an illusion of safety.

Indeed, our approach to safety critical training is still heavily focused on compliance and on the functional delivery of technical skills. Although these are important, it is the way trainees operationalise new skills in the demanding and ever-changing situations they experience, that is key. Otherwise, the learning involved is at risk of remaining superficial.

Making changes that bring benefits

At times I have experienced changes made due to an emerging issue, an incident, an audit, etc, where only incremental modifications were made, and the way tasks were conducted, jobs done, and roles performed, remained the same. The focus of the line manager is often on the collection of information to provide an audit trail, rather than on the learning and competence of the person, with solid evidence created through this process that can withstand credible interrogation. Therefore, assessors can be more concerned about which forms to fill in, and what to write down, rather than the performance of the person they are assessing.

We should really challenge ourselves to measure the tangible benefits of these incremental changes: do they allow the competence of our staff to improve, or do they just create a new system that provides the semblance of improvement through an increased burden of admin?

Blame culture = no-change culture

When the pressure for results is too high and the tolerance for failure is too low, the work place becomes ripe for a blame culture where innovation is stifled. In such an environment, one easily forgets that mistakes are unavoidable, especially when embarking on something new, and part of the improvement journey. Line management, when asking for staff performance improvement, must ask the right questions, starting with a question to itself: are they ready to recognise and reward change and challenge the status quo to help find that improvement?

I have also come across the belief that to keep things the same is safer. Who of us hasn’t heard:‘But we have always done it this way’ or ‘Why fix it when it’s not broken?’ Is this wisdom or self-indulgence? Naturally, experienced staff who have put their heart and soul into existing training and competency materials will be rightly proud of their work, and value this highly. On the one hand, to suggest that this be reviewed and changed can bring an emotional challenge. On the other hand, everybody should recognise that improvement, sometimes radical, sometimes incremental, is essential, and this means change.

Fundamentally everyone has the same aim, for motivated and competent staff to be supported in delivering a safe and successful service that passengers want to use. Change is crucial to achieve this. Creating a narrative that differentiates between checked and perceived facts, shows understanding of the risks being managed, and takes everyone on the change journey from trade unions to directors, front line mangers and staff, is imperative to move away from the ‘blame culture’ and the ‘no-change culture’.

Taking the time to do things right

Winnie the pooh

Ever wanted to make changes to areas such as your training programmes or competency management systems, but don’t know how and just can’t find the time to stop and work out how to do it? A ‘full review’ always sounds complex, like a lot of work, and the continually increasing demands and distractions of the day job mean the reality of doing it is a significant challenge. It needs managing, coordinating, ensuring the business change process is followed, and requires the time, effort and energy of a number of people.

Where designing training and development programmes is an infrequent activity, there may not be the skill set, experience and knowledge to deliver. Looking to others for lessons learnt and transferable good practice is often valuable, however, without the skill set and knowledge to distinguish the ‘wheat from the chaff’, this becomes common practice as opposed to good practice, and at worst, perpetuates latent risks. To design a new training and development programme, it is necessary to take the time to reflect and learn, and where I have seen this done the benefits have been significant. 

Intangibles in the business case

Any investment obviously needs a robust business case. The return on investment can be influenced by where we are in the operating franchise or in the control period, as well as by the amount of new intake. In any case, the decision will depend on how benefits have been identified and quantified. I have seen substantial value and benefit stem from changes in training and development, although these benefits had not been included in the business case, being considered too “intangible” at the time of the analysis. Why are we not better at describing all the benefits of training and development? Are we lacking the right methodology to measure these intangibles? Or is there a lack of consensus on the existence of such benefits?

Not reinventing the wheel

There are some practical tools already available to assist with identifying the areas of priority in training and development, such as the RSSB Risk-based training needs analysis (RBTNA). Following these and adopting the principles, has helped me focus on priority areas, which delivered an improvement in quality as well as a more efficient training and competence development process.

Our knowledge of the role of non-technical skills has also improved. As a result of the human factors SPAD review in 2016, and the research project T1128- Research into Human Factors causes of SPAD, we now have a good understanding of the non-technical skills related behaviours and underlying causes that have led to over 300 SPADs. There is already some good practice emerging as a consequence, which should be considered when making training decisions.

RS100- Good Practice Guide on Competence Development, and ORR RSP1- Guidance on Developing and Maintaining Staff Competence are also good references to keep in mind.


Change is always a challenging area, and even more so in the world of safety critical training, where barriers can result from just repeating what we do today, as we think it is safe. However, by using the information and learning from our past, and using recent new insight from research, we can ensure safe advancement to meet our future needs. This implies a conscious and planned decision to make that change, and a decision to let go of some of the things we have hung onto in the past. If we can’t find the time to stop and work out how, we may have a real-life Winnie the Pooh moment.

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