GOVERNANCE AT THAMES WATER
Ahead of the 2018 Operational Excellence in Energy, Chemicals & Resources Summit (October 2 to 4, London, UK), OGR’s media partners at IQPC interviewed Karl Simons, Health, Safety, Security and Well-being Director at Thames Water to get his insights on ho
Karl, tell us about your professional background
I began my career as an electrical and mechanical engineering apprentice within the British Army. I spent thirteen years touring the world in various conflict and peaceful situations and upon leaving I moved into the world of health and safety, which is where I wanted to continue protecting people.
I have spent 25 years dedicated to the preservation of life, working in: government, construction, rail, facilities management, oil, gas, minerals and now in the water industry.
My current role involves steering the organisational strategy around the disciplines that I look after. I have been at Thames in this role for the past five years and find it extremely enjoyable. The sheer diversity of the risk portfolio is what whets my appetite as it is a challenging industry because you have all of the water and wastewater services to look after, as well as the customer service-side.
Thames as a retail organisation looks after 15 million domestic customers across the south of England. These customers all rely on Thames to provide safe and high-quality clean drinking water. We also have to manage their wastewater, taking it away and sensibly treating it before putting it back into the land and the rivers, so we also protect the natural environment.
You have supported Thames Water in developing strategies for each discipline you have overseen. Tell us about an initiative that you’ve helped implement?
Each year, we set out a defined set of initiatives based around standards and behaviours that will really underpin our risk framework strategy to ensure that we get the outcomes that we want.
Over the past five years, Thames has been on an amazing journey, one that I deem to be a cultural revolution. At the outset, we shifted our vision in a new direction to focus on risk elimination in a very different way, thus prevention of workplace absence was then simply a byproduct of our effort. This vision centred on the belief that anybody off of work as a result of injury or illness was unacceptable. Simply put, all I asked of each team leader was to put their people to work safely every day and send them home safe and well at night, and in doing this you have achieved our vision.
This becomes something that’s believable to an organisation and to individuals working within it. It is not something we are striving to get to, but for us it’s a daily occurrence for our managers and teams
You talked about mental illness a lot in your session at last year’s Operational Excellence Summit. Is Thames dedicated to providing staff with support in this area?
Absolutely. I have a very proactive Occupational Health and Hygiene department who are out there providing support services to the thousands of people who work for us, and on our behalf. We have the same philosophy around health and wellbeing as we do for safety. Just as injury is unacceptable and drives our safety performance and control measures, so too, is illness and drives our health programme. Work-induced illness comes with executive-level reviews, as does work-induced injury, and although that is an outcome of our health and wellbeing agenda, both on the physical and psychological side, it sets the tone towards the effort we expect to put in to prevent illness derived from work activities. We have done a lot of work on mental health over the last five years that has led to a 65 percent reduction in cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression which leads to people being off. Although I am encouraged by this reduction, every single case we have where we have contributed to someone going off absent is grossly unacceptable to me, which fuels my appetite to do more. It is however really encouraging for the organisation to see those outcomes following all of the inputs from investment, time and energy from the people dedicated to pre-serving people’s lives whilst at work.
What initiatives do you run to help employees with mental illness?
We have a series of educational programmes, including our Mind Fit programme which involved mental health training for first aiders and awareness training for all. From a physical perspective, we also have personal medical assessments. Regardless of whether you are a receptionist, a plant worker or the chief executive, everybody gets access to an annual personal medical assessment that not only involves testing for things like cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar levels and lung function, but also tests for prostate and bowel cancers and thyroid irregularities.
Over the four years that this has been in place we have had thirteen confirmed cases of cancer identified, but these are the ones where people have let me know about their condition, I do know we have over 100 abnormal cases actually identified, but as the medicals are confidential to each individual it’s up to them whether they let us know. Whilst obviously really tragic, we have identified this through the medical assessment early without any of the signs or symptoms, which means those people are now getting treatment well in advance of what they normally would.
You have a breadth of experience working in different industries, from oil, gas, minerals, construction and water. Are there common challenges that you have identified?
The practical application of risk management is the same regardless of the industry you are in. All of these industries involve general risks such as working at height, and slips, trips and falls. The challenge is in understanding the complex diverse nature of what is different. The common risks will always be there and they will always consume management time and attention, but if you can identify what the potentially catastrophic risks are, that are unique to that specific industry, then you can really understand how you can better protect assets, employees and the members of the public that come into contact with your services.
In the past you have talked about not overshadowing the likelihood of highseverity risks. How do you manage that for a company with over 7,000 sites?
We have hundreds of treatment works, thousands of pumping stations and moreover, an abundance of risk areas
across our portfolio. The framework that we have in place allows us to have a high degree of visibility of all of those risk areas.
Inspection is the catalyst for all investment and maintenance within any organisation. If you can have visibility over your inspection programme that will lead to greater confidence at all levels that your assets are being looked at. If your assets are being looked at then the outcomes of that inspection will be actions generated.
This will then drive your maintenance programme, your defect resolution, and ultimately set you up for what needs to be invested in and inspected for the coming year on a risk-based approach.
How do you categorise those risks?
We have two types of risks within our framework. Firstly, risks which consume management time and attention. These are what we call our dynamic risks. Secondly we have catastrophic risks which are the low probability, highseverity risks which can lead to multiple fatalities, reputational damage and loss of investor confidence. Those risks are so important that they swamp any company risk dashboard so you have to treat them with extreme care.
How do you identify risks?
We identify them from past knowledge. As a 400-year-old company all of the knowledge of the business is contained within the business. This meant that when I first joined Thames Water five years ago it was very easy to identify risk from my engagement with employees within different business units.
I soon discovered what keeps them awake at night and their critical risk areas that needed assessment with a health and safety head on. Often the best people to tell you about the risks inherent with the assets you have are the operatives who are using and operating and maintaining those assets, so connection at all levels needs to exist. Thames work very hard around our engagement with our supply chain which is why we have a one team ethos that everybody dresses in Thames Water clothing and every-body drives Thames Water vehicles.
We are one team and work hard to make sure our engagement cascades all the way into that supply chain as best as we can each year.
How do you get leaders to under-stand the link between risk-reduction and financial performance?
If you have an organisation where budget is driving risk it will lead to a lack of investment in your infrastructure and your assets – so you have to flip it on its head. Each year, programme owners for each risk area tell us how many assets they need to inspect, how many sites they need to look at, the required maintenance and the defect resolution. That becomes the catalyst for the risk discussion which will lead to the right budget being applied against it. Risk needs to drive budget, not budget restraining risk.
What are the core pillars of worldclass operational excellence that executives should be focused on?
It’s got to be the standards and expectations defined, combined with cultural evolution. This means understanding your culture and where it sits at that point in time. If you get those two right this will lead to a higher level of reliability which in turn is operational excellence in its definition
Could you describe the culture at Thames Water?
Evolving is the best way I can put it. People are proud to work for Thames Water and we have a lot of very passionate people who care an awful lot about the services they provide and I am in this category.
In understanding the complex and diverse nature of the water and wastewater industry you learn to understand its critical importance to the national infrastructure, but it is a service that is often taken for granted. We can only provide the quality of the product we provide because of the input from our passionate people. From a behavioural perspective and a values perspective, the organisation has worked hard in terms of reflecting those values, and I get up every day and try to do as much as I can to help those engagement conversations that help people feel empowered.
All of our people are empowered to challenge on unsafe acts and conditions without fear of reprisal and that high levels of challenge within any business is a true measure of whether you will prevent injuries, illness or significant incidents occurring.
We have a series of educational programmes, including our Mind Fit programme which involved mental health training for first aiders and awareness training