Laying good foundations: Control Room Strategy

I sat down with David Watts, our MD here at CCD, to discuss the challenges involved in laying good foundations at the early stages of control room projects, and how making good decisions at the outset saves on mistakes later in the process.

So, give us some background about CCD and its control room work.

CCD have been designing control rooms for over 40 years. In fact, our founders began by designing various control rooms for the Home Office in 1977, and the first official CCD project was a Central Command Complex for the Metropolitan Police. Personally, I’ve been involved in control room ergonomics, strategy and design for 15 years.

How, or why, do your projects begin?

Many reasons. Technological advancement, a need to rationalise and therefore co-locate rooms, a change in organisational objectives or targets:  These can all lead to initiating a project to design a control room. More and more we are also hearing themes from general workplace design, such as employee retention and trying to curb absenteeism, as additional reasons for change.

Control rooms seem like one of those components of an operation that are intrinsic how successful it is, but people have little sight of the way they work.

They are extremely critical to our day-today-lives – commuting and public safety amongst other things, so you’ve got to approach control room projects in the right way.

Our job is to involve people at every level. You have to talk to many people when taking on the change process – not only the operators who work in the control but senior management as well. It’s a careful balance, and you need to ask the right questions to end up with information that is helpful to the process. If you aren’t careful, you’ll come away with lots of nice suggestions or ideas, none of them feasible or helpful. What we bring is analysis and evidence against which design decisions can be made.

We know the kind of things that need to be thought about in designing and operating a control room. We often partner with operational experts to bring domain knowledge in to our consulting.

So, what do you do when you first approach a project?

We start thinking about the right things from the outset – the cost of making poor decisions rises exponentially as you progress through the project. Getting the right initial strategy and concept is key.

We work closely alongside clients to understand their vision, strategy and business objectives.

The project must deliver to these. Then you need to start thinking about the big things like building selection – these are going to fix constraints and will be hard to change later on.

You mentioned that you involve users in the process.

You’ve got to understand how you will get end user engagement in the process – it’s a change process after all. Change should never be something that is done to people. Start thinking about the change elements of the programme and how the design process can support this.

You’ve got to make sure you cover issues that might seem less important now, but we know they will seem much more important later. Our approach is to map out all of areas you need to be thinking about even if the detail comes later. We often start by forming a user group who can input early on but then stay engaged in the design process all the way through.  There is sometimes a trust issue for management to let go and allow staff to have a strong input – but they know the operation better than anyone and most clients understand that their buy-in is important in getting the room working well.

You talk about working through your client’s vision and strategy with them, but what if they’ve already done it? How far do they get down the line before they bring that external expertise in?

Of course, consultants would say it’s never too early to get us involved, but it’s actually really important to involve that outside person from the very beginning for a multitude of reasons.

Clients think the answer is often “after we’ve figured things out”, but by then certain options might be closed off without their realising the impact of decisions they’ve made.

We understand the knock-on effects that a decision made at top level will have on the control room environment, system or operator. If your successful operation relies even partially on these, why would you risk making decisions without fully understanding their impacts?

It might seem trivial, such as deciding you need a high level of security on the centre, but the effect of that might be that the control room is located in a basement without natural light.  This will significantly impact on the performance of staff, but their might have been other better solutions.

Being a control room operator is a tough job.

Incredibly. You’re in this high-pressure environment on long shifts, often tied to your workstation with much less room for physical movement than a traditional office. What might seem like subtle changes to the way they work are actually significant.

It comes back to human error – less error, more efficiency, more confident operator, improved operations.

The operator must be enabled to respond in the most accurate and efficient way possible, particularly in a crisis, whether you’re an emergency responder or an oil rig operator.

What about the design of the actual space?

We have a very well-established process that is built in the principles in ISO 11064 and we have refined over the last 40 years.  The foundation is what we’ve talked about – having a good set of requirements around a solid concept of operations.

The operational requirements are key.  We often find they evolve as the project runs.  Initially when we start the consultancy work we might use a lot of working assumptions to help our client explore the options. As we move into the design process, these requirements will be firmed up and will drive the design decisions.

As we said earlier, it’s important to keep involving operators.  We use full-scale mock-ups to get their hands-on input to the design process.  It’s a great way to facilitate their input as it’s ‘real’ which is so much better than looking at drawings.  We facilitate this process, making sure we build in good practice things like space for circulation and that we are clear where we might be having to make a compromise on the requirements.

The final thing on process is taking a holistic view.  Our expertise is seeing the connection between operations, the space and the technology being used.  None of these should be looked at in isolation from other others.  Our value is in provide the glue that brings all these elements together.

CERN control room

CERN Large Hadron Collider
Control Room, Switzerland

ICC for Network Rail

Integrated Control Centres
for Network Rail, UK


Stephanie Clarke

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