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Innovation spotlight: Q&A with Francois Hillier

By Pacific National
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Sitting down to sketch out a small idea can lead to big innovation wins further down the line.

In our constant quest to unlock innovation across our transport and logistics operations, the ideas of our staff are absolutely crucial. Moreover, if concepts not only embrace innovation but also lend a helping hand to safety as well, they can be truly invaluable.

Enter Pacific National’s Francois Hillier. As part of  his role as a maintainer, Francois attends to train breakdowns in the network. While that may sound relatively routine, the ballast that surrounds nearly all train tracks can make it difficult to perform operations safely, and is one of the main trip and fall hazards in the role.

After identifying this safety concern, Francois set about finding a solution. The result saw the Mobile Ballast Stairs come to life from an initial, small idea to one of the standout finalists in our 2015 Switch On Innovation Challenge.

We caught up with Francois to talk about his innovation journey to this point, as well as how his idea could expand in the future:

How did you originally come up with your idea for the Switch On Innovation Challenge?

The project that I came up with for the challenge was based on an issue that rail ballast has always presented. Rail ballast isn’t going away by any means. It’s actually getting higher and the angles are getting more severe and we’ve got a constant problem of having to work around it, move over it, and get equipment to where it needs to be.

For drivers, it also presents issues when they’re getting on and off locomotives. For maintainers such as myself, dealing with ballast is part of the job when we’re working on wagons out on the network. Trying to do that safely can be tricky.

Between 2011 and 2014, we had approx. 64 injuries across Pacific National that were linked to ballast alone. I set myself a challenge to see if I could come up with a solution to solve the issue and prevent some of those injuries from happening.

Once you had identified the problem was actually there to be solved, what were the next steps?

I wasn’t sure If I could solve the issues surrounding working on ballast to begin with, and it was a bit of a challenge in itself to see if I could. The first idea I had, I didn’t actually note down, rather, built a small model.

In fact, I went and found an old Meccano set and built the idea out that way. I needed to do that to prove that the pantogragh design which creates a self leveling step, would work. I then took the rough concept to the leadership at Pacific National’s Greta Train Support Facility to see what they thought.

Through support from Darrin Pollard, our Maintenance Supervisor and the Greta maintainers, we made a full-scale working model and developed it from there. It was at this stage that I was encouraged to enter it into the Innovation Challenge by our site manager Craig Brittliffe.

That solution grew, and then that produced a number of questions from Asciano’s Senior Leadership Team centered around ‘what else can we do with the idea?’ My answer to that was essentially, ‘we can do anything’.

The project then expanded again from a simple set of stairs that can be used to get equipment over ballast, to a platform that can be utilised for repairs on locomotives and wagons in difficult working conditions around the rail network and a stair design that could be used for safe egress from locomotives.

It went from a very simple idea to a much bigger one, which was great.

Sketching out an innovative idea doesn't have to be a complex process to begin with.Sketching out an innovative idea doesn’t have to be a complex process to begin with.

You were one of a select few finalists in the Switch On Innovation Challenge, and attended the Thank You Initiative Awards. Can you describe what having your efforts recognised in this way was like?

To be recognised at first was quite surprising, but I was grateful that the time, and effort the Greta crew and myself had put into the project was rewarded. I had a lot of support from my team and the leadership at the Greta Train Support Facility as well as support from all over Pacific National, and they pushed for my idea to be recognised at the Thank You Initiative Awards.

Despite putting a lot of time into the idea, I didn’t expect it to go as far as it did. I’m really pleased that it has and it’s certainly inspired bigger and better projects to come. The awards night itself was a good experience and it was great to meet people from across the business who had pursued similar projects and were being rewarded accordingly. It was really interesting to get to know everyone else’s stories.

Moreover, it was nice to interact with some of the leadership team from Asciano and get to know them and their thoughts on our ideas, projects and innovations that are ongoing at the Greta Train Support Facility.

How important do you believe a forum for innovation is in the workplace?

I do look to consistently innovate and come up with new ideas. It’s something I was trying to do before but now I have a platform where I can build on that thanks to Asciano’s Innovation Co-op.

In the past, it was possible to perhaps come up with an idea or a solution to a problem, but there was no way of knowing what should be done with it and in some cases, who to take it to. Now, we have a forum where we can take that further and look for support in progressing that project onto the next level. It opens up networks that can offer advice and support.

Having that system of feedback where people can say ‘this needs some work’ or ‘that’s a great idea’ is certainly valuable. The dialogue opens up a whole new world to people who want to help the company and see opportunities to improve things in both big and small ways.

“The potential for innovation right through the organisation is massive.”

What do you see as some of the challenges that may be faced as Asciano continues to embrace innovation?

In the short term, continued communication from the top of the company, through the Innovation Co-op and to all the current business units is paramount. If that continues, then the culture for innovation that Asciano is building can consistently evolve and be bettered.

If the lines of communication remain open, anyone who is looking to take an idea forward can see that this is a real thing. You can have a genuine impact and create valuable outcomes in any role.

Once that message gets passed on across the Asciano community, through Patrick, C3, Pacific National etc, I think there could be a flood of ideas coming through. The potential for innovation right through the organisation is massive.

How far do you think this idea can potentially expand within the industry and what do you see as the next steps to make that possible?

Because of the Innovation Co-op and the Dragon’s Den (part of the Switch On Innovation Challenge process) and meeting Pacific National Director David Irwin, the idea has already gone forward a long way.

We’re aiming to take the concept to the next level again, and through ACS composites, design a modular product that’s both lightweight and usable to the point it could fit into the boot of an average 4wd or we can have a couple of sets in the back of a truck. The idea could be turned into a system that can be adapted in so many different ways, which would make it usable in any given scenario out on the rail network.

So, the project itself is going really well as things stand, and the overall outcome hopefully is that we can take the end product worldwide.

What advice would you give to encourage individuals to pursue ideas in their own line of work?

Simply, be determined. Don’t be discouraged in the face of adversity. Things don’t necessarily happen in a hurry and you’re going to need lots of patience. But patience can actually give you a chance to reflect on what you’ve done, and even provide you with the opportunity to improve it.

You don’t necessarily have to take no as an answer, but be sure to listen to the advice of other people. If someone says ‘it’s not a good idea’ then consider why they’ve drawn that conclusion.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with being passionate about an idea. If you’ve got a concept in mind, no matter how big or small, bring it forward and talk to people about it. At the end of the day, you just never know the potential of what you’re sitting on until you’ve explored it fully.

Taking the time to plan through an innovative idea can help turn the concept into a reality.Taking the time to plan through an innovative idea can help turn the concept into a reality.

How impressive was the breadth of competition across the Switch On Innovation Challenge, and what advice would you give for anyone entering it in the future?

It was great. We’re lucky at Asciano in many ways as we have such a huge scope through the organisation across rail transport and ports. There are so many different types of people, from a variety of backgrounds, and there’s huge potential through all of that to create great ideas.

In general, the future for innovation looks really promising.

The challenge itself is a great thing to get involved in. Personally, I’ve gained a lot out of it, including the new networks that I’ve found across Asciano’s various business units. That side of it, and meeting like-minded people, is something that’s incredibly valuable.

It’s been hugely rewarding to see an idea being pushed forward and not just shelved. Personally, it’s driven me to take more interest in my role. The challenge helps you run with ideas and you know that if you do put in the extra effort and go that bit further, it’s going to be recognised by the company.