by Jon Shave
The unprecedented number of updates to the DMRB currently being published marks a milestone in an ongoing process that will ensure technical standards are always current, consistent, easy-to-use and connected to the digital tools of the future. WSP worked alongside Highways England on the transformation of the DMRB – an undertaking that has involved a complete change in mindset, behaviour and approach from everyone involved.
A ‘living’ digital system
The new manual is not a static set of documents to be printed out and kept on a shelf. Rather, it is a digital system that will be constantly updated in response to technical developments and the needs of the industry. As such, it aligns with one of WSP’s key aims: to help our clients become Future Ready. When Highways England asked us to recommend how the DMRB should evolve, this is what we focussed on – how the manual could be rewritten and restructured to help its users (and, ultimately, road users) benefit from innovative digital tools of the future.
For example, road design is moving towards a rapid engineering approach that effectively automates the design process. So, we ensured that the DMRB contains the clear, structured requirements automated design tools need – and that these requirements are in a form that can be read by new design tools as they are developed. And, while many technical updates have been written into the new documents, they have been written in a format that enables increased innovation and avoids the content becoming outdated.
Revolutionising the approach
But how do you update hundreds of documents, many of them 15 years old, written in various formats and with different terminology, and make them consistent and easy to use? What’s more, how do you do all this within a tight deadline to ensure Highways England meets the requirements of its licence from the government? This was the challenge presented to us, and it was clear that more than just the technical content and format would need to change; we would also need to revolutionise the standard approach to drafting, reviewing and approving engineering documents.
We took inspiration from the software industry, which works collaboratively and efficiently to update its tools using agile development. Adapting this approach to our own needs, for each document we brought together the people from Highways England, WSP, other suppliers and other UK authorities who were responsible for authoring, reviewing and approving the content. They then worked together intensely on the document until it was finished. In this way, documents that might have taken at least six months to complete if they had been passed slowly between people one at a time were drafted rapidly, sometimes within a month.
A behavioural shift
Our agile approach required a change in mindset, and new tools – such as the Collaborative Authoring and Review System (CARS) developed for Highways England with WSP working in collaboration with a software developer . CARS forms the backbone of the structured database for the new documents and also enables teams to collaborate on authoring, commenting and reviewing. Instead of emailing Word documents back and forwards, people can see changes and actions required in real time. The approach has been so successful that Highways England is now looking to expand its use of CARS for its other technical standards documentation.
What about the people who need to use and refer to the documents – those working in the highways supply chain? While a regularly updated suite of documents that connect to digital tools might take a little getting used to compared with the decades-old predecessors, users are already feeling the benefits. For example, in parallel with this work we have also driven the design of the new digital system to manage departures – where suppliers feel they need to do things differently from the requirements in the manual and must ask permission to do so. In the first two months of the new system’s operation, the average time taken to respond to departure requests, which are assessed on a site-by-site basis, fell from 49 days to just 7 days. What’s more, it’s expected that clearer documents – that can be easily updated in light of users’ experiences – will reduce the number of departure requests . These benfits are already being realised, with a 60% drop in the rate of departures for the new documents. Once the whole DMRB is delivered, this reduction in departures is expected to save between £10M and £20M per annum in efficiencies.
As the sector embraces innovative digital tools, the DMRB points the way to a collaborative future where everyone – from leaders to end-users – is fully involved in creating a safe and efficient road network.
Jon Shave is a technical director in WSP’s Bristol office. In addition to working with Highways England on the DMRB, he is also working with BSI and European experts to develop the second generation of Eurocodes for structural design.