Service design partnership

Two locomotives being repaired in a well-lit workshop

The Challenge

Nuclear Transport Solutions (NTS) is the world’s leading provider of secure nuclear transport, with over 100 trains, three ships and a 700-strong team based in the UK, France and Japan. Social Origin was brought in as their Service Design Partner through Retearn Group to support NTS’s Rail Modernisation programme following the merger of International Nuclear Services and Direct Rail Services.

The challenges of NTS’s work are, understandably, considerable. In a fast-moving global marketplace and amidst regular policy change, they need to be highly competitive, modernise their operations, and find and retain the right people in a sometimes opaque sector. Modernisation must be delivered in a way that ensures consistent and secure operation throughout the process.

NTS’s commitment to meet stringent regulations, a focus on reliability and their investment in new rolling stock, also makes them a trusted logistics partner for commercial clients like Tesco. Tight margins and turnaround times dictate retail clients’ service expectations, and NTS’s growing reputation in this field speaks volumes about their excellent work. They’ve been regular winners of the Chartered Institution of Railway Operators’ Golden Whistle award.

With increasing commercial pressures and continually rising customer expectations, it’s time for the next chapter in customer experience, growth, and the right time to reshape their systems and processes for the future.

Our Role

As Service Design Partner, our role is to provide a human focus to the programme and support a wide range of activities, projects and departments within NTS. As they develop their strategy – which has so far taken them to the merger, and is now about modernisation across aspects of their operations – we are working alongside them to explore opportunities to improve the business and identify practical ways to deliver their strategic outcomes.

Our approach is empathetic, no-nonsense and involved. We are helping NTS’s leadership take a new perspective by spending time with people throughout the organisation, listening to their experiences and using these insights to recommend opportunities for positive change. We also bring people together from across the business, a great way to open up new channels of communication.

When we were asked to review a rostering problem, for example, we invited a cross- section of the team – including senior management and front-line staff such as drivers – to a series of collaborative workshops. In these workshops, people worked to develop a common understanding of where the issues were. In fact it transpired that the rostering issues were triggered by activities earlier in the process. We then helped the working groups to co-design potential improvements, which are now in the process of being rolled out.

Sometimes, it’s about redefining the brief.

NTS also challenged us to identify issues with an asset management system that had been introduced for the engineering team pre- merger. Whilst the required maintenance was happening, it was clear that the system wasn’t meeting people’s needs.

We delivered a small Discovery process which allowed us to determine who was involved, what they were doing, and how the system was aligning with people’s roles and responsibilities. We wanted to gain consensus on problems and their causes. Throughout a six-week programme of workshops, site visits and interviews we gained a clear insight to staff experiences and frustrations, mapping best practice against what was actually happening. We looked at how the engineers manage and maintain their locomotives and wagons across their lifecycle, not just in relation to the system.

Taking this step back allowed us to help NTS modernise their engineering function in a way that balanced urgent priorities with longer term change. Small steps to streamline daily tasks cleared the way for a more structured and design-led approach to improving how engineering works and supports the broader business.

At the Executive level, we facilitated a cross-departmental review of management information. This included workshops and one-to-one exercises in which people with strategic responsibility for business direction pinned down the information they needed to make decisions, and how it could be measured to create a reliable management information dashboard. This turned into a comprehensive review of performance measurement across the business.


In our work with NTS, we helped them take a human-centred approach to transformation. By putting people’s needs at the heart of the programme we enabled them to take a new perspective on long standing problems and launch new service and business change initiatives. This meant that new projects avoided trying to solve the wrong problem and will better deliver the organisation’s strategic goals.

Our partnership has now come to an end, and we left the programme in a healthy position and delivering at pace. Our support was wide ranging, however the two largest service areas we supported are projected to deliver £5m/year in financial benefits over five years. However, we are most proud of the way we collaborated with NTS and navigated a complex and uncertain journey. We asked NTS for their feedback, and these are a few of the things they highlighted:

  • It felt like we were part of the broader programme team
  • We understood the context people were working in and won their trust
  • We enabled collaboration across the business – from engineers on the shop floor to Executives
  • We helped visualise and simply complexity in a sector steeped in history, tradition and terminology
  • We provided evidence and assurance that enabled people to make decisions with confidence.

We’re proud to have supported NTS on their journey to transform their Rail business. If you would like to know more about how service design can boost the performance of your organisation, please get in touch.