How the Dutch Railways uses innovation to facilitate the journey of the future
Van der Made is responsible for Mobility Strategy, Concept Design & Innovation. He was tasked with using innovation to improve the customer experience. The government decided that 80% of all travelers had to rate their travel experience with a 7 or higher but they fell short every time. To reach these goals, Van der Made and his team had to make sure that innovation became an integral part of the NS.
For the 15th episode of our podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO, we talked with Van der Made about customer satisfaction, the journey of the future, how the NS involves travelers with their innovations, the impact of corona, innovating conservatively, and Einstein.
Responsible for the complete journey
You would think that the average Dutchy is satisfied when the train runs on time and he/she can find a spot. Van der Made is quick to burst that bubble: “Our customer research shows that the travelers hold us responsible for their entire trip. […] For example, bad weather directly influences customer satisfaction. It’s about the journey as a whole.” He therefore feels that the NS mostly has a “coordinating role” and should make sure that all the connected chain services – the so-called first and last mile – are also in place and working properly.
Van der Made is one of the mobility strategists that work for the NS. He operates within the commercial branch and his daily tasks consist of working on what the (train) journey of the future should look like and how to prioritize the traveler. Van der Made: “To us, the traveler was always our top priority and we wanted to adhere to their wishes, we just weren’t sure where to start and how to do it. Four years ago, I started to think about some very concrete ways to make this happen.”
Joost van der Made, Mobility strategist at NS
The journey of the future
But what does that journey of the future look like? As far as Van der Made is concerned things won’t be very different compared to how they are now: “I hope that [by then] people will travel more flexibly and use sustainable means of transportation more often. That they determine what their journey will look like per day and per situation. […] We won’t be flying through the air using self-flying drones,” he states. To facilitate this journey of the future, the NS uses three tracks: interior, travel guidance and MaaS.
Before the corona crisis we lacked both train tracks and asphalt, which, according to Van der Made, constituted a 40% capacity deficiency. “We can’t make triple-deckers, we can’t make [the trains] longer, we can only increase the frequency a little, but not much and that’s why something needs to happen inside the trains,” Van der Made says. Therefore, in recent years, he has been focusing on the development of new train interiors, and is even testing some of these concepts as we speak.
Another important part of the journey of the future is the NS app. Eventually, the app is supposed to become more of a travel buddy that can inform you about every possibility. That’s why the NS developed the NS Labs app with which they regularly test new ideas and concepts, and with which they are booking some very promising results. “This is something that I’m very proud of,” beams Van der Made.
Finally, the NS is involved in MaaS. This is viewed as the ultimate way to becoming more sustainable and keeping the customer happy at the same time. Van der Made thinks that with MaaS it’s paramount that the NS keeps tabs on the chain services to and from the stations.
NS Lab app
Involving the traveler
We briefly mentioned what the traveler wants exactly and interestingly enough it turns out that what they say they want isn’t always what they actually want. They say, for example, that they want the train to run on time, but what they actually want is appreciation and freedom. To close this gap, the NS conducts a huge amount of customer research but they also involve the travelers with the different challenges that the NS is dealing with, like during the Dutch Design Week. Van der Made: “When you share [those challenges], they understand the ideas that you come up with. […] As a result, there is more support for innovation.”
Of course, they sometimes also come up with an idea that they think is brilliant but that the travelers then “burn to the ground”. Like with the idea of having young people travel in sort of a bleachers arrangement, like they sit in class. This idea wasn’t very popular to say the least, so Van der Made and his team decided to pull the plug on it. Because, as he says, “if you’re asking questions but aren’t prepared to listen to the answers, you shouldn’t be asking the question in the first place. Then you’re fooling people.”
Embassy of Mobility at the Dutch Design Week 2019
Impact of corona
Even though the NS is still one of the Netherlands’ biggest mobility providers, the corona crisis decimated the number of train trips (especially during the first months of the pandemic). Still, Van der Made sees this as a chance. An opportunity to look at how we can better spread our commute. According to him, this is what the whole mobility world needs: that we start traveling more spread out. Van der Made compares it to a supermarket, we can’t all go shopping between 8am and 9am and 5pm and 6pm. Many mobility providers are asking commuters to start work earlier or later and/or to work from home more. What they tend to forget is that employees usually don’t really have a say in this. That is why the NS is also speaking with employers to lobby for traveling outside rush hours. Additionally, he feels that the NS can also play an active role in this by providing quality travel information, because “if you know when it’s good to travel, you will be able to act on that,” says Van der Made.
The paradox of conservative innovation
Innovation is something that we find in all layers of the organization. Van der Made: “Innovation takes place in multiple places within the NS, though in very different ways. Some are working on smart timetables, while others [are concerned with] creating a better customer experience, maintenance innovation, and logistics.” There’s also an overarching innovation group: Strategy & Innovation. This group monitors duplications, has the tools to quickly find specialists, and maintains the platform that the NS uses to connect parties such as the Technical University of Delft with departments within the organization if they have an idea.
Plenty of innovation to go around and yet Van der Made and his team have to be conservative as well. First of all, the NS has a management obligation, which means that safe travel has the highest priority. You can’t just go around experimenting with all sorts of things, because you can’t always guarantee people’s safety. Besides, the (decentralized) budgets that Van der Made and his team are allocated mostly consist of tax money, which means that they have to be handled very responsibly and risk-aversely. “That’s always a bit of a struggle,” Van der Made laughs, “but the tight frame that we’re working with makes our designers much more creative.”
The first tip that Van der Made has for other innovative leaders isn’t just a tip, it’s his belief: “Innovation is the art of solving problems in new ways,” he says. Additionally, he feels that it’s important to not view the problem as something negative and therefore feels that it’s better to pose it as a question; how can we…? “This contains an action, which immediately makes it positive,” according to a clearly enthusiastic Van der Made.
Van der Made also wants to share a tip from Einstein himself. He said that if he was ever to find himself in a situation in which his life depended on answering a question within the hour, he would spend 55 minutes of that hour making sure that he understood the question. It works the same with innovation, states Van der Made, you have to understand the problem that you are trying to tackle. At the same time, he feels that you shouldn’t dwell on things for too long and take action in time, especially when it’s about the mobility of the future. After all, the future starts tomorrow…
“Einstein said that if he was ever to find himself in a situation in which his life depended on answering a question within the hour, he would spend 55 minutes of that hour making sure that he understood the question.”
Listen to the podcast
Curious about which factors contribute to customer satisfaction, how the budgets are divided, and who Van der Made himself admires? Please listen to our podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO here. (Please note that the podcast is in Dutch.)
Vision on Mobility 2050
Do you want to read more about future mobility? Download our report Vision on Mobility: En route to 2050. Eleven mobility experts from, among others, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, Lightyear, Hely and 9292 give their vision on Mobility in 2050.
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