John Coughlan, CEO at TSP Engineering, discusses his firm’s digital transformation journey against the backdrop of COVID-19...
TSP Engineering is an industrial and electrical engineering manufacturer that provides a range of technical solutions to solve complex problems. The organisation serves a number of key industries such as nuclear, defence, oil & gas, steel, construction and industrial.
John Coughlan has been the CEO at TSP Engineering since 2014. A results-driven, business turnaround leader, Coughlan possesses a significant record of driving operational improvements through operating with a customer-centred approach. He has helped oversee TSP Engineering’s digital transformation journey but believes his company is still in its infancy in terms of its overall digitalisation drive. “It’s been a good journey so far, but we’re still in the initial stages of transformation,” affirms Coughlan. “One of the things that we’re really trying to guard against is allowing anyone access into our business via any new technology we introduce. We’ve had to ensure that we’re cybersecure to protect the data that we have. This is even more important because a lot of the data that isn’t ours, we’re minding it for our customers and the information is for UK eyes only and is classified. This means it’s even more pivotal that we’re very careful in everything we do.”
Talent management is a key pillar to Coughlan and he acknowledges the importance of equipping staff with the knowledge to leverage data more effectively. “It’s one of those things that I learned really early on,” he explains. “You have to provide staff with the tools to interrogate the data that will draw out the answer to the problem. It’s important to never just give away the answer but provide a route to the answer that they need for the problem. It’s about how to harness, interrogate and how to interpret the data to provide results because data doesn’t really lie.”
With the importance of data growing at an exponential rate to businesses such as TSP Engineering, Coughlan affirms that an agile and flexible approach to operations is key, particularly in a digital transformation. “It’s about harnessing the data to drive our technologies and the changes that we make on a daily basis,” says Coughlan. “The digital era that we’re now in is constantly making us look at our business and how we operate. Only recently, based on what we’re doing, we’ve decided to take one of our business departments and set it out into a business unit on its own to allow it to get further ahead on the digital transformation and not to be held back by other areas of the business.
“The data that we hold in-house is very important to us and because of the sectors that we work in, such as nuclear and defence, security is essential. We must ensure that we’re not only protecting the data but that we’re using it correctly, as it has a big impact on our customers and the products that we deliver. We must deliver a lifetime record with our product, so they need to be assured about everything in our process.”
Coughlan believes that the influence of Advanced Nuclear Reactors (AMRs) will play a prominent part in helping the UK become a more sustainable environment. “The world wants to be a greener place in the future and one of the ways we try to make that happen is by ensuring that we have economically achievable and reachable nuclear power to help get us to a net-zero economy and region,” says Coughlan. “To make this happen, you should ensure that nuclear power is affordable because, if you take the existing power sources for nuclear, it can take up to 10 years to build and you could be talking about over US$20bn to produce. But we don’t have the finances or time to do that anymore so if we scale those down in terms of capability of electricity, we can produce those completely in the factory and streamline the production time from 10 years to 18-24 months. This is from the time you place the order, move it to site and have your building put in place, because the two can be in parallel. This means that it basically becomes a plug-in unit when you get it onsite.”
Despite the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, TSP Engineering has continued to receive orders and is emerging post-COVID-19 in a relatively strong position in comparison to lots of harder-hit industries. However, Coughlan explains that his organisation, like so many others, had to transform operations overnight and find a new normal. “COVID has made us think outside the box,” explains Coughlan. “At the end of March, we ceased production and sent people home for their own safety. Once we got an understanding of how we could work more safely, we had a number of people from all areas of the business starting to work from home and getting the IT infrastructure set up. A lot of people found that they were much more productive working from home and we now have a mix of remote working and office working. It was important that we checked in with employees because we were well aware of the mental health aspect and understood that there wasn’t one way that worked for everyone. In terms of the factory workers, it’s obviously much more difficult for them to work at home so we introduced staggered times to stop there being too many people in at once.”
TSP Engineering works closely with the nuclear AMR advanced manufacturing centre and Coughlan affirms partnerships like this are vital to continued success. “That’s an extremely important relationship to us in terms of our learning and development as a business,” he says. “Research and development has become increasingly key to us over the past few years as technology continues to change. We also believe in partnering with customers and get great satisfaction when they view us as an extension of their business and part of their business. We’re looking beyond them and are trying to see who their customers are, as well as their demands and values. This will mean that we will be able to more than meet our front facing customers’ needs. We spend a lot of time with companies within our supply chain who we see as partners and work with them to try and improve quality, to help them understand the requirements of delivering in the nuclear sector, and help get their business up to the level required by the industry.”
Coughlan understands the importance of collaboration to achieving success. “You have to understand that you can’t do everything yourself,” he affirms. “Once you recognise that you need other people, then you have to consider them as an extension of your business. This is what helps you survive and what helps you differentiate yourself from competitors. You need a partner that’s open and is going to tell you when things are going wrong. Having a partner that is open to change and has flexibility is also crucial.”
With the future in mind, Coughlan is optimistic and believes the next few years are in his organisation’s hands. “The future is what we make it; you can sit back and wait for the future to come or you can try and develop it,” he says. “We’re going to be very involved in developing the future and new nuclear technologies and more involved in research and development. This is a really exciting time for lots of businesses and we’re certainly no different. As a company, we’ve won 14 awards during the past four years and spent £5.5m investing in our people to bring them to the standard where they can grow within the business. The time is now to use that as a springboard into the future in terms of getting to the next level we want to reach.”