June 9th, 2017

A triumph of optimisation: re-routing Islington’s waste collections

5 minute read

by Matthew Homer


As the dust settles on the introduction of new recycling and waste collection days for 54,000 houses in the London Borough of Islington, I’d like to share with you some key lessons learnt, especially for anyone doing the same thing elsewhere and for those helping us to run our services better in the future.

Of course, the success of a major project like this can be measured in a number of different ways. Project managers often ask ‘Was it delivered on time and on budget?’ In this case, by the way, the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, but that doesn’t guarantee the project was actually a success. Far from it.

More important in a public service setting are questions such as:

  • Were residents satisfied with the change?
  • Is there a long-term benefit to our residents?
  • If complaints arise, what are they about and how can we avoid them next time?
  • How did our elected members perceive how the service change went?


The answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘more or less’! The service change went far better than expected, but the teams responsible for the service implementation certainly learnt some valuable lessons on the way. Here goes….


Addressing the data

Clean data is all important. We put a great deal of effort into ensuring our property and schedule data was as up to date and accurate as possible. We knew that complete, accurate GIS-compatible data was paramount so that we could:

  • do rerouting properly;
  • send residents accurate information;
  • provide online address-based information; and
  • say with confidence how many properties we were servicing.


Uncertainty over precise property numbers would also have led to inaccuracies in calculating the resources needed to service those properties, potentially leading to unexpected costs or under-utilised vehicles and crew.

Our pre-existing property database wasn’t compatible with GIS, which led to some initial errors in schedules. With time and effort, the data has been revised and the schedules amended, but not getting it right first time led to some avoidable complaints from residents.

The lesson? You really can’t spend too much time getting the data right before you re-route. It will be time and money well spent.


Timing is everything

Wholesale route optimisation may take a long time, but once you’ve allowed for that it’s important not to assume that the earliest possible launch date is the right one. In the early phases of planning we considered launching the project at the beginning of January to achieve cost savings as early in the year as possible. We quickly realised, though, that you need your key players to be around in the lead-up to project launch. We also recognised that it’s unhelpful to implement changes when your service is managing external disruptions such as Christmas or other bank holiday collection day changes.

It also helps if residents are actually around when you’re trying to communicate with them, especially if you have the luxury of door knockers to help promote change and want to make the best use of them. Launching in the second week of February avoided all of these disruptions and gave us a good run-in. While snow was still a potential risk, we judged (correctly) that in London it was a pretty small one.


Taking route: an Islington RCV out on its round. Photo: Mark Hillary (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.


We knew from the start that major projects are not the place for staff to learn project management ‘in the field’. That’s a recipe for disaster. You wouldn’t want an ambulance driver learning to drive on the way to an emergency or a politician to learn to govern by becoming president (oh, right, bad example…). Learning from your mistakes is important for any project manager, but ideally you should cut your teeth on low risk projects!


Management and consultancy

For major, high profile, high risk projects – and for a local authority, changing everybody’s collection day most definitely falls into that category – you want experienced project managers who can bring their knowledge and training, their experience of managing projects and the tough lessons they’ve learned in the past.

Then they need the time and space to get on with it. All too often, staff already busy and under pressure with full workloads are expected to deliver major projects on top of everything else. This can be fine up to a point. We all learn to manage and prioritise our workloads. But if the project hits a problem or requires extra time and attention, if extra resources can’t be found then senior managers need to recognise that something has to give – either the project or the day job.

Good advance resource and project planning ensures staff can effectively manage major projects. This helps to avoid slippage in time frames, enables better risk management and a greater chance of success.

It’s rare, and probably unwise, to undertake route optimisation without advice from one of the many consulting companies who offer expertise, experience and access to bespoke software. Despite the reassurance this can bring, it doesn’t insulate the project manager from their responsibility to be on top of things. If something goes wrong (and it probably will somewhere down the line) the project manager needs to have enough understanding of the very complex processes involved to know what’s happened and what to do about it. You can’t outsource your responsibilities.

Likewise, if you’re the consultant, your reputation is only as good as your last project. Stay on board right up to launch, through the launch and for a period beyond. Our consultants from Eunomia did, and we’re benefiting from it.

As the schedule change is becoming established ‘business as usual’ and residents adapt to their new collection days, we’re turning our focus to new priorities. The irony is that, having gained all this experience and learned so many lessons about re-routing, we probably won’t have to repeat the task for several years. That’s why I thought I’d share my experiences with those who will.

If that’s you, I of course wish you good luck. But if you plan well, put the right resources in place and seek out good advice, you won’t be relying too much on good luck to get you through.


Matthew Homer



Matthew Homer is Waste Strategy Manager at London Borough of Islington. Like other Isonomia authors, Matthew writes in a personal capacity.


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