In my Bad Buying book, I wrote about the IT disaster that affected millions of TSB bank customers back in 2018. Here is the story from the book.
“In 2015 Sabatell acquired TSB, a UK-based retail bank, formally part of the Lloyds TSB Group. TSB at some point needed to move onto its own IT platform, rather than continuing to use the Lloyds group systems, as they were now competitors to their former parent company. But the move, in April 2018, turned into a disaster.
Account holders couldn’t use mobile or Internet banking, and some reported seeing accounts details from other account holders. Customers struggled for weeks to make mortgage and business payments, as the new TSB systems failed to function properly. The issue was serious enough to be raised in the British Parliament, and in September 2018 TSB’s CEO, Paul Pester, resigned.
In March 2019 The Sunday Times reported that an investigation into the affair put much of the blame onto the IT firm that handled the transition.13 However, the twist was that this firm was SABIS – which is part of the Sabatell Group itself. So although it has a separate identity, this was in effect the internal IT function of the group that owned TSB.
Reports suggested a range of technical and programme management issues around the deployment of new software, rather than problems with the underlying infrastructure. But whatever the cause, the whole episode cost TSB £330 million,14 and there is a ‘provisional agreement’ (according to the firm’s annual report) for SABIS to pay TSB £153 million. In November 2019 an independent report from law firm Slaughter and May concluded that the issues arose because ‘the new platform was not ready to support TSB’s full customer base’ and, second, ‘SABIS was not ready to operate the new platform’.
Questions have to be asked about the choice of ‘supplier’ here. Was SABIS the right choice to carry out this challenging task? It certainly doesn’t appear so, in retrospect. Did TSB have a choice, or was the firm told by top Sabatell management that it had to use SABIS? Would a firm with a wider and broader experience of banking systems than SABIS have done better? And why didn’t TSB accept the offer of help from Lloyds, which was made as soon as news of the problems broke?”
Now, five years later, there is an interesting postscript. Carlos Abarca, who was the TSB chief information officer, has been fined £81,620 by the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), the body that provides oversight of the UK banking system. In their 35 page report, they explain how Abarca’s failure caused a debacle that might have threatened financial stability more widely.
He apparently ignored early signs that the migration was not going well before the big switchover. He “did not ensure that TSB formally reassessed Sabis’s ability and capacity to deliver the migration on an ongoing basis”. Sabis told Abarca that they were migration ready and that subcontractors had given written confirmation that their infrastructure was fit for purpose. but the Authority felt this was not enough because the statements were caveated with comments about outstanding tasks. Abarca also did not obtain a written updated confirmation of readiness from Sabis when he told his own Board everything was ready for the transition.
The PRA said, “Mr Abarca’s failings undermined TSB’s operational resilience and contributed to the significant disruption TSB experienced to the provision of critical functions and potentially impacting on financial stability”.
This might be the first time a senior executive has been fined and disgraced for a failure in contract and project management. Now clearly in most industries, there is no equivalent of the PRA to carry out this sort of investigation and take such action if someone screws up in a similar manner. But if you are in the financial services industry in the UK, it is a warning. If you are responsible in some way for operations, and that includes some procurement and contract management activities, then you must be very careful and must conduct your work with considerable diligence. And make sure you cover your back carefully at every point if a supplier tells you, “yes, everything is fine, don’t worry”!