I remember visiting Toronto as a girl [living in Sarnia at the time], and the Toronto transit system was initially frightening-big-complex, and then magical. Underground trains that sped you from place to place! Buses that would take you anywhere! People of every social class in sight!
Not exactly world class, Toto
Sadly, little has changed since I was a girl. Except that people who can afford to drive don't often take transit to commute, because it's so unpleasant. Many of the same trains and buses are in use. If you were here when the place was built, you'd still recognize the colors of most of the stations -- the only difference is that a lot of the tiles are missing and no repair is forthcoming anytime soon.
And the system, frozen for cash for so long, doing so much with so little, has become a cranky curmudgeon. There are points of justifiable pride -- I remember hearing that this system can keep a bus running longer than anywhere else, for example. The mechanics are probably bringing in tools from home to do it, I'm guessing.
But it's broken.
And in desperate need of a giant Swiffer WetJet and a home reality redesign show
Some recent social media scandals [are there any other kind now?] have only highlighted the dark, dusty, dripping corners of this situation. Pictures of conductors sleeping in their toll-booths. Video of bus drivers stopping for a bio break and a coffee late at night, leaving freezing passengers to wait to get home. Big expenditures on ticket/token fraud prevention in a system that should have converted to swipe passes years ago.
Naturally, these public assaults are being taken very personally by good people who are doing their best in a stressful and damaging situation.
Yes, Virginia, it's a syndrome
This situation is hardly unique, and I'm not talking transit anymore. I've seen some well-documented case studies that have many of the same organizational characteristics (see Resources for the Nut Island story). And I've observed a few situations like this first hand; I bet you have too.
The TTC (aka Toronto Transit Commission) has been going in this death spiral for so long now, that external design and innovation help will not be enough. It's a great idea, but this system is sick on the inside, not just bereft of ideas or money.
Even consultants who could walk on water...
We've been told that a customer service consultant has been hired to help. Well, I am one, and it will not be enough, almost regardless of what they do. Other people are suggesting that 'design thinking' will help. Well, it would help, but it wouldn't be enough either.
The only thing that will turn this situation around is a multi-faceted high-engagement strategy that involves all the people involved in making the change.It might be Appreciative Inquiry. It might be Solutions Focus. Who cares, really? As long as it gets literally thousands of people in conversation about making a change. Because that is the only thing that will make an impact.
Management has been sending out memos to staff, making them public to ensure everyone hears the message. This is their idea of rallying and engaging the people.
I have only one question: when was the last time a memo of this kind made you think differently or change your behavior?
The Nut Island Effect: When Good Teams Go Wrong, by Paul F. Levy, March 2001
There has to be a better way, by Anthony Reinhart, Globe and Mail, Feb 5, 2010
A refreshing new look for a TTC Station, by by Melissa Feeney, Mel, Do Tell Blog
Better to just hold it at TTC pit stops, by Jack Lakey, Toronto Star, March 10, 2008
TTC Union responds with a statement on Transit Toronto blog, February 9, 2010