Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, he organizes a postal service for a small African country. Following his directions, they carefully put up post boxes throughout the country and mail slots in their doors. People post their letters, but then they wonder why delivery does not follow. Of course, it's because he and they have both forgotten to include the infrastructure needed to empty the mailboxes and sort and deliver the mail. All is solved in the end, and the mail does go through--delivered by large and small birds, depending on the weight of the letter or parcel.
It is in this spirit that I turn to our local transit system. Our poor MBTA ("The T') has gotten hammered this winter and essentially shut down during the snow storms. Much of this failure was due to persistent underinvestment by the state government in the system, something that I hope will be remedied in the future. But--as in any complex organization--there were and are also patterns of behavior and design of work flow that impede process improvement. My buddy Steve Spear describes some of these and antidotes in a recent article. He notes:
Long and short, the Legislature will be debating budgetary actions to prevent future system collapses. That said, the executive branch will not only have to spend that money wisely but also have to develop these dynamic capabilities to assure that it is put to the best and most effective use.
It . . . means developing an eye to detect even micro aberrations from [the] ideal and investigating the root cause of disruptions, so countermeasures can be developed and their recurrence prevented.
I want to relate one example of these work flow problems now, not to poke fun or ascribe blame, but to provide an example for both the transit system and other organizations.
With the advent of Twitter, it becomes possible to report service problems in real time to @MBTA, and it is a sign of the system's alertness that you almost always get a rapid response thanking you for your tweet and telling you that your concern has been forwarded to supervisors who will work on the issue.
Then what happens? Well, here's where it feels like the early days of Dr. Dolittle's post office. I appreciate that someone is monitoring Twitter, but there seems that there's "many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip" after the message arrives on that person's screen.
I was riding the Green Line in February when the door of our car got stuck on the passenger platform. The train was delayed, causing a backup in traffic. The driver actually had to leave her post twice and give the door a mighty shove from the outside to get it unstuck.
How could that be, I thought? These cars have been in service for years, and the height of the platform has not changed. So I figured it was some misalignment of the door. So, I sent a tweet to @MBTA.
Our dialogue is above. Read from the bottom up.
Upon leaving the train at my destination, I mentioned something to the driver about the oddness of the occurrence and she noted that it had happened before from time to time.
I thought nothing of it, sure that the problem would be solved. Until yesterday. Precisely the same thing happened. A friend sent me this note with the accompanying photo:
Car #3806B. Single car D line train headed outbound, stuck at Copley station because the door wouldn't close as it kept getting stuck on the platform.
You can see the failure mode in the photo. That little piece of rubber at the bottom of the door hangs down too low and gets caught on the passenger tread of the platform The door gets jammed and cannot close.
My friend and I both reported problems with cars in the 3800 series. I see here that these were built by Breda in the period 1997 to 2007. I'm not going to try to do a root cause analysis, but I'm willing to bet--based on our very limited sample--that if we were to look at other cars from this series, we'd see the potential for similar problems. If so, that would suggest that a minor fix to the bottom of the doors could help keep the trains running.
Or maybe there's some other cause and some other solution. The point is that Steve Spear is exactly right. The MBTA needs to get better at "developing the eye to detect even micro aberrations from [the] ideal and investigating the root cause of disruptions, so countermeasures can be developed and their recurrence prevented." Or as Dr. Dolittle might suggest, let's figure out how to deliver the mail to someone who will read and act on it.
And before you health care people chortle at "The T" and get too self-satisfied with your own organizations, let's reflect on the all too pervasive need for hospitals to do the same.