Friday, March 20, 2015

A lesson from Dr. Dolittle to the MBTA

Many of us grew up with the Dr. Dolittle books.  He was famous for being able to talk with the animals, but his adventures went far and wide.  In one book, 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.


Barry Carol said...

The articles you linked to make a number of very good points about ways to improve management of the transit system and to increase fare revenue with dynamic pricing.

There are a couple of systemic problems with public transit systems, though. The first is that historically politicians are more willing to fund expensive glamorous projects that will include a ribbon cutting ceremony upon completion and favorable publicity for politicians who got the project funded. The Big Dig comes to mind. The second is that the transit system is a local monopoly. There is no effective competition. Alternatives are limited to private cars, expensive cabs and working from home where possible.

By contrast, if a hospital or an airline performs poorly compared to the competition, it will lose business as it should. For an entity like NASA or the military, there is a closer connection between poor performance by management or equipment and lost lives. Poor performance by a transit system results mainly in lots of inconvenience for the public and some lost business in the commercial sector but not lost lives.

Finally, even if the transit system operates as well as it possibly could, there are no extra financial rewards for the rank and file workers who operate the system. If they perceive management as slow and unresponsive or worse in correcting problems brought to their attention, there is not much incentive to speak up.

Presumably, voters could hold politicians, especially the mayor, accountable for the poor performance of public services when he is up for re-election. Voters can be faulted though if they are unwilling to adequate fund the transit system through a combination of taxes and higher fares. At the same time, management needs to demonstrate that the system is being operated efficiently to convince voters that the system is worth paying for.

Answers from UHub said...

From UHub:

Not the rubber
By RozzieRail

It's mostly weight distribution on the airbags under the train. If the airbags aren't fully inflated and you have more weight on one side coupled with the platforms at such stations as Copley and Longwood being just a tad too high causes the doors to get stuck.

And to add to that, Levy
By anon

And to add to that, Levy states " the platforms have not changed", when in fact they have. The problem happens at platforms that have been raised to accommodate the bridge plates on the Type 8 cars so that wheeled mobility devices can board. The "rubber" is the bottom of the linkage that opens and closes the doors and keeps them from flapping in the wind as the train moves, not a simple piece to change or remove. Replacing worn air bags on the Type 8s and installing air compressors that are more reliable than the ones now on those cars is on the MBTA's wish list of things to do with proper funding.

Paul Levy said...

Whoa, so if the answer is this well known, why doesn't the T just explain that when you write in?

BostonUrbEx said...

More from UHub:

It is indeed the Type 8's only
By BostonUrbEx

This problem is limited to the Type 8's and typically only at certain platforms renovated around a similar time period. In particular, Longwood Medical Center on the E Line, where if a Type 8 is leading, they can't bring the train up past the box containing sand for the winter or the doors will catch.