Service, Courtesy, Safety (Part I)

Since 1954, the coat of arms of the Toronto Transit Commission has proclaimed the slogan “Service Courtesy Safety”.  After the Russell Hill subway crash in 1995, safety and maintenance quality zoomed to the front of the pack.  Years of neglect, of saying “we can get by” on inadequate budgets, finally took their toll.

Much work has been done to restore a safety culture at the TTC, to the point where other important aspects of the operation were eclipsed.

The TTC hasn’t had the best of times.  Although last year’s civic workers strike was not a TTC affair, any municipal strike reminds voters of past job actions by transit workers.  By late 2009. the media were in a feeding frenzy looking for any stories to discredit the Miller/Giambrone administration.  The “sleeping collector” fell right into their laps, and became the lighting rod for a host of complaints about the TTC, its employees and its service.

In March 2010, the TTC created an independent “Customer Service Advisory Panel” to examine a range of issues, and that panel reported yesterday, August 23.  The full report is available online.

Reading through it, I was struck by many quite reasonable items, but also by a sense that parts of the document were an attempt at face saving.  Too many recommendations place the responsibility for change at the front line employee or even at the customer without acknowledging that the best employee cannot do a good job without proper support from the organization.  Management must not regard good service (in many senses of that word) as something they can’t afford.  Departments must not assume that “it’s someone else’s job” to deal with problems, or defend their turf against others while failing to provide good service.

To give TTC management credit, statements by Chief General Manager Gary Webster at the press conference, the Commission meeting and on an interview with CBC Radio were open in accepting the need for organizational change.  Yes, there are some proposals with significant costs attached, but many structural and procedural problems require only the will to change how the TTC does business.

Early in the report, the panel tells us:

[W]e were pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the TTC stakeholders are passionate about their transit system. Everyone, from employees to management to customers, truly wants a TTC of which they can be proud.  [p 2]

This should not be a surprise.  The TTC was once (as they so often told us) the envy of transit systems world-wide, a system of which the city could justifiably be proud.  But that was a long time ago.  Years of mutual back-patting among the TTC brotherhood coupled with declining financial support from governments of all parties were a poisonous combination.

If you’re perfect, it’s hard to admit that some of the lights are burned out, that the stations are getting dirty, that the trains are not maintained to quite the standards of “the old days”.  If you’re perfect, then your customer service must be ideal, a sterling example for others to follow.  Pride in the system was replaced with self-congratulation, with a view bounded by the mirror on the wall.

That desire for pride is worth remembering through the entire process.  We want to believe in the TTC, we want to show our friends (even those who think that the only way to get around is in a car) how good transit can be, we want people to say “have you heard what Toronto is doing”.  We don’t want excuses.

Another surprise for the panel was the rider expectations for TTC frontline staff:

Operators are expected to act as a tour guide, policy enforcer, fare collector, and custodian, while providing information, directions, and special assistance. All of this and much more is expected while, at the same time, they are to operate the vehicle in a safe manner – Paying attention to the road at all times, adhere to the speed limit despite a tight schedule, and practice defensive driving. And, above all, they must ensure that passengers arrive at their final destination safe, and on time. [pp 2-3]

This is a surprise? The next paragraph gives a troubling clue about the underlying thoughts:

[I]t is apparent that customers do not often consider the complexity of the huge system that operates in the background, day in and day out, to keep the TTC running. [p 3]

Yes, the TTC is large and complex, but it is by no means the largest system on the planet.  Many of them recognize the importance of good customer service despite their huge size.  They don’t depend on customers cutting them slack because the transit system is so large.  If anything, a big system should have a benefit of scale, of experience with complexity and change, that a small system might not encounter often.

Unfortunately, all the customers see is that the bus is late, or the operator did not effectively answer their questions. [p 3]

Exactly.  It is the view from the customer that’s important.  A guest in a hotel does not want to hear about the problems of repairing centuries-old plumbing, or of cooking huge dinner banquets, or of co-ordinating the unseen army of staff who keep the place running.  They want a clean, well-maintained room, elevators that work and service that is almost magically there without being asked for.

The report’s 78 recommendations are divided into eight groups.  A review of each of the 78 is not required to establish patterns, to see the underlying philosophy.

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