Organizational culture word cloud image from Shutter
The WMATA Board of Directors has finally agreed publicly that the agency needs to reform its internal culture. This is an argument riders and advocates have been making for a long time, and it’s good to see the board reach the same conclusion.
The board decided to hire a “restructuring specialist” to help turn WMATA around, the Washington Post reported.
It’s long been clear to many that internal communication at Metro is a big problem. Many middle managers and others bury potential problems rather than discussing them openly with senior managers, and top management has not really pushed to fix this culture.
The revelation that a Track Geometry Vehicle operator mistakenly deleted a warning about problems near the Smithsonian station, problems that later derailed a train, made this issue too large to ignore, even for some board members who believed, or at least claimed, that the agency is running well.
This fiasco also cracked the attitude, which ran from many board members to senior management and down, that the agency should only publicly speak about good news and not admit to issues that might be minor now but could turn into larger ones down the line.
For example, Metro knew the Silver Line would demand more railcars, but railcar maintenance hasn’t been able to keep cars in service as much as forecast. Coupled with delays in the 7000 series arriving partly because of the Japan earthquake, the agency has faced a railcar crunch. But we’ve only found out about this problem in bits and pieces, from riders collecting data manually and oblique mentions in Metro’s scorecard.
DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, who has not been shy about calling openly for reform, pushed for a change. Dormsjo said he thinks transparency is part of the solution to the organizational culture problems.
“I think we have an organization that needs to improve it’s health, and sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said. “We need to continue to be more transparent and forthcoming, even if it’s troubling news.” He asked managers to identify more information the could release to the public on an ongoing basis.
Dormsjo has also added some sunlight of his own by being forthright about the problems he sees. On the safety office, for instance, he said, “I am very concerned that Mr. Dougherty’s office is a paper tiger in this organization.” The safety office was not involved in reviewing standard operating procedures, such as for the Track Geometry Vehicle. Flaws in the procedure was part of the reason the flaw escaped attention.
In the past, some board members have suggested WMATA is better off if they keep strong opinions to themselves lest they scare off a good top candidate. But keeping problems “inside the family” just makes the public trust the organization less when problems grow and become visible.
It’s sad that it took a derailment to make this happen, but Dormsjo’s philosophy of openness, and the arguments that the organization really needs internal cultural reform, seem finally to be winning out.