Sunday, November 4, 2012

When the rules of the game don't work, the game should change.

The process of improving the quality of anything, whether it be a service or product, usually takes an iterative loop like this:

  1. Query it's current state.
  2. Apply corrective measures to make it better.
  3. Go back to step 1.
When improvement takes a back seat to other agendas, such as cost-saving or arse-covering, the process changes thus:
  1. Wait until there's an issue.
  2. Pass the buck, or make an excuse for the issue.
  3. Go back to step 1.
A further permutation to this loop occurs when we see the iterative process go into a death-spin, like this:
  1. Query it's current state.
  2. Apply corrective measures to make it better.
  3. Go back to step 1.
I'm all for process. I like it when there are clear expectations of how something will work, and a clear understanding of how things will be improved or fixed.  As you can guess, process does go wrong from time to time.  When it does, it often shows up underlying problems in either how to handle a given situation, or what the real mandate of the problem solvers are.

For instance:  At Victoria Park subway station, there are two elevators for those with strollers/push-chairs or wheelchairs.  There is one on each platform, but the one on the east-bound platform was not working.  A person with an electric mobility wheelchair was stuck on the platform, unable to exit the station due to the situation with the elevator (the concept of a fall-back route hasn't hit this station yet).  Their attempts to call for help using the assistance button wasn't generating any response from TTC staff either.

Next, add to this mix two mothers with strollers.  One had a new-born, the other had 2 month old twins.  They also tried to call for assistance with getting out of the station.  No response either.

At this point, I get an angry call explaining the situation and asking me to get on twitter and find out what is going on.  So I duly post a question to @TTCHelps:

Enough time goes by without an answer on the assistance button or twitter that it's determined that whilst the women can harangue stronger passengers to help shift the babies down the steps, the only course of action for the disabled person is to catch the next train, and take two more stops to Kennedy where there is an elevator.  At that point, they can go down under the tracks and come up on the westbound platform, take another train back to Victoria Park, then exit on the platform that has the working elevator.

Eventually, the TTC responded after 30 minutes, bypassing the expected process of determination as to whether anyone was actually in trouble and needed the assistance that the button was designed to provide, but instead went straight to arse-covering mode:

Well, that just makes everything better, doesn't it?

A side effect about using Social Media is sometimes other people will add their contribution to the situation, which sometimes can be beneficial, and sometimes (like here) ends up with people not just getting the wrong end of the stick, but the "wrong stick" altogether.

People may wonder why I don't file a report with the TTC about the things that are wrong?  I used to do that, but in my experience that process is highly broken.  With Twitter you get a response, whereas using the TTC official process has shown (see here) that you may as well send your complaint to Sgr A*, because I've never had a response or seen a solution arise from the process.

A similar failure of process I recently spotted was with City Hall.  In my ongoing war with the garbage people, I'd finally had enough.  To recap, in 12 months we've had the following:
  • Garbage picked up on one side of the street only, whilst the other side of the street was ignored.
  • Garbage not fully picked up on multiple occasions.
  • The special collection for flood victims (after the City destroyed everyone's basements with storm water) didn't happen on the scheduled day that they advised us, so we had to pay a private firm to remove our items to allow reconstruction crews in on time.
  • Misinformation of what can/can't be recycled, resulting in unnecessary expenditure through the use of garbage tags.
All of the above have been filed with 311 Toronto.  After the latest debacle (involving the raccoon locks that Home Depot, etc, all sell in the Toronto area resulting in the green bin not being picked up yet again), I wanted to speak to someone - so I follow the posted process and lodge something with 311 Toronto... again.

A few days later, an unnamed guy without business cards or other information with which to contact him back arrives unscheduled at the house whilst I'm at work.  

I asked 311 Toronto to identify the person and DM me, because I actually want to talk to him, and I can't schedule or contact the guy if he's wandering around without any cards or leaving other information.  Instead of DM'ing me the answer, it requires phoning up or emailing their support desk for the umpteenth time - that's the process.  We're now in that "process death-spin" because all they need to do is answer the question they've already been asked, but they require me to re-engage in the process.

Now, you may think that I'm being a little unfair to 311 Toronto on this, but this isn't the first time that process has caused issues.  One example was back in the summer of 2012, many homes in the East end of Toronto had their basements invaded by storm water from the city storm drains.  In the ensuing furore, we had the world and their dog visit the house, including councillors, city engineers, the head of the basement flooding program, a manager from Toronto Water, people from public works, etc.  

Everyone at City Hall appeared well acquainted with our house, it's construction, the sewer configurations, etc.  The Basement Flooding Program process mentions that if you get a flood in your basement to call them.  The day after the next flood, I called 311 Toronto to record it, as per their posted process.  However, 311 Toronto couldn't record it because I was "not making the call from the house"... 

Although they don't state this on their website, you are apparently supposed to call 311 Toronto from your home, so that they can ask you questions.  

To me, the answers to these questions the day after a flood has disappeared would be the same whether I was standing in my basement or standing on a Bahamian beach.  When the purpose of calling 311 Toronto is to record a replica of a flood that City Hall has already been to the house to determine the cause of, telling me that they cannot record "this flood" because of where I'm standing is like the police not taking your eyewitness account of an event because you're not standing in a particular location. 

So, what to do?

My view is simple:  If the other party's process is not working and becoming a hinderance to us both accomplishing something, I stop playing their game and change it to run by my rules.  

Their rules and processes have failed, so let's try something new.

In the case of 311 Toronto, it's a simple process to just cut them out of the picture and go around them.  The departments that they represent (water, waste, etc) all have a person in charge, and these people are held accountable for their departments, so I approach them instead.  When I do, I make sure to point out that the previous rules of engagement are now suspended and show evidence as to why.  This process has worked every time.

The TTC is a different animal: It generally faces a moderately hostile public on a daily basis. As a result, the usual "squeaky wheel" approach just doesn't work when trying to fix things.  Q.E.D, asking why an assistance mechanism isn't working doesn't garner the expected "does someone need assistance?" response.  

When one dissenting voice isn't heard, you can be sure that the TTC listens to a full-on chorus.  The solution, therefore, to getting something addressed in these circumstances is simply to educate the public and let them become your amplifier.  Demonstrate to a bunch of people that nobody was answering the passenger assistance button for a long time and people do take notice with alarming curiosity.

My final thoughts on this will be a suggestion to the TTC:  If the current process of manning the assistance alarms at the stations is as effective as a chocolate fireguard, centralise them so there's always someone available to help.