What’s the Matter with Metro?

Many of Metro’s problems aren’t any different from those that afflict other government agencies and many large corporations.
Metro is essentially a socialist organization. Three of my former coworkers are from Russia and remember the USSR very well. Independently, at least two of the three said to me, “Metro is exactly like former Soviet Union – exactly!” Sometimes they claimed it was actually worse!

Everyone that is a member of ATU Local 689 (the largest union at Metro) gets paid about the same – bus drivers; train operators; gardeners; mechanics; custodians; technicians; track walkers; sign makers – within about 15% +/- (with a few exceptions). Supervisors are paid just 5% more than the highest paid union represented employee in their dept. 5%! The reason many techs go into management is simply to get a better work location, shift, and/or days off than they would as a union represented employee. It sure isn’t the money. There are many employees that make more than their supervisor, even more than their dept superintendent, when OT is included.

There is no incentive to work hard – or at all if an employee can get away with it. There is no ‘carrot’, only the stick. The guy who sleeps in the corner all day gets paid and promoted the same as the person who is conscientious and hard-working. In fact, the employees who have a good work ethic are liable to be ‘punished’, in the sense that management quickly learns who those people are and instead of a promotion or a raise their reward is extra work. The slackers are left alone.

The employees that are conscientious and hard working are that way because it is who they are – there’s certainly no external incentive.

If a crew gets their work done on time or ahead of time, they are often assigned to help another crew finish their work for the month. That’s fine if the other crew is behind because they had several problems to fix (corrective maintenance). Sometimes however, the reason the other crew was behind on their work (their routine maintenance) was that they just blew it off – just didn’t feel like doing it. There are no consequences for doing that. The employees who have an aversion to work quickly learn that as long as they don’t flat out refuse to do something they can get away with doing next to nothing.

With some employees it becomes a game. It’s a challenge for them to see just how much work they can avoid. I met a few people over the years that would work so hard at avoiding work that they would have been better off just taking care of whatever the task was!

The good employees, and there are many, quickly learn all of the above of course and sooner or later the vast majority learn to keep their head down and do just what is expected of them and nothing more. Make the work stretch out for the entire shift, week, or month — because if they finish ahead of schedule they will just be given someone else’s job to do.

In addition, employees learn that when they go ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ no good can come from it. If an employee takes it upon themselves to report or correct a problem the absolute best thing that can happen is…nothing. There is a serious ‘shoot the messenger’ culture at Metro. It was so bad at one point that if we (ATC) reported a Track dept problem (which we were required to do) Track dept would intentionally damage our equipment – equipment that is part of the ATC system that controls the safe movement of trains. “Zog angry! Someone report problem, make Zog work. Zog SMASH their equipment! No one mess with Zog…”.

If an employee corrects a problem or does anything without specific written instruction from management, they are sticking their neck out. If they fix the problem, great, nothing happens. No “Atta boy/girl”, no “Thank you”, nothing. But – if something goes wrong? It’s guaranteed that the employee (who was proactive and had good intentions) will take all of the heat. It won’t be, “We appreciate that you were attempting to correct the problem but in the future you should…”. No. That would require that management have a clue about how to talk with and motivate people. Instead, it will usually go more like, “What the hell were you thinking? You’re SUSPENDED WITHOUT PAY!” Something along those lines. So, naturally, people fall into the habit of constantly asking their supervisor, “What do you want me to do now? How about now?”

Of course, verbal instructions often aren’t enough to ensure the employee has covered their ass. When cornered, some supervisors would flat lie and say, “I specifically told that guy to [do whatever] and he wouldn’t listen! I can’t believe that he did [whatever] instead”. So if something was questionable or in any way outside SOP it was always best to get written instructions from management.

I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I don’t want to be just another person who complains and criticizes without offering any suggestions. So, here are a few suggestions from someone who admittedly does not have a clue about changing the culture of organizations:

Last I heard, Volvo uses ‘teams’ to build their cars. Each car is built by one crew. That crew is responsible for, or ‘owns’, that vehicle until it leaves the factory. If that idea could be implemented at Metro it would help. ATC actually worked/works that way to a certain extent – AM shift does track circuit PMIs on track 1, PM shift does track 2, etc. That should be reinforced. Maybe there could be some sort of incentive program whereby WMATA would keep track of delays (which they already do) and their cause – “down track circuit” (a circuit that falsely indicates that a train is occupying a section of track), “switch out of correspondence” (a failure of a switch used to cross trains from one track to the other), etc. If a particular territory had no preventable failures for X period of time, each person on that crew would get Y – an additional vacation day, a day’s pay, or something like that.

Most people at Metro don’t care if there is waste, fraud, or inefficiency because hey, it’s not their money, right? I’m not sure how it would be implemented but it would be helpful if there were some way to encourage people to think of Metro as ‘their’ company. With a private company it might be stock options and/or employee ownership, but I don’t know how to make that work at Metro.

Metro used to have an “Employee Suggestion Program”. As far as I know it was very successful. Therefore, it was canceled. The way it worked was that employees could put in money saving suggestions and if their suggestion was used they would receive 10% of any cost savings in the first year, up to a maximum of $10,000. Some employees received the full $10,000 – and their ideas saved Metro millions of dollars. I’ve never heard why the program was canceled but it should be re-instituted.

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