07 February 2010

Message to TTC's Gary Webster: It Ain't Gonna Happen

I came across the public version of a memo TTC Chief General Manager (egad! what a title), Gary Webster sent to all staff.  In it, he says that "our customers deserve better," and that he is "becoming increasingly tired of defending the reputation of the TTC." Do tell. What concerns me - that is, what indicates that Mr. Webster is essentially without clue when it comes to matters of changing organization culture - is the conclusion of his memo:
As Chief General Manager, I am ultimately accountable to our customers. As employees, you - and you alone - are accountable for your actions. The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end. I hold all of management responsible to make this happen. Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you.
Fascinating how wrong this man can be. Every single sentence in that paragraph is either wrong on its face, wrong-headed, wrongly framed, or combinations and permutations of all of the above! I cannot imagine how someone who conveys such a basic lack of knowledge about organizational culture and the nature of leadership could end up as "Chief General Manager." (Actually, I do - that is the nature of BAH; to be a BAH leader, you have to have a BAH leadership personality.) So, I hear you asking, what's wrong with Mr. Grand Chief Poo-Bah's memo?

1. "As Chief General Manager, I am ultimately accountable to our customers." Wrong. Your position does not automatically or necessarily convey accountability, except in a trite, nominal, procedural, it-says-so-in-the-book sort of fashion. Being "ultimately" accountable is code for "there are others who are going to fall before I do," rather than the more direct, "if our customers feel pain, I'm going to make damn sure I feel it too." But, worse than that, the idea of "ultimate" accountability means detachment, not an impetus to own up to fundamentally what is wrong (more on this later).

2. "As employees, you - and you alone - are accountable for your actions." Wrong. Oh, I would say that in a sort of childish, you're-responsible-for-your-own-behaviour concept, yes, individuals taking coffee breaks, naps, not handing out transfers, being churlish and rude - yes, people should be able to control themselves. The operative words there are should be able to. TTC workers - management and unionized workers alike - are human, and humans respond to their environment. If the environment has been poisoned by management and union alike, the workers (all workers, right up to you, Mr. Webster), are similarly poisoned, and their behaviours are likely to be toxic. Thus, it is insincere or naive (or both) to simply say that individuals are solely responsible for the daily headlines of inappropriate actions. In other words, Mr. Webster, if you are truly holding yourself accountable (see point 1), you are "ultimately" accountable for the toxic organizational culture over which you preside. But, you're not alone in your accountability - no, not by a long shot.

3. "The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end." Wrong. It won't end, especially by fiat. This is yet another example of the toxicity to which I referred a moment ago. If you believe you can legislate good behaviour - especially without changing the fundamental nature of your organizational culture - you're in for a surprise.

4. "I hold all of management responsible to make this happen." Wrong, for the same reasons as points 2 and 3. It isn't management's responsibility to effect organizational change; it is the responsibility of all TTC members (and the public, too).

5. "Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you." Wrong. First, real change starts with YOU, Mr. Webster, not the "you" (i.e., TTC workers) at whom you point your finger. Your so-called reviews and plans are likely to involve blame, resistance by the union, customer service "training" for the workers, and not a whit of substantive change that truly creates cohesiveness in an organization and heals the long-standing rifts that exist among the workers.

So what is to be done? It is easy to say, fire the lot of 'em (including senior managers and Chief Whatnots). It's easy to say privatize transit in the city because competition and the so-called free market cures all ills (not). I think what is important to recognize is that the fragmentation and "separation of labour" (Taylor's thinkers and doers) mentality is at the heart of the dysfunction. Do both Gary Webster and Amalgamated Transit Union 113 head, Bob Kinnear, agree and truly accept that there are extensive, organization-wide cultural dysfunctions? If not, then they have to go because they are fundamentally part of the problem. Do they accept and truly acknowledge that each of them, and their respective constituencies, have actively contributed to the adversarial atmosphere that creates such dysfunctions in organizations? If not, then, again, they have to go or there will never be a solution to mutual intransigence.

A major intervention is required, along the lines that one might call "organizational therapy" (and yes, disclosure time: this is something that I practice and facilitate). It begins with collaboratively bringing together the human values from among all (i.e., an appropriate representations of) members of the organization, not by title, rank or seniority, but across and throughout the organization, irrespective of hierarchical status. It continues with extensive involvement from among all constituencies. It evolves to a complete revamping of operational supervision, and even the collective bargaining process.

In short, it is not about individual action, individual responsibility, and holding individual accountability. It is, instead, all about individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability. And, it isn't going to happen overnight, nor over several months' full of nights. It is going to be a slow transformation that will take several years to effect in an organization this large. But the beauty of it is, changes can begin to occur immediately, once those in charge begin to realize that a Bureaucratic, Administrative, and Hierarchical solution to this problem just ain't gonna happen.

Update (8 Feb 2010): This post has been attracting a lot of attention over the past couple of days, so let me be explicit about who I am and the location of my standpoint. I am an Adult Educator, Organizational Therapist, and Organizational Philosopher by training, practice, and disposition. I have just completed an extensive research study on issues of "old" and "new" styles of organization and how to effect transition from old models to new, and developed a new, fundamental theory of organization which is my doctoral dissertation. I understand how cultural change initiatives can go very wrong, very quickly, and the amount of work, perseverance, dedication, and serious attention it takes for any hope of success. I also know FOR CERTAIN that conventional, quick-fix, action-oriented, for-the-love-of-god-do-something approaches (like "customer service sensitivity training") only make matters fundamentally worse, especially in the long run. This is clearly a very unwell organizational culture (a reflection of similar dysfunctions in the larger City Hall organization, by the way) that needs considerable intervention assistance from other than the usual suspects.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

excellent article and to the point. There are 2 white elephants within the city of Toronto i.e. Police & TTC both which are clearly mismanaged. Till such time that old school mentality and people are flushed out, we will continue to experience such a pathetic service.