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Scott J. Forman
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BART Should Ask "Why" Five Times

18 Mar 2016

Every time something goes wrong on BART - which is distressingly often - there’s an explosion of outrage on Twitter. I’ll confess to taking a certain perverse enjoyment in reading the complaints. (Gemeinsamschadenfreude?). Usually, the responses are bland and uninformative. But this week, BART spokesman Taylor Huckaby offered a dose of radical candor.

I love it. It’s refreshing to see an obviously well-informed public official tell it like it is. The transparency breathes some life into the usual ritual of recrimination and defensiveness.

It also made me think I should publish a suggestion I’ve been noodling over for a while:

Take a page from Toyota’s book, and publish a clear, calm, transparent answer to the “5 Why’s” after every incident.

I don’t know a lot about railway engineering, so this is just a hypothetical example. But say there’s a “problem on the track.” As soon as possible after the incident occurs, BART should publish a short blog post with the following information:

  • Date and time: [Day],[Month],[Year],[Time]
  • What happened? Trains were delayed for 20 minutes system-wide.
  • Why? There was a signal malfunction.
  • Why did the signal malfunction? Because the signals in that section of track were damaged by salt water in 2014.
  • Why haven’t they been fixed? Because the manufacturer of the parts needed to fix them has a two-year backlog.
  • Why haven’t they been replaced? They are on the schedule to be replaced, but not until 2017.
  • Why not sooner? Because the maintenance budget is not unlimited, so we have to prioritize, and there are other problems that are worse.

It would require a significant investment of authority to ask these questions and publish honest answers. A cultural change, really. But I think it would be a worthy investment, with five significant benefits:

  • Demonstrate that there are many BART employees - like Huckaby - who genuinely care about the system functioning well. Dispel the impression of indifference.
  • Mitigate the frustration of seemingly random malfunction. Understanding why makes disruption easier to bear.
  • Give BART a perfect response to the loudest complainers. Respond to every Tweet with a link to the relevant post.
  • Perhaps, occasionally, expose issues that actually can be addressed or prevented without massive investment (although I suspect that most of the time the result will resemble my hypothetical).
  • Build support for making the substantial investments we must make over the next few decades if we want a decent public transportation system.