You are currently viewing An Open Letter to Phillip Eng and the MBTA – Part 1

An Open Letter to Phillip Eng and the MBTA – Part 1

After reading that the MBTA has hired a new general manager, and a little about some of the ideas he and others have had on fixing the T, I’ve had a lot of feelings and thoughts come to the surface.

If you’ve read anything about Phillip Eng’s appointment to the general manager position, you’ve probably seen his quotes about finding innovative solutions to complex problems and approaching them with a sense of urgency that always puts the customer first.

Before I say anything else, I want to make it clear that those are exactly the right words to express what the T needs. 

In my four years at the T, I found that that focus on finding innovative solutions to complex problems was not always there. The people there wanted to innovate and problem-solve, but it didn’t always happen. And that sense of urgency was felt by some, but not by all. There wasn’t a consistent amount of pressure put on all levels to do the work and/or the right management, experience and tools to achieve the necessary level of innovation to move the T forward. 

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But let me back up and highlight the positives. 

During my time at the T, I met a lot of amazing people who really truly care about the city of Boston and take pride in the service they provide to people who really need it and who don’t have a voice. These were caring, dedicated people who really wanted to do the best job possible. 

Being out in the field as much as I was, I found that the vast majority of the people in the field really do care. Overwhelmingly so. About providing the best service possible.

A lot of them want to come to work and they feel pride having that “T” on their shoulder.

A lot of them want to provide amazing service but they’re not given the tools they need to do their job.

At least, that was my experience in the four years I was there, which ended right at the start of the pandemic.

Since then, I’ve stayed in contact with many of those people out in the field, in the back office in operations, and the people in technology jobs at the T. StarSpring had a great group of people working at the MBTA to modernize the daily operations management and work selection systems. However, the solutions we were able to implement were not perfect because of a lot of conflicting interests at the highest levels of government. 

To be clear, this is true in a lot of government projects. That issue is not unique to the MBTA.

But we did great work in partnership with the people from operations within the T and with our counterparts in Accenture, who were added to further augment the program. 

We were able to implement online work selection software (I have a lot of feelings on this one that I will touch upon in a different article), as well as much better daily operations management software (as well as the data that comes from it) than the T had previously. A couple of our StarSpring people even stayed behind and are now key members of the IT organization at the T. They’ve been great additions to that department. 

One thing became incredibly obvious to me as a technology leader in a liaison role between the operations and technology departments:

There is a huge gap in understanding between the actual work that the MBTA does in the field, getting people safely and effectively across the city, and the people managing in the background at 10 Park Plaza.

I use the term technology “departments” on purpose because there are two large technology departments. One is a large technology department in charge of keeping track of data that customers would care about as well as some of the systems used in the field by the operations department. Then, there is another large technology organization that runs all the systems behind the scenes that in charge of keeping track of the data used by some of the other systems used in the field by the operations department, as well as financial systems and time management systems. Some crucial systems are owned by one of those departments, some by the other, and both departments did a poor job of communicating with each other. 

By the way, from what I hear anecdotally, from my extensive network of current employees in operations, technology, and with the Carmen’s Union (L589), that’s still the case.

There have been inroads here and there but there’s been no systemic look at how information technology is done, or should be done, at the T from a strategic, long-term perspective. Solving some of the organizational confusion between the two technology departments would give customers the best data possible so they can make informed decisions about their travel. It would also give the people who do the job every day of getting those customers around the city of Boston every day safely and effectively the information they need to do their work and give the best possible service to those customers. 

In all layers of transit, whether it’s public transit like we’re talking about, or the airline crises that we’ve heard about the past several months, we’re talking about really antiquated systems that are not well integrated. Also, a very small number of vendors that produce software to solve one particular transit problem rather than addressing transit as a whole. 

These systems are not designed to effectively communicate with each other. In my opinion, the folks designing these pieces of transit software don’t want them to communicate effectively. 

Many software vendors would much rather you spend a ton of money on professional services to create complex integrations systems (or just not have them at all). They’d rather sell you their frequently subpar system to do a thing that maybe another vendor offers.

The resulting lack of communication between departments that cover information technology at the T leads to immense data vacuums. This means there’s not really great information about ridership, where people are getting on and off with buses and trains, where your bus is at any given time, etc. 

Do they track that stuff? Sure.

Is it tied to other details like exactly how many stops are missed on a route at any given time? No.

So, the question is how to accurately capture that information without making people afraid that they’re going to lose their jobs when mistakes happen. Oftentimes, management hasn’t made it clear to the vehicle operators, and the people directly managing them, that they understand service sometimes gets missed. However, they need to have that information to see if routes are incorrectly structured. 

The problems within the MBTA are systemic and multifactorial, as I like to say. We need to have the people in charge sit down and look at exactly what’s happening from an operations perspective.

This means getting in the garages and carhouses, riding the service out in the field, really doing deep analysis of the service to truly find the gaps and identify the types of data that need to come in, and putting systems in place to ensure the data is accurate and meaningful.

Once management has that data and can serve it up affectively, they can give operators and operations management staff the information they need to do their jobs even better and can quantify what a good job actually looks like. Management can then start to actually make informed decisions based on real data. Not data cobbled together by data analysts who have had to fill in the gaps with (mostly) educated guesses and other things like that.

And I get it, none of us has all the answers. But logically, if you don’t have a ton of data, making up data to try to solve a problem doesn’t get you to any sort of real conclusion. It often times makes it harder for you to make decisions.

I’m all about making data-informed decisions. But if the data is absolute sh!t or has huge voids in it, you can’t make any educated decisions about how to move forward. 

I’ll also make the argument that the dedicated people of the MBTA want visibility.

They want to be able to make informed decisions on the road, at the level of the garage/carhouse, and they want the people above them to be able to look at the data and make informed decisions looking at all of the garages/carhouses. They want that inherently, but they don’t trust that it’s going to happen. 

On that note, there’s a deep lack of trust from years and years of failure to provide key performance indicators to folks out in the field showing what they’re actually being measured against. There is systemically a problem with lack of trust in the data because the data itself has not been very good. 

Fixing that problem means starting at the top and creating those KPIs for your operators. You can perform some analysis to figure out where the gaps are and how to prove out better ways of getting the data — and giving the right data to the right people. 

The good news is that the problems I’ve mentioned here are completely fixable.

These problems may be multifactorial and there may be a lot of them, but if you can just quantify what the problems are, break them down, and put together a plan to start to solve them, it’s a big step in the right direction.

That’s the positive view, but it’s also only step one. In Part 2, I’m going to get into the actions the T (and their new general manager) will have to take to start fixing these issues.

Love, Tim 
XOXO

P.S. For more information about the work StarSpring did at the MBTA, check out our Case Study here.

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