Culture Change Doesn’t Begin With Threats

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Jun 6, 2016

Another day, and yet another issue causing delays on WMATA’s DC Metro system. Between April 17th and April 24th – there were 120 alerts.

Recently – Metro held its first all managers meeting. Let that sink in for a moment. In the 40-year history of Metro, the managers have never once all met together as one team.

No wonder you have communication problems. You don’t communicate!

Regardless of the size of an organization, even one as large and overly bureaucratic as WMATA, communication is feasible – and necessary for safety and success – and can be achieved at minimal cost with technology. But, communication issues are just scratching the surface on the dysfunction at Metro.

It gets worse. Metro’s leader, GM Paul Wiedefeld, said two things that are counterproductive to the long overdue safety and culture change effort Metro is embarking on.

First – He titled the managers meeting “safety trumps service.” Really? Really. C’mon! Clearly he doesn’t get it. If Metro had the proper processes and structures in place, Metro could put safety and service at the top. It can and should be a both; not an either/or. The fact that leadership says that it can’t, demonstrates they find acceptable the poor processes and procedures and lack of the proper organizational structure needed to run the organization effectively and efficiently. And before you go off on a funding tangent, having a big picture and customer centric view is a matter of mindset, not money.

Second – He said to his team “execute or be executed.” Really? C’mon! Wow! The guy sure knows how to motivate a team. Is he leading the Corleone Family or a transit agency (though the new Chief Safety Officer is from Brooklyn)? Metro employees are already fearing for their jobs. Many are already angry, frustrated, and disengaged. The GM is already getting the change effort off to a very bad and dangerous start. Fear and intimidation will not create the buy-in and commitment needed to improve safety and culture. It will do the exact opposite. Showing leadership that values employees, training, and incentivizing (especially the good apples and high performers) employees is what will improve safety and culture.

Negativity is a leadership loss

Look, I know leadership in turbulent times isn’t easy; however, beginning a change effort with negativity and threats does not get stakeholders engaged – it makes them run for the nearest exit – and that will lead to even more problems for WMATA. Wiedefeld needs to choose his words carefully if he really wants to institute a positive culture change.

And that’s why I’d rather sit in traffic than take DC’s Metro system. But all is not lost. Here are a few ways that you can implement real change.

Really walk the walk

Communication is a key part of managing change. Walk the walk and lead the change effort by example. Consider: are you really providing supporting processes, structures, and culture for open and honest communication? Are you sending the right messages to the right audiences at the right time? And is everyone inside the organization – from the executives down to the interns – aware of the changes, how it will impact them, and can contribute towards making the change a success? If not, then you’re faking change. Stakeholders can tell when they’re getting lip service and it does have a negative impact on commitment.

Forget how we’ve always done it

Culture is the way work gets done around here. One of the hardest parts about causing positive change is changing the status quo, how things have always been done. But you have to change if you want to be successful. In the words of Dr. Deming, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” Unless you’re a passenger on Metro. Then you’d like to think survival is mandatory. If you’re a leader you’ve got to commit to the new way – fully. If the leaders aren’t willing to change their behaviors, or work to change the behaviors of others to support the change, then how do you expect the change effort to be successful? You’re job as the leader is to lead. You MUST make the time to be the face of the change and prioritize engaging with stakeholders. That includes supporting the new way of doing things. No lip service – action.

Fix broken processes

Change in one area often impacts other areas. This requires revamping or doing away with old processes or creating new processes to support the change. You can’t keep trying to use old processes designed to support the old way of doing things and expect a new result. You should do a detailed process inventory and analysis so you have an accounting of your processes, identify which processes need go away, which need improvement, and which may need to be created, and then communicate the changes to the team – and train them how to follow them.

Moral of the story: I don’t disagree Metro has been mismanaged in the past. I’ve worked with my fair share of government agencies and I get the complexities. I also don’t think Paul Wiedefeld deserves all of the blame. He stated what he needs to make the system safe; he just seems a bit unsure as to the best ways to go about achieving that goal, and he’s not getting the best support possible. Add in our elected representatives are playing politics. Plus the fact that Metro’s organization is about as dysfunctional as they come – and he’s got a tough road ahead. (Sounds a lot like what Amtrak went through in recent years, doesn’t it?)

But if we really are going to give him – and company leaders everywhere — the chance to bring about real safety and culture change – then WMATA and their stakeholders – and those of your company or organization — need to provide him with the support for success – and that goes beyond money. If still no improvements, well then, Mr. Wiedefeld should consider retirement.