Should LTA censure SMRT for chartering their trains to ACS(I) – an imaginative sketch between a strategic thinking coach and LTA.
August 28, 2014
So, SMRT chartered out five trains to carry students from Anglo-Chinese School (International) to the Sports Hub for a rugby game. A total of about 3,000 students were ferried. (Read theYahoo news article here). When the news of the service broke, and reporters queried the Land Transport Authority (LTA), they responded that SMRT should have sought approval from them before agreeing to provide the service. They are now said to be mulling over whether to censure SMRT for that.
In this article, we imagine what might play out if we were asked to help LTA come to a decision, using our Strategic Decision Making framework and answer the question, “Should we censure SMRT for chartering their trains?”
Coach: While the license to operate the train service on the Circle Line required that SMRT sought permission from LTA to offer this service, the intent shouldn’t be as trivial as policing the terms and conditions of the license, correct? There should be a larger intent here. So let’s apply the Five Why’s and try to get at that, OK?
Coach: Why is it important to censure SMRT?
LTA: Because they have contravened the terms of the license
Coach: Yes, I understand, but why is it IMPORTANT to censure SMRT?
LTA: Because we cannot allow operators to take unilateral decisions on operations
Coach: Why is it important not to allow operators to take unilateral decisions?
LTA: Because they might cause some disruptions on other parts of the MRT system
Coach: Why is it important that they did not cause any disruption in other parts of the MRT system?
LTA: Because it might inconvenience passengers in all parts of the system
Coach: Why is it important not to inconvenience passengers in all parts of the system?
LTA: Well, that’s really about meeting service standards, isn’t it! Actually, where is all this heading?
Coach: I am asking that same question myself because your answers to this line of questioning do not really explain why it is important that you should censure SMRT except only because they broke one line of your hundreds of pages of conditions. If indeed your intent is so that you meet service standards for the system, and there was no inconvenience to any passenger, then, what is the issue here? After all, there has not been any inconvenience, nor any service disruption, right? So why are you even mulling over this question?
LTA: We can’t let them get away with it.
Coach: Get away with what?
LTA: With making their own decisions.
Coach: So you want to control them. Is that what you are saying?
LTA: Don’t say until like that leh! (That’s Singlish for “Don’t put words into my mouth!”)
Coach: So what are you then trying to achieve, if not to control the operators?
LTA: To treat all operators equally. If SBS Transit were to do this, we also need to censure them.
Coach: But they didn’t. So there is no equity issue here.
LTA: I said “if”.
Coach: But that is not the issue here, so saying “if” does not mean anything. The issue is SMRT chartered out their trains without your approval and members of the public are asking why. Are you trying to wash your hands of this, or are you trying to maintain the role of “authority”, or are you trying to curb initiative?
LTA: None of the above
Coach: So what is it?
LTA: Do we really need a reason? Isn’t it enough that SMRT contravened the licensing agreement, and so, needs to be set right?
Coach: It is enough, if you say so.
LTA: I say so.
Coach: So let me frame the issue right now based on what we have discussed: “What is the best way to censure SMRT given that they have contravened a licensing term?” Does this describe the issue succinctly?
LTA: Yes. Frankly, the conversation we had over the past 5 minutes was a waste of time since this was what we started out with in the beginning!
Coach: I wouldn’t say so. Sometimes, when we need to make strategic decisions, in addition to being clear about our intent, we also want to be clear about what the situation is NOT. So as we went through all these questions, we became clear that the situation is basically about censuring and nothing more.
LTA: OK, if you say so.
Coach: So let us see; what could you do to censure SMRT?
LTA: We could fine them. We could give them a warning letter. We could give them a public censure. Or we could just let it rest, since enough has already been said.
Coach: Those are great options. Let’s talk about what conditions you need to meet for a successful decision.
LTA: Conditions, meaning?
Coach: These are your decision constraints; conditions that need to be met by your solution.
LTA: For example?
Coach: Well I might think that one constraint for this case is that the punishment should fit the crime.
LTA: You mean an appropriate-level response?
Coach: So what other constraints do you have?
LTA: It shouldn’t be seen as being reacting to public demands
LTA: It also has to be win-win
Coach: What do you mean by that?
LTA: In a sense that SMRT does not think that we are anti-business, yet to also let them see that they can’t roll over our policies for the sake of business
Coach: I think that is a great constraint! Anything else?
LTA: We must also be seen to protect the larger interests of the members of public?
Coach: OK, but come on; don’t you think that SMRT did a great service to the members of public?
LTA: In what sense? The chartered trains were not for the public.
Coach: Yes, but look at the bigger picture. As was rightly pointed out by the Principal of ACS(I), it would have taken many buses to ferry the students to the Sports Hub, creating more congestion on the streets, not to mention increasing our carbon footprint. By doing this, SMRT had done a great service to the public.
LTA: But not to those who couldn’t board the train.
Coach: That’s very short-sighted, isn’t it? And anyway, it was during off-peak period, so there were not many people to be inconvenienced.
LTA: But the members of public are already complaining.
Coach: Are you saying that whenever a member of public complains, you need to react?
LTA: No. But this situation is different.
Coach: I get it. SMRT didn’t follow your rules. But it is not that you have not allowed SMRT to charter their trains out before, is it? So the issue is not about chartering; the issue is about not informing you. Right?
LTA: (No response)
Coach: So, okay, your response must somehow protect public interests, but not pander to their demands. Is that what you are trying to say?
LTA: (Nods, but no response)
BALANCING OPTIONS WITH CONSTRAINTS
Coach: Okay. I think we have done enough thinking around this situation; you have your options and you have articulated your constraints. Perhaps it is right time for us to converge on your top two options. Let’s draw up the chart…
Coach: Okay. So what do you see from this?
LTA: I think there is one out-and-out solution. It seems head-and-shoulders above the rest. I think we should give SMRT a warning letter.
Coach: You don't want to consider the next better option? The public censure?
LTA: No. The warning letter option is so much better. It meets all our constraints.
Coach: OK, point taken. So, what will you say in the letter?
LTA: We want to reaffirm our support for business, and that the issue is not about the chartering. It is just that there are some things that need to be adhered to and our operating terms and conditions are one of them. We hope that they will not repeat this again. We would like to be positive partners to SMRT, and not be seen simply as an authority.
Coach: Well, that is great! Congratulations! Is there anything you would like to say about this session before we end?
LTA: Actually, I want to say that I was getting frustrated at the beginning because I didn’t know where you were going with the questions. But I think as you asked the questions, and played the Devil’s Advocate, and trying to let me see the other perspectives of the situation, you have actually made the decision clearer for me. So thank you for your persistence and your questions. They really made me think better.
Coach: You are most welcome. That’s what the Strategic Decision Making framework is all about.
Dear readers, I hope you like this figment of our imagination. We don’t know if LTA will use this process, or even if they will come to this decision, but I hope they will be able to come to the right decision.