Thursday, October 19, 2017

Desmond Kuek as the least worst CEO for SMRT

I caught the three public statements by the CEO, chairman and minister on Monday. To me the chairman and KBW were memorable for blaming the maintenance team for the system break down on October 7 due to flooding of the tunnels. On the other hand Desmond Kuek didn't blame them but identified the culture of the company as a problem. He had five years i.e., one election cycle long and he couldn't create the necessary culture to produce a better performing work force at SMRT. It was easy for him to align himself with his chairman and minister but he did not. I thought he took responsibility without people noticing because we have stopped hearing.

Without recovering the lost knowledge and more, it would not be possible to make the train system work like new again. The chairman was foolish to remove the guy in charge i.e., the VP for maintenance and in one stroke lose all the institutional knowledge he possess. I think the CEO would be smarter and keep him, and he begun with not pinning the blame specifically on maintenance team.

At the end of the day, we want to solve problems and not just apportion blame. Do not confuse vengeance with solution. If I run the system and fortunately not, I would be afraid of losing the people who know the system the best because they cannot be replaced. This is not about making trains but running a train system. Over the years, I have learnt that many systems use the same trains (not completely true) but each system is unique. We cannot just get the Hong Kong MTR team to come run ours and in a short time the problems disappear. If I may borrow a metaphor, you have to love your train system for it to love you back.

What the ST reported on Tuesday told me the problem is deeper i.e., our early system was not well engineered to begin with but was new and it worked for a while.

The flood protection system was poorly conceived with a glaring weak point making it vulnerable to failure. I wonder how many of the MRT subsystems have similar weakness i.e., a "one pin to hold up everything" design. You cannot take the same sloppy attitude we have towards safety into engineering design as well, i.e, "won't be so unlucky" attitude. Given enough time you will hit bad luck. I am sure the moral equivalent of flooding the tunnels will happen sometime. Good luck to the new VP of maintenance.

I think it is very challenging to create teams of people who do not just do their work competently but have passion of the system.

So I ask myself, why would Desmond Kuek wants this job at all? Perhaps he didn't know what he was getting himself into but I think if he were to quit nobody would want the job. What for? There is no way to get back a top performing train system except slowly, painfully and over many years. Firing people quickly for mistakes would only serve to prolong solving its problems. In this sense all three of them are not up to the job but Desmond Kuek is better than his chairman and minister.

Six years ago, the government should have had more political courage and come clean about how damaged the train system was and truthfully told us how long it would take to fix this. It would probably be closer to a decade. If you ask me who I would blame, I think this falls on  the shoulders of the PM and his Cabinet. He let in so many people into island and the train infrastructure could not cope. Then all along he stood aside and let the transport minister and those below get the brickbats. No wonder Lui Tuck Yew chose to leave. Overnight he became popular with us and we sent him off with grateful thanks for his dedication to the task despite his lack of success. In other words, the people knew but may not be able or want to articulate it.

All these ministers have been protecting a PM who does not deserve it. He should have shown more courage.

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