SMRT tragedy exposes company culture that needs fixing

The tragedy that struck SMRT last week (22 March) and its reaction to the crisis have exposed a leadership stuck in permanent panic mode and a company culture that needs fixing.

The genesis of its series of troubles is the under-investment in maintenance by its former chief executive officer, Saw Phaik Hwa. But its reaction to a series of breakdowns and disruptions – the most serious of which happened in July last year – and last Tuesday’s deaths of two of its trainees show that lessons have yet to be learnt.

Immediately after the two were killed by an oncoming train, CEO Desmond Kuek rushed to tell the world that there were no safety lapses. The very next day, SMRT had to do a turnaround when it announced that one of the procedures was actually not followed.

Not only does this kind of a reversal on what happened 150m away from the Pasir Ris station put a serious question mark on its leadership, but it also shows a serious flaw in decision making and judgement.

SMRT looks like an organisation under siege – one forced upon it by a public that seems to have had enough of its flops and its reaction to these missteps.

It is not that the train operator doesn’t have measures to tackle crises like disruptions and deaths.

The trainees were part of a group of 15 crew sent to investigate a possible fault in a device used for trains to change tracks. The team did the right thing the first time round – it got the first go-ahead to go on to the tracks.

But they did not get permission to get back on the tracks again. The result was a huge tragedy that has shaken the nation.

As the investigation continues on this failure, there are many other issues upon which light has not been shed.

There is a standing rule to stop the train in the station, if there is a need to do so. If this was activated, the train would have stopped at Tampines and waited for the technicians to evaluate the situation.

Then, there is a staff protection switch which, if used by the crew, would have halted the train in its tracks immediately. And, finally, there is a safety procedure to cut off the power supply to the tracks.

All three features did not seem to have been activated.

There were other actions that could have been taken. A person with a red flag is normally deployed to alert the driver of the oncoming train that work was progressing on the tracks. There is normally a lookout 50m from the work crew to warn the driver.

For some strange reason, these people were not used. But the fact that such multi-layered features are in the rule book gives hope that SMRT has a detailed plan in place.

Many questions unanswered

So what happened? One possible explanation is that the crew had cut corners. The other is that the group of 15 were fearful that its investigation on the tracks would cause delays to the train service.

There were other questions: What were the other 13 doing when the two trainees were on the tracks? How come the driver did not see people on the track? Why was the train not being driven on automated mode, which would force it to go at a much slower pace?

To prevent similar accidents, all these issues need to be examined and solutions found. But, most importantly, this loss of two lives should force SMRT to ask some hard questions about its company culture.

Does a culture of fear and failure pervade its management and operations teams? If the answer is yes, then SMRT should think seriously about what Samsung is doing. To fight the declining profits from the sale of its smartphones, it is changing its structure and operations to those of a start-up.

The time has come for SMRT to re-look its company culture, too.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

This article first appeared on Yahoo! Singapore on 28 March, 2016.

Documenting the observations of working life and the lifestyle of the working adult, I scour the net for articles and offices for like-minded individuals to contribute to this blog.

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