In March, 2010, Carmen Bianco became the new Senior VP of New York City’s Department of Subways. He faced a challenging first year:

  • In April, a worker was killed during a track replacement project.
  • In November, a scandal broke revealing years of systematic falsification of signal safety tests and records.
  • In December, a blizzard left passengers stranded in train cars overnight, without food, water, or heat.

The MTA subway system served 5.4 million passengers per day, and they were proud of their motto, “Keep the trains running.” Bianco knew he must do more than make operational changes. He needed to transform the culture to place a higher emphasis on safety, starting with senior leadership.

Diagnosis, Intervention, and Impact

DIAGNOSIS: Zoom out. The first step in organizational transformation is a “zoom out” process in which you assess the overall organizational system and identify system-wide mindsets. You must delineate and address connections between management, operations, and performance (including safety, in the case of the MTA).

Too often, safety and other cultural change efforts begin by zooming in on specific behaviors and procedures, missing the important bigger picture of cultural mindset that must be addressed system-wide—starting with the C-suite. Behaviors and systems follow mindset, not the other way around.

Bianco found that the culture of the MTA was an obstacle to progress which must itself be changed. MTA’s core value, “Keep the trains moving,” was reflected in all aspects of the organization. Operationally, it had translated to repairs being made in short intervals between incoming trains, slowing both the trains and the work, and putting workers at risk. Increasing safety was a direct challenge to this mindset.

INTERVENTION: Zoom in. The second step in organizational transformation is intervention—a “zoom in” process where specific operational changes are made. In 2012, MTA implemented a repair project called FASTRACK that shut down train lines needing repairs for four nights in a row. Passengers were re-routed to nearby lines. Workers had extended, uninterrupted spans of time to complete their work. It transformed the organization.

IMPACT: Zoom out. The final step is impact—a results and assessment phase. How did the intervention succeed or fail? How did it impact the organization as a whole (including customer perception and bottom line)? What needs to happen next to capitalize on the successes and overcome the failures to further the overarching goals?

MTA’s FASTRACK project led to a nearly 50% reduction in accidents, an almost 5% increase in on-time departures and arrivals, and an estimated $16.7M in savings due to improved productivity during repair projects. Initial resistance from customers turned to support as the results became evident: increased safety y improved service.

Key Lessons

Senior team alignment is essential. It’s impossible to cascade new priorities out to a workforce without first building alignment among the senior leadership team.

Don’t let core beliefs become a blind spot. If your core beliefs are off limits, you may never reach the root of your cultural problem, while challenging them systematically demonstrates your commitment to improving your organization.

New routines and behaviors support change. Though you must begin with ideas, core beliefs, and mindsets, the proof is in the pudding. And the pudding is the new behaviors, policies, and systems you and your organization implement, and how well you commit to them.

Zoom in and zoom out. The interventions we’ve seen to be most effective are appropriately targeted and have immediate credibility with the people who do the real work. They “zoom in” on the concrete specifics every day. But they also “zoom out” on the core leadership and organizational challenges that are rooted in the broader culture.

Note: This post is adapted from a previously published article by Levi Nieminen, Daniel Denison, and Carmen Bianco. For more specifics about the MTA experience, and more lessons that apply to other leaders and organizations, see “Transforming the Safety Culture at New York City Transit.”

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