Bending the Bureaucracy Towards Excellence

By Paul Comfort, Esq.

As a leader in your agency you may have noticed the same thing I did when I arrived as Administrator and CEO of the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) over two years ago; overlapping layers of bureaucracy choking line managers’ ability to implement changes and improvements. It didn’t take long to see that this 3,300 employee transit agency – the 11th largest in the nation – was in serious need of an overhaul. It was listless, unmoored and just floating along, with no real direction and with its systems in disarray and stuck in the 1980’s.

So I set about to get us going and fix what was broken at the MTA under the direction of our Governor Larry Hogan and Secretary of Transportation. The job of just running our major city transit system that includes local and express bus service, metro subway, light rail, commuter bus, commuter trains and paratransit in addition to statewide responsibilities for funding and oversight of Locally Operated Transit Systems in 24 jurisdictions was difficult enough without a roadmap for our team on how to make exponential improvements in a short period of time.

There is no finish line to the job of bringing excellence to a large transit system. But with the right blueprint that focuses on setting goals, measuring successes (and challenges), building your own team, breaking up the power of “back office” administrative support functions, directly arbitrating significant conflicts, championing a new all-encompassing project, and communicating relentlessly, you can bend the bureaucracy toward excellence and move towards success.

I believe the first and most essential step on the road to excellence is to know where you are going. So institute a new “North Star/s” for your agency/company. Like the sailors of old who looked to a fixed object in the sky for direction, you need everyone in the boat to row in the same direction. At the MTA our North Stars were to provide safe, efficient, reliable transit across Maryland with world class customer service. All of our operations functioned with these four North Stars as our guiding principles.

Then, we needed to establish Key Performance Indicators (KPI) which measured our progress toward achieving our goals. We instituted new KPI’s and put in place bench marks that were communicated to all employees and celebrated when achieved.

The next step was to build our own team.  Finding current management and bringing in new team members who are competentdedicated and loyal is key to achieving success. You want leaders who buy into your vision and will work relentlessly to achieve it; that you can delegate to and empower to implement excellence.

My next principle might make some defenders of the status quo squirm. I believe that to achieve exponential progress in any organization, you have to break up the power of “back office” functions. Administrative support functions such as human resources, finance, information technology, procurement, legal and communications in large agencies too often accrue unjustified power that dictates decisions to line management through overwrought risk management and hardened “policies and procedures”. They decide the playing field and move boundaries inward thus eliminating options for line management.

Instead they need to have their power minimized and re-directed towards helping line management achieve operational objectives. This can be accomplished by actually breaking up the large departments of administrative support functions and splitting them throughout the agency. Then bring in leaders for them that understand their prime objective is to help line management achieve operational success.

Now with all this change you are bringing, it is inevitable you are going to have conflict. As the leader you should personally arbitrate significant conflicts between new and existing staff to eliminate ambiguity and between new and old ways of doing business. Always push toward action over inaction and focus on the KPI’s.

Then I believe you should champion a new all-encompassing project to focus energies and attention and excite your employees. In Baltimore we rebooted and rebranded our entire transit system in a project called Baltimore Link plus were working on long range projects like the nation’s largest P3  and a possible Mag Lev train between Baltimore and DC.

Through Baltimore Link we realigned the old bus routes that were laid out 50 years ago to a new hub and spoke system and linked them in with our light rail and subway system, creating a new high frequency bus route core system (10 – 15 minute headways) named “City Link”, re-wrapped all of our buses and redesigned and replaced all 5,000 bus stop signs, building many transit hubs in the city, installing transit signal priority though key intersections, installing miles of bus only lanes and many other improvements needed to make a leading transit system for the 21st century. At the same time we were working on a $5.2 billion, sixteen mile Light Rail project (the nation’s largest P3) in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC called the Purple Line.  Plus we were performing a federally funded Environmental Impact and Alignment Study for the potential Magnetic Levitation train between Washington DC and Baltimore which would bring 300 MPH trains covering the distance between these two key East Coast cities in 15 minutes.  That ought to have been enough to stir a little excitement among our team members.

Finally you must communicate clearly and often to external and internal stakeholders. This includes making yourself regularly accessible to and soliciting input from frontline employees; reporting back formally to all parties which suggestions you are implementing; and rewarding high achievers with recognition and expansion of their responsibilities.

Remember, leaders lead personally.

I believe if you follow these principles, you can Bend the Bureaucracy Toward Excellence at your agency or business and make exponential change possible.