There is something peculiar going on with Melbourne’s trains. A couple of years ago we received a new fleet of brand new Siemens trains and everything worked fine. This year the same trains have a mysterious and serious problem: they don’t stop when and where the driver wants them to. The brakes seem to have a problem and no one can pinpoint the difficulty. According to The Age, there is a glimmer of hope but the resolution is dragging out. Experts have been flown in and the best people are working on the issue, so why is it taking so long to resolve?
What increases my befuddlement is the apparent nuts and bolts characteristic of the problem (at least that is how it appears). A train is a system (admittedly complicated) you can pull apart, analyse each component, make a diagnosis and put back together and you still have a train. So the solution, therefore, can’t be just a simple malfunction of equipment there must be something more complex occurring.
Could it be that they just don’t have the right people working on the problem, that the true experts on maintaining Siemens trains are yet to be engaged? I think this is unlikely given the concern and inconvenience the absence of these trains is causing Melbourne commuters, Connex and the Victorian Government. Could it be that this type of problem hasn’t been encountered anywhere else in the world and the engineers are simply not equipped to handle the problem? That’s hard to believe given the number of these trains working diligently on so many tracks around the world. While the problem might not be identical, if it were a purely mechanical issue the mechanics would be able to spot it and fix it.
But any issue involving people is never purely mechanical. When people are involved in problem solving we need to consider how knowledge is flowing from one person to another; from one group to another; from one organisation to another. Here are some possibilities that might be hindering the resolution of the unstoppable train problem.
The people responsible for the day to day maintenance of the trains in Melbourne (I’ll call them the mechanics) don’t know the experts that well from Siemens (I’ll call them the engineers). Knowledge will only flow between these groups after a relationship has developed and trust formed. If the first time they have ever met is in the heat of resolving a high profile issue, then tempers are likely to be frayed, finger-pointing occurs and communications stop. In the future, prepare for emergencies by ensuring the experts know the people on the ground.
Mechanics tend to be practical, concrete thinkers. Experts like to work with abstractions. Engineers like to work with drawings and designs. When there is a problem, go back to the drawings to figure out what is going on. Mechanics like to try things out. Get another part, replace an old one, see what happens. The two groups speak different languages. One solution is help both groups become bi-lingual and show more empathy for the others’ approach. And mechanics and engineers wont be the only groups involved who speak a different professional language. The policy folks from the department, the politicians and the rail safety regulator will have a way of talking that will be different again.
While the absence of pre-existing relationships and the lack of a common language among experts will slow the flow of knowledge, there are a myriad of other possibilities and it’s impossible to predict which one will help resolve the problem. The key point is that a complex problem like this requires the team to try things, make educated guesses and see what happens, while ensuring the public is kept safe and services are maintained as best as they can.
The unstoppable train problem is unlikely to be a mere mechanical fault. It sounds like a knowledge problem: an inability to find and access the right knowledge when it is needed. But don’t be fooled in thinking this knowledge resides in a database somewhere. More than likely it is contained in the experiences and stories of groups of people around the world who don’t even realise they have the answer or that anyone is looking for it.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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