Sunday, 17 July 2011

Failed Project Management

The Malta Independent on Sunday

Arriva is a textbook case of failed project management. It has failed not only in the essential of delivering on takeover a seamless and improved public transport service, it has also failed in the project build-up by raising our expectations, and failed again in the post-launch disaster by incompetent crisis management.

How this could happen to an international organisation who is supposedly experienced in running similar services in various countries is beyond comprehension. The only conclusion I can come to is that the project management team were completely office-bound and took no time to understand the realities on the ground that make the local transport service different from that in other countries due to cultural and geographical differences.

It is worthy to have polite and uniformed bus drivers and it is attractive to have brand new air-conditioned buses. But these are on the fringes of the service, they are the icing on the cake. Without the cake, the icing serves no purpose, and in public transport the cake is the ability to go from point A to point B, departing and arriving at the advertised times with waiting times kept to a minimum and with some protection from the sun or rain.

Arriva has delivered the icing but has miserably failed to deliver the cake. In these two weeks I have tried several times sending my children to St Julian’s and back by channelling them to take the No. 202 bus which goes directly from Rabat to St Julian’s and vice-versa. Each time I receive a distress call from them saying they have been waiting at the bus stop in the full heat of the sun for an hour and there is no sign of the No. 202 bus and, inevitably, I have to resort to private transport. To rub salt in the wound, I see the No. 202 bus going round at times when it is not needed, so the service must be operating but very irregularly.

Meanwhile, I keep receiving glossy brochures from Arriva explaining the routes and exhorting me to use them and to check the time schedules with their website. Now I do understand that projects like this never start without some hiccups. But the Arriva launch is not suffering from minor hiccups, it is suffering from dysfunction.   Whoever was responsible for project implementation must bear the responsibility and learn a thing or two about how to implement such projects.

Firstly, they have to learn that good advertising kills a bad product faster than bad advertising. Glossy brochures, TV spots and attractive billboards promising a completely new and pleasant experience as soon as 3 July arrives raised expectations to possibly unrealistic levels, which were cruelly deflated by the real events on the launch and the first two weeks of the service.

Great expectations were further inflated by the way Arriva reacted to the Bisazza Street saga, where they protested more than mildly that they had planned their service in the most minute detail and such late route changes as caused by the administrative decision to close Bisazza Street to all transport, including the public service, would cause disruptions to the programmed time schedules. We were impressed that Arriva had carried out such detailed planning that it would not be able to cope with a five-minute detour.

Oh how many five minutes we had to endure whether Arriva is on or off! Project management is also deficient in the way a big bang launch was chosen rather than a soft roll out. I have nothing against big bang project implementation but only where the launch has been thoroughly choreographed and tested in serious simulation models. Unless such simulation models had been performed and perfected in the process leading to the big bang, a gradual roll-out approach would have been less disruptive and would have left many important people with less egg on their red faces. But most disappointingly is the way the crisis is being handled. Apologies were offered and accepted. The Maltese are nice people and can understand that things can go wrong and that the service needs time to click into efficient mode. We are prepared to wait and be patient as long as we know that the people concerned are working on it with all their resources to get things right the second or third time around. But we demand to be informed, and it is in Arriva’s own interest to keep us informed. Service notices like this are simply not enough: 12 July 2011 – Service update: 9am

“Arriva Malta is again pleased to report that the majority of bus services are operating this morning in line with planned schedules. We are aware that some delays started to creep into services yesterday as the day went on and we will be closely monitoring performance throughout today in order to counter these and maintain service reliability.”

The least I would expect is a daily report on the efficiency of each route for the previous day. The efficiency should be given in a percentage coefficient showing how many of the advertised services were actually provided and the average delay experienced on each route. This information is crucial to build up confidence in consumers who have a choice as to when it will be safe to start using a reliable public transport service.

On the other hand, if some routes are still suffering low quality service it will help Arriva if consumers avoid those routes until they are in a position to offer a service on those routes of at least the minimum standard level of service expected. Arriva may have a great reserve of experience in operating public transport services in big cities, but it seems that the changeover of a national public transport service where there is no other reasonable public transport alternative is a new experience for them too.

They should use the experience of their Maltese co-owners, who have a long record of successful big project implementation in the local context, most notable amongst which is the conversion of the old Malta Hilton into the glittering Portomaso project in time, on budget and delivering well beyond anyone’s expectations: a project that remains unmatched in beauty and quality even a decade after its launch.

We should reflect on the Arriva experience and make sure we avoid similar mistakes both in delivering the restructuring at Air Malta as much as in our macroeconomic management. In both cases I fear we are making promises and raising people’s expectations on projects that are undeliverable, even with all the good faith in the world.

Air Malta today is different from the old Air Malta that operated a near monopoly over air traffic to and from Malta. Under monopoly condition governments can manage (sic!) commercial operations such as Air Malta but in a competitive environment, I doubt whether government has the power to stay on course for the full painful process of restructuring, and even if once successfully restructured, whether Air Malta under public sector ownership can sustain itself in the long term in competition with lean private sector operators.

Whether we like it or not, we must reflect whether Air Malta, in a full competitive environment, can have the economies of scale to compete successfully and, even if it can, whether public sector management can really extract its full potential under the new economic conditions.

On the macroeconomic level, we continue to promise a universally free public health service which, without limitless resources, can only function under severe rationing conditions. Only this week I, who have paid my taxes and social security contributions for over 42 years, had to resort to the private health sector for a minor day intervention to which I was entitled in the public sector at no cost, had I the will or the inclination to wait my turn.

So what in theory is free universal entitlement is in reality nothing of the sort and we had better start calling a spade a spade. People like me are paying twice for their health service – once through general taxation and again by being obliged by rationing conditions to use and pay for private services.

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