Loo’s, trains and board games

I think one of the most common mistakes people make when they put in new measures into any business is underestimating the intelligence of the people they are measuring. I saw a strange example of this in the papers a few weeks ago, regarding the refit of trains for Southern Railway. They have decided to not have toilets on the new trains (bizarrely defending their position by saying the 66% of their trains will still have loos – if I’m on a train with a 5 year old who needs a pee – the train either 100% does or 100% does not have a toilet!). This seems like a strange decision, until you look at the justification. They talk about increased capacity (makes sense: more fares for no extra rolling stock or operating costs) but there’s also the reliability measures, a loo that goes wrong can take a train out of service and of course removing the loo means that maintenance and cleaning costs go down. So some pretty sensible measures – fare revenue, capacity, reliability and maintenance costs have resulted in a decision that seems totally nuts.

How does this happen? People are great a playing games. I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense. It’s no accident that people love playing chess, Modern Warfare 2 and the rest. People are very, very good at taking a set of rules and making sure they get the outcome that is personally important to them. There’s a whole organisational behaviour dimension to this, and I’m not even going to touch that – but it’s worth thinking about the implied rules that you impose when you start to put measures, KPIs and targets into a business.

It might just be better to look at this as if you were writing the rule book for a new board game.



1 Comment

  1. Avatar Neil Smith on November 3, 2010 at 10:19

    If you are in a monopoly situation with nominally 100% capacity utilisation and an incomplete set of KPIs then everything would drive you to remove the toilets. In the 21st century no-one builds a house with an outside loo or a hotel room with a shared toilet bacause no-one would buy such a thing. Unfortunately on the railway there is no choice for customers to vote with his/her er.. feet. This is where a senior manager or Director at Southern Rail should have said we don’t have to provide a toilet but we will because we have certain values – your rules! But if I was being really cynical maybe they don’t want children, people of advanced age, etc. etc. travelling on their busy trains!

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