Top-down approach cannot fix SMRT culture issue

by David Sim

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, in his parliamentary speech, advocated a top-down approach to fix the negative work culture prevalent in SMRT. (“Right culture starts from the top”; 7 Nov)

Indeed, the top management must set the right direction for the company but what is even more important is how they steer the company in that direction. After each setback, SMRT has sought to tighten its command-and-control regime, imposes more rules and regulations on its staff and throws in more carrots and sticks to serve as incentive and deterrence.

Over time, such measures can only lead to the formation of what organization experts describe as a “blind obedience” or “informed acquiescence”-type organization cultures, both of which are 20th-century relics. Running SMRT is not the same as running an army and one wonder whether Desmond Quek, with his military background, truly understand how to motivate a civilian workforce to rally behind him.

Beside physical upgrades, it is time for SMRT to also upgrade its organisation thinking and move into the 21st century, towards a “self-governance” and “values-based”-type culture, in which employees can be trusted to do the right thing because they are respected by top management and are guided by core principles and values that are inspiring and which they help to create.

In this respect, SMRT can learn from transport disruptor Uber. After a series of damning news reports that besmirch its reputation and lead to the resignation of previous CEO, Travis Kalanick, the new CEO sought to transform the company’s culture by having employees write and vote on cultural guidelines for the workplace. In the end, Uber employees gave 1,200 submissions and the final rules were voted on 22,000 times. This is a much more inclusive way of building the corporate culture – from the bottom-up instead of top-down.

After 5 years and much government interventions, it is clear that SMRT troubles are far from over. Yet, the top management has always “taiji” the blame to all manners of things – train fault, track fault, weather, etc, even bad luck. SMRT has demonstrated they have no qualms dishing out punishments, even dismissing employees responsible for major screw-ups. But strangely, the punishment never seems to hit the top management where it will hurt them the most. The average SMRT employee may earn only a couple of thousands per month, so a paycut of 20% or bonus reduction or even no bonus due to bad performance is likely to hurt them.

Not so for the top management. Despite the grief caused to thousands of commuters with each breakdown – which are frequent, their million dollar pay package stay substantially the same. If one already earn $2M, what is a reduction of 20%? Would there be a drastic drop in the quality of life?

If this is indeed the “Singapore way” that Mr. Khaw so proudly emphasized in his speech, then SMRT is in even bigger trouble than we can imagine. To Mr Khaw, I would say just eat your humble pie and urge your underlings to instead learn from other successful global companies how they are able to transform their corporate cultures – from the bottom up, not top down.

Editor’s note – Non-constituency Member of Parliament, Leon Perera noted that he had tried to ask a question about the compensation impact on the SMRT senior management was disallowed due to rules of Parliamentary procedure.