Editorial: What Muni can learn from Portland

Maybe this is unfair, but Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project seems replete with bureaucratic jargon. It’s painful when you compare it to Portland, Oregon, TriMet’s common-sense, employee-empowering Productivity Improvement Process.

PIP has saved Oregon taxpayers $50 million during the past five years while dramatically boosting staff morale and service quality. Muni almost certainly could benefit — not to mention buy some good will — by studying Portland’s success.

TriMet’s PIP recently came to our attention in a blog item from SPUR, the San Francisco urban planning think tank. SPUR pointed out that like most contemporary bus transit agencies such as our local Muni and SamTrans, Portland’s TriMet was facing ongoing budget deficits. So in 1999 TriMet started a process that Muni “leaders should look to … for some clever service-enhancing, money-saving ideas!”

Actually SPUR may be a tad too kind in calling the Muni and Portland approaches “the exact same thing.” The TriMet Productivity Improvement Process is based on the mind-bogglingly reasonable principle that “frontline employees are the driving force” in successfully increasing productivity and morale by “removing real day-to-day frustrations in the work environment.”

In contrast, Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project Web site barely mentions seeking input from the frontline employees who keep the buses running. If Muni management does that, it should say so.

Directed by Muni’s board and top administrators with oversight from a multitude of other city departments, regional agencies and unions, TEP is a $2.4 million, 18-month project. Additional expertise comes from “one of the nation’s top transit consulting firms.”

True, the Muni approach includes a citizen’s advisory group and a plethora of show-and-tell public meetings. Yet somehow Muni seems unable to grasp the concept that those who know most about how to make the buses run better are the people who actually drive and repair the vehicles.

Here are some of the gains Portland has made by paying attention to its employees:

Unit Rebuild Mechanics toured Boeing and adapted new techniques for redesigning their workspaces to make output faster and easier, saving one hour a day per mechanic.

Fuel efficiency was boosted to an all-time high, among the best in the nation. Yearly savings of $600,000 were achieved by simple maintenance changes and by having drivers turn off their engines during longer waits.

A convoluted and confusing fare ticket and pass system was drastically simplified by an interdepartmental redesign team.

As the TriMet improvements accumulate, the Portland bus agency is now looking at nearly $20 million in yearly savings.

Naturally, Portland’s PIP system consists of more than putting up a few suggestion boxes. TriMet now has five years of experimentation in the best ways to develop ideas from the rank-and-file without high-priced consultants. Its achievements have won the American Public Transportation Association’s Innovation Award.

All of this would seem to indicate that time is overdue for San Francisco officials to start getting serious about seeking ideas from the city employees who do actual frontline work.

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