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Forget the TTC vision, just make the subways run

Toronto's public-transit agency has been going through a hard time. Recent subway delays had straphangers seething about the inadequacies of the Toronto Transit Commission. In its wisdom, the TTC chose precisely this time to unveil a new set of corporate values.

The TTC Way is a classic of management bafflegab. Put together over the past several months and approved by the TTC board Jan. 25, it lays out a set of six objectives that will "guide improved service." They are: respect one another; value each other's time; tell people what's happening; stay safe; mind your space; help others out.

The TTC hired a prominent Toronto-based firm Bridgeable to help it draw up these blindingly obvious goals. Bridgeable specializes in a thing called service design. As a TTC release explains, "Service design takes a human-centred approach to design, recognizing that effective service solutions require a holistic understanding of people's current and unmet needs." Got that?

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There is more: "Service designers work with multiple, diverse stakeholders to co-create the design of service solutions, leveraging collaboration to translate needs, pain points, and opportunities into actionable ideas for services and experiences." And: "The service design process engages in cycles of prototyping and iteration, continuously building and testing to get to a solution that will deliver higher impact, while minimizing risk." Ah. All clear now.

The TTC Way (so awfully important that the TTC insists on capitalizing the T in "the") is part of the agency's latest five-year plan. It promises to take Toronto transit to the "next level" and "deliver a world-class public transit system for Toronto over the next five years and beyond." The plan cost about $440,000, $100,000 of it for developing The TTC Way.

Bridgeable and the TTC brought together hundreds of employees, customers and other "stakeholders" to pool their ideas in who knows how many chat sessions. Senior managers formed "cross-functional groups" to bring forward ideas and plans. How any of this helps the working mother stuck on the Finch bus on her way to pick up her kids at daycare or the businessman watching three packed subway trains pass by as he tries to make a breakfast meeting is hard to say.

The TTC is not the only organization that spends endless hours and gobs of cash on "visioning" exercises, usually "facilitated" by consultants. Even jaded newspaper writers are not exempt from the dreaded noon workshop.

One paper where I worked took the staff on a retreat at a posh country inn. The consultant asked us, "If your paper was a vegetable, which would it be?" We settled on potato, nutritious but not very interesting.

At another such gathering years later, a cheerful facilitator asked the group to come up with ideas, then put them in the "tickle trunk" for discussion. At yet another, we spent an hour discussing whether the inevitable company mission statement should say that we aim simply to "inform" our readers or to "delight" them. Most of us thought we should just try to put out a paper that people would want to read.

To be fair to the dear old TTC, it is trying hard to crawl out of the dinosaur age and become a modern organization. It has made progress in the past few years, with the introduction of new uniforms, digital fare cards and WiFi in subway stations. It is even striving to treat commuters as customers. Included in its five-year outlook is a plan to put customer-service agents in subway stations. The TTC already claims overall customer satisfaction of 80 per cent.

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But, as any rider can testify, the TTC still has lots of failings. It shouldn't need focus groups, facilitators and prototyping exercises to figure out how to overcome them. Anyone with five spare minutes could come up with a mission statement for the TTC. How about: To get people where they want to go with a minimum of hassle and discomfort. Commuters would be perfectly happy if the TTC could just do that.

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