16 April 2007

How a traffic jam began

All because a bus driver wouldn't take responsibility for taking a detour that circumstances called for. The "cover-your arse" syndrome at work. Full essay.


boon said...

Why are we even surprised that such things happen?

We work within systems, and systems dictate the norms. Any deviation from the norms would have to be explained and justified. If we can deviate from the system anytime we feel like, then it would collapse very quickly in chaos.

Most people would not want to go through that hassle, in return for little or no tangible benefits.

Think of your own workplace: Are there little absurdities, which if circumvented, would result in greater efficiency? Why do you still follow the system then?

It might be (seen to be) more prevalent in the civil service, probably because everyone has a woeful tale to share about inflexible civil servants. But doesn't it happen in every single organisation?

Anonymous said...

I can empathise with the driver. He could get into trouble for re-routing. It may be the system that needs change. Train and then empower the driver.

Anonymous said...

arent you rather unfair to the bus drivers? you are naive enough to think people in other positions, including CEOs and politicians, are not as keen to cover their arses?

the difference is those fellows can blame other people, even sack them, to cover their own arses, while the poor bus drivers cannot


Chris said...

I'm sure you're aware of the fact that the syndrome you have identified is not unique to Singapore, but can be found all over the world. Here in Britain the people you describe are called "jobsworths", since when you ask them to do something that might actually be a bit outside their competency or authority they answer: "It's as much as my job's worth to do that."

I would remark that here, if a detour is needed, the bus driver would be in contact with his or her route supervisor by radio and would be able to get the authority to deviate from the route. I am surprised that no such action was taken in this case. Route deviations are very serious, and it is possible that the full extent of the situation was not clear to the driver (even though he was informed about it, he may not have fully understood it).

In London, especially on the bendy buses and double-decker buses, route deviations can have very bad effects: if you're driving a double-decker bus and you deviate from the route, taking a route that has a low bridge, you may end up decapitating your upper-deck passengers or (less seriously) destroying the bus, or worse, both. Bendy buses are limited in the kinds of turns they can make; not all routes are appropriate for them as sharp turns are impossible (remember, they're driven by the wheels on the back section and thus if the turn is too sharp, they jackknife easily). So a route deviation could easily produce an even worse traffic jam.

Now, this is not denying the truth of the situation you set forth: I agree with you that the deviation you suggest was possible, navigable by bendy buses, and would have solved the immediate problem. I suggest that the real difficulty lies with the management of the bus authority, which probably punishes deviation more than it rewards initiative. That, sadly, is the case with most government or quasi-governmental bodies: initiative is dangerous as it's uncontrollable.

Anonymous said...

The driver of the first bus called Bus Head Office for direction. Was he using a mobile phone?

Ha, he is in trouble. You are a witness to his crime of using mobile phone on a moving (even stationery) bus... ha ha

Please provide his name, bus number, time and place to traffic police haha.

hugewhaleshark said...

Yeah, asking for their names is my favourite trick too. In most cases service improves there and then!

Anonymous said...

Recently, I came across Mindef website describing so call 3-G technologies and how all elements of an SAF fighting force are now joined up.

If you saw the video presentation, you could be impressed and, admittedly, I was initially. However, when I read about your article, I began to wonder whether the human element in the SAF 3G effort may have been overlooked.

As postulated by you in your article, there appear to be a purvasive and somewhat deep seated culture of deferring to higher authority for decision. I too have often noted this to be the case and have experience similar problems. But how does this relates to the SAF 3G thing?

In summary, the SAF 3G initiative essentially wire up down to the individual foot soldiers communication devices. If indeed, this purvasive passing the decisions up the command chain is so purvasive, I wonder how effectively can decision be made?

Won't the top commanders be swamp with information?

Won't having this 3G thing give more excuse for decision to be kick up the chain, thus paralysing the top commander?

I suppose we won't know if such investment would actually work in wartime condition until that happens. By then it might be too late?

Should there not be emphasis for training in self intiative?

Anonymous said...

As a Singaporean living in the North of England, at times I am often impressed by how low-level personnel are able to take initiative.

When you brought up you bus problem to illustrate, I an often amazed by how bus drivers in the town I live often took initiative to avoid traffic problems. In some cases, too they would take the initiative to skip bus stops avoid the jams. I even note that there are cases too where bus drivers would stop beyond a bus stop to let old folks get off at a convenient place.

Of course, in the place where I live, a moderately size city, people are sometime more forgiving for minor traffic transgression.

Even drivers sometimes take the initiative to "break" traffic law in emergency cases. Where I live just outside my flat, is a traffic junction. Sometimes, when an emergency services needs to traverse through a jam, some drivers would take the initiative and drive through a red light. More amazing is traffic facing green light would stop to allow traffic through without the hoot of a horn in disagreement.

I suppose civil servents are similar and famous all over the world for covering their arse. But to my amazement, I found it refreshing even the most dreadful of agencies, the inland revenue, how much initiative can be taken at low level. I remember once, told that I my payment was short and that I was late. I was entertained by a lowly revenue clerk, who not only was able to explain to me the issue in simple term but was able on the spot to accept my explanation for the delay. When I told him that the cheque had already been sent, he made the effort to verify that it was held up in processing and even apologies for the mixed up. There and then he just quash the demand for late payment. Whether this is an exception or not, I do not know. But a fellow Singaporean who works as a tax adviser in the town I lived did confirm that largely speaking decision making process in UK inland revenues are quite often taken at very low level.

Anyway, that is my experience but having lived in the UK for many years now, I would say, people here are generally not as kiasi as in Singapore.

JohnM said...

LOL Brilliant analysis Alex. Nice to see you back in your incisive best.

As for those London bus drivers - well, they may not have much leeway to deviate from the route,but they certainly can bend the rules! Stopping at bus stops seems to be solely at the discretion of the bus driver - whether the vehicle is full or not - as anyone who has tried catching a night bus in London can attest. At least that would not happen in Singapore!

Teck Soon said...

Although all countries have people unwilling to take responsibility, I think the problem is particularly bad in Singapore. In the West passengers will be more rowdy if they perceive that something stupid is happening. I can imagine that in Singapore they are fairly polite to the driver even in that kind of situation, but in the U.S. I think people will become quite forthcoming in their insults when there's stupidity around. I guess some people would yell at the driver and tell him to "f*** off". At least they would insist that he call his superiors again and fully explain the situation to get permission. Singaporeans look down on that loud, "disorderly", type of behavior from passengers, but it does come in handy at times. If Singaporeans had political freedoms like the right of public protest, where they could learn to yell and make a scene when they're unhappy, then maybe in some situations incompetent lone authorities will listen to reason. I think that is precisely the reason why the current authorities DONT want to allow this freedom. Then they'd have to listen.

Anonymous said...

To the person who posted and wanted to report the driver to the police because he used his mobile to contact his operation control centre for advise (the bus had already stopped on the road) you think you are smart and clever? Your writing had reflected that you are a stupid idiot. You must be one childish peabrained smart alec wannabe. I am ashamed to have such people among us if you are local.
And who ever said so that drivers cannot use their mobile when their vehicles are STUCKED in an EMERGENCY.
If you are ever trapped in your crashed vehicles on the highway in a life and death situation remember do not use your mobile to call for help or advice. Stupid!

Anonymous said...

Well so funny, I am reading these posts and wonder... I dont symphatize with the driver at all, yet undererstand why he does it.

I think Alex point was that the bus drivers both did NOTHING sensible/common-sense to solve the solution. Like, the driver could have done more to get his grips on the stuck truck situation, consider the re-routing (sure there is no bridge or anything dangerous there as other busses drive those roads!), or he could have insisted to get the problem solved ASAP (like force the office to decide, or call the police and make them very aware of the very new problem emerging).

Yet I agree, the British have similar manners, as well as some Americans. Europeans (like me) in contrast are very eager to get a problem solved and make the decision, which true enough brought me in trouble in Singapore..

As a "FT" living here since years, I would have a book to write about these things, many examples are from lower-rank security guards that go by the book and manage to entirely infuriate me within seconds (I am avery peaceful person usually). I really fear that one day I will slap one that says "Yes sir, that totally doesnt make sense, but you cant use the gym without sport shoes for just having a few sit-ups, but thats the rule" (example of a new security guard who chose to apply a rule that was not applied for the years before and hance spoilt my idea to make some sport).

In Singapore, it seems to me that we have a few 1000 rules to hand, and then select the ones to apply, which allows to pick and chose, favoring "ruling by the law" as opposed to "rule of the law" (or by-law or rule). This always confuses some people at the lower ranks.

The whole system from school to top management appears to condition for cowardness, cover-your-ass-ness, I totally agree on that and this phenomenon now poses a risk to Singapore. Thinking out-of-the-box? Being entrepreneurial? Decisive? Creative? Hahaha....

recruit ong said...

Hahaha! What can i say? Totally hilarious and sad! World class transport indeed. Those dumbos in head office should ask themselves what about passengers waiting for 106 further down? They will be waiting and waiting and waiting... no wonder so world class!

The issue is also about empowerment. If u don't empower your employees and instead always resort to using a big stick to keep them in line, sooner or later things will end up like this. Everyone suffers, might even lead to collapse of the nation (re: vivian bala's logic) hahaha! Actually the whole society is like that, starting from national service.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Sgean who have now lived and worked in HK for 7 years.

I agree with some of the posts that although we see it all over the world, but its painful for me to say that this behaviour tends to be very strong in Singapore.

I experienced it time and again with phone service personnel, bank staff, my fellow Sg-based colleagues, shop assistants, airport staff, and even fairly senior people in organisations i have to work with.

Many a time i had to say "If you cannot make a decision, then why am i talking to you? Can you escalate this to someone who can as soon as possible please?"

Could the Army mentality be at fault for this? Could we have been "trained" over the years that only top authority figures know best and leave all decision making to them?

I think the point that "empowerment leads to losing control" is certainly a negative mentality that we have and practice.

Anonymous said...

To the 17 April, 2007 21:29 Anonymus:

"If you cannot make a decision, then why am i talking to you? Can you escalate this to someone who can as soon as possible please?"

As a "FT" since many years here, I have observed that too much. Now, I am going right to the top (or as high as I can go) of the hirachy of whatever organisation I deal with, the thing go smoothly ASAP. THis really is a bad mannerism and makes me as a FT look like a typical colonial (*%$@!#, yet its often the only thing that works. Like, for instance, when I had so much trouble witha credit card, wrote letter to the supervisor of that divicion, suddenly all worked. I ould have endless examples of that... So the system trains me to behave like that, sad....

cory said...

in sin-gapore, we have a common practice especially among the corporates....that is screw any and everybody to make yourself look GOOD.

so to counter this kinda attack, the screwies will adopt the defensive "don't be smart and be a hero" defensive position.

and this is the result....a country of people won't make decisions that affect themselves, but will offer countless suggestions that others have to make. Or they will wait till someone makes a decision, and cruxify that poor fella.

the philosophy of "shit rolling downhill" is a prime example of passing responsibility, esp to subordinates.

Gen Dwight Eisenhower once said : "Morale and attitude, good or bad, trickles down the ranks from the top faster than anything else. Bad attitudes from the top will result in poorer decision making thru the ranks, and ultimately the failure of the whole organisation.
Likewise, good attitudes and morale will flow down thru the ranks to enable even the lowest ranks soldier to make decisions, good or bad, and learn from it and advance."

that's why even when Gen E was very sad and nervous about sending 300000 men across the channel to uncertainty, and certain death...he maintained a good positive attitude .

why we are like that.....comes from the top. think about it.

Roger said...

To Anon 17 apr 3:37 am

Having completed my national service and having interacted with friends from the US army (through personal connections), I notice that the focus of information technology is vastly different.

Without going into details, my personal impression through publicly available commercials on the SAF is that information technology is utilized to empower the decision makers at the top. (I remember a commercial that showed a decked out control room with funky 3-D gfx)

From what I can tell, the focus is vastly different for the US Army: information technology is utilized to flatten the decision making structure, and to better analyze and gather information - thus theoretically making for better decision making.

How does this tie in with bus drivers not daring to re-route? I believe it is just another example of our uniquely Singaporean NO-U-TURN thinking. Given it may be unfair to point at the driver in this case, it is still a none-the-less ugly manifestation... and i'm sure many male Singaporeans will agree with me that our national service experiences can be seen as a distinct formal socialization process that embodies this irrational need to appeal to authority, even for trivial matters. (Note: i'm not saying that re-routing in this case is necessarily trivial)

Yuri/Dee said...

Aiyo, it's true these things happen everyday in Singapore, which leads to the question: since so many prefer to defer to a higher authority, could it be possible that they prefer not to think? (The causes could be very varied though).

For all the talk about training and developing highly skilled people in Singapore, we actually do have a missing link in the entire process. To have high competency, you must be able to think and act for yourself. The laws and regulations must empower the individual, not just the top decision-makers.

Also, I feel that many companies here are rather restrictive and require strict adherence to the rules. Just like the government, they are authoritative and although they've embraced a certain amount of changes, they're still unable to truly change their way of thinking. An example would be how the common Singaporean seems to perceive anything business-related. Though many are now more worldly and able to understand the need for business, there are still plenty who say "Wah, businessman, ah? Very rich, very nice!!! But you know, he probably cheat people one." And then, there are the business people who also carry a similar attitude. Although they've the pride that they succeeded in the business field, they still talk with guilt as though business is some dirty little secret.

nhy said...

I disagree that the first bus could have detoured on his own initiative. He may not be familiar with the other roads. What if he got stuck somewhere else?

He should have called the despatch office again to ask for permission and guidance when the second bus is also stuck. In that case, transfer all the passengers to the second bus and that bus will make the detour.

Anonymous said...

To Roger of 18 April, 2007 18:35,

Don't you get the point of Yawning Bread's post? Singaporeans do not want to be empowered — they prefer to let somebody else be empowered and assume the responsibility.

Why do you think Singaporeans repeatedly voted an authoritarian regime that enslaved and impoverished them back into power at every election?

Anonymous said...

Look at the bright side, 99% of human operators in Singapore, especially the civil servants, can be replaced by today's computer software and would still function as well, if not better.

For example, bus drivers can be replaced by a simple operation algorithm:

1) Bus Driver

if traffic delay > 20 minutes
disable brain
call dispatch officer
while dispatch response = null
if need to pee/shit
call dispatch for permission
while dispatch response = null
if cannot control bladder
call dispatch for permission to pee/shit in pants
while dispatch response=null
pee/shit in pants
drive normally along route with GPS and collision detection sensors

2) Dispatch Officer or mid-rank civil servant

if situation not in rulebook
disable brain
pass to boss
while boss no response
tell customer "you do not need my name, title, and my boss's name"

3) Changi Airport security

if "bomb" detected in voice
disable brain
while 1
ask suspect to repeat "bomb"
ass-covering-points=ass-covering-points +1

4) Transport Minister

while complains about traffic less than threshold that threatens to make me look stupid or incompetent
do not review highway design
do not build new flyovers at key conjested intersections
do not review bus system and schedule
do not shorten bus arrival times
do not review subway system & schedule
do not shorten subway arrival times
disable brain
publish subset of statistics highlighting singapore public transport to be superior other countries
ERP = ERP + $1.00
#COE = #COE - 1
bus Fare = bus Fare + $0.10
subway fare = subway fare + $0.10

In situations where software control is not feasible, there is still a pool of mentally retarded people (yes, there are still people who are dumber than the average human operator in Singapore) who would function exceptionally well in many positions. As long as they can follow instructions, there will be no perceivable differences to the customer between a mentally retarded and a normal bus driver or Changi security officer, supervisor, or transport minister:

1) Both will follow standard operating procedures to the **letter**

2) Neither will use their brain (despite vast differences in IQ).

3) Both will call their boss for instructions if situation is not listed in their rulebook

Imagine the possibilities! Every Singaporean (both dumb and dumberer) can contribute to society, have a stable income, CPF, and annuity!