Aug 24, 2007

The Design IQ of MRT

The lowest design IQ in the universe must be concentrated in the management offices of MRT (aka, LRT-3 or the EDSA light rail). A visit to MRT especially in rush hour is a lesson on how Bad Design can cause you more stress:
  • Trains break down, forcing huge human traffic jams.
  • Long queues at the ticket booths, winding all the way down the stairs and spill out into EDSA. People here can wait as long as 30 minutes or more.
  • And after the long ticket lines -- you have to line up for bag inspection, causing another 30 minute wait.
  • More time lost inside the station as you wait for a train to arrive.
  • All this time, no one is announcing if a train will be coming or what time.
  • And when the train finally arrives, there's no room to squeeze in, which makes you wonder why the train bothered to stop.

What Works

In other train stations (like in Bangkok, Australia, Europe and even in our own LRT-2 -- note, I include LRT-2, or the Aurora line), riding the train is a smooth and stress-free experience. We list things that work in these stations.

Ticket Machines

The good stations use automated vending machines to dispense tickets. There is often a window with a human, but only to give out change, special tickets, or information.

Wide Passageways and Cars

The other train stations have very wide passageways so human traffic flows more freely and crowds do not accumulate. The cars also have wider bodies, designed for lots of commuters to move around in. Not so in MRT, where cars are small and cramped. This is why people in MRT are always packed like a Brother Mike service.

Lots of Information and Maps for Passengers

Station names are prominent and announced clearly by a recorded message. If you're on the street and you don't know anything about the area, you will see prominent signs indicating a train station. Schedules are published on video screens and even announced through a PA system so people don't wander about, wondering whether a train will ever come. Plus, they have maps showing the train stations and the vicinity. If there are different train lines, the map gives useful info on how to get to the other lines. (Instead of bombarding us with too many ads, why won't MRT ask these advertisers to sponsor maps of the MRT?)

Special Passes

Special passes help decongest human traffic in the ticket booths and give a more convenient option for customers. In the countries described above, you could purchase special tickets or "passes" -- a day-long pass allows you to ride all day long. A weekly pass lets you use your ticket for 7 days, and so on. Like prepaid cards, you can easily recharge these special tickets.

What Ails the MRT?

I used to wonder why problems plague the MRT. After some years of observing, I have figured out some design flaws in their system(s).
The main stations and terminals (North EDSA, Quezon Ave, Makati, Taft) have bad real estate designs:
  • Narrow passageways and waiting areas. At North EDSA station, which receives almost all of people from the North, there is only one narrow stairway, a slow and hot elevator and 2-4 ticket windows. Same is true with Quezon Ave. Since there is too much human traffic in the first two northern stations of MRT, people often try to go as far as the GMA-Kamuning station or do a "round trip". All these are symptoms of the trouble that MRT is experiencing, and still, nothing is being done to alleviate the bottlenecks!
  • Slow ticket dispensing. All tickets in MRT are dispensed by humans, and most of the time they fumble as they count change. Why not activate those vending machines that I saw rotting in the corners of the station?
  • MRT has stored value cards -- the closest we can get to special passes from other countries. But such is the ineptitude of MRT management that they still run out of stored value cards! I suspect that MRT "runs out" only because... they are waiting for those silly Samsung ads to be printed on them!
  • Useless and slow bag security checks. In Ayala, there are many turnstiles to accommodate traffic, but inept management introduced a choke point -- a baggage check with two guards intercepting everyone entering the turnstiles. Imagine how many office workers are pouring into the station, only to be choked by two guards. I believe that baggage checks are useless deterrents to terrorist attacks (any sufficiently motivated criminal or terrorist will think of a way to outsmart these inattentive guards, anyway. What if they instead let everyone enter the waiting area, and then the guards could conduct random checks in the train waiting area?
  • Several times, I have been stuck inside the Shaw station's waiting area (longest was for one hour), waiting for a train that never arrived. I felt helpless and duped, since they could have advised us in the first place that there was a problem. No one told us what was happening. To top it all the place was hot, because the architects never paid attention to ventilation design. People were about to riot. In contrast, Bangkok's SkyTrain stations are all open to let the breeze cool the area naturally.

When we are voiceless and misinformed (most of us Pinoys are), we tend to be more tolerant of bad service design. Thanks to the LRT-2 (the Aurora line) we are given a taste of a better alternative. You should try getting a ride at the LRT-2

It's been how many years now since we started encountering these MRT problems? Things do not seem to be improving. The only innovation I have seen so far was the introduction of a cordoned area for women, children and senior citizens. But this is not a solution to the root problems. This is merely cosmetic. Things will worsen if MRT management does not examine more closely what's happening.

I don't think the solutions will be difficult to find. If someone like me who knows nothing about crowd control and train systems can make these observations, what more these experts at MRT? Or do they really know what they're doing over there?

  • MRT described in Urban Rail:
  • Wikipedia entry:

Aug 21, 2007

Please wait to multiply

I don't really like social networking sites, that is, the way they are built right now, because they force you to build something that you can't really share later on. Friendster, for instance, requires you to register before you can reply to a friend's blog.

And if you register, the next level of pressure is for you to build your own site. It so happens that I already have my own site, a blog and even a photo sharing home. Multiply is purportedly convenient because it unites these elements into one space, yes, but what about second breakfast? (oops, wrong line of thought).

What I meant was: sige, build your Multiply site, put your photos and videos, import your blogs yeah. But now what happens to my other sites? How about my Google Ads and Amazon links (haven't tried embedding links to Amazon)?

Aug 17, 2007

Improving the DOH Retirement Process

Just got back from the Department of Health, after giving a workshop and mentoring session. Our goal: help a cluster of the KM team to use some knowledge sharing techniques to improve their retirement process.

We began by defining the process start and ending, then started using Post-Its to write down the steps. After lining them up in the whiteboard and drawing arrows (thus the boxes-and-arrows process map), the team really got deeply into the discussion. The team was so engaged that they did not even think of pausing for lunch.

Despite asking people to stop thinking about the process while eating lunch, discussions continued. Our session at 1:30 PM and I have a feeling people would have stayed and worked on the project had it not been for the order from DOH to go home. Everyone went home having a deep sense of fulfillment.

We examined each step and bounced around ways to improve them. I liked the openness of the people to accept ideas. Everyone let everyone to finish what they were saying before any critiques were given.

To be honest, I was a bit unsure whether we would get substantial results since it appeared that a previous process improvement effort had already been done -- in fact, the cluster came armed with a neat list of steps, complete with input and output, plus flowcharts.

But when they started stepping through the process map and comparing it to what was happening in reality, new stuff came out. I gave them guide questions like, "What common errors or complaints do you receive?" and "Are there bottlenecks or points of delay in the procedures?"

After lengthy discussions, the KM team had a list of improvements to the DOH retirement process, two of which would result to major impact. First, a simpler, more efficient process, by decreasing points of mistakes and causes of delay. Second, an insertion of a knowledge harvest process for key retiring staff. This was a very fulfilling day for us, despite the rain and the flood that I had to drive through to get back home. Thanks to the DOH process improvement team!

More photos here:

Aug 16, 2007

How a Principal Redesigned Our (Formerly) Lousy High School

This is the story of how a young principal named Imelda Penecilla-Macaspac worked against the odds and revived our ailing high school. I am a graduate of a public school called Pampanga High School (PHS), formerly called Jose Abad Santos HS (JASHS) in Pampanga. I owe a lot to this school -- it gave me a scholarship and a good academic preparation for college. It's where I honed my skills in writing and science.

I visited PHS last 11 August and what I saw touched and inspired me. What's really interesting is how the current principal revived the ailing school from a state of disrepair. If you have time, kindly read on.

When I was studying in PHS, the school was in a bad state of disrepair for lack of funds. We had old, rusty lab equipment and the grounds were always underwater on rainy season. We never used the foul toilets ( I once tried to get in and kept gagging at the smell and sight).

I remember dubbing our canteen the "Floating Cusina" because it was forever submerged in water. We had to carefully step on benches to reach it. We lacked classrooms and had to attend classes under mango trees, literally. Imagine that picture and then imagine things getting worst.

When Pinatubo exploded, it caused great floods in our whole town of San Fernando. Since our HS was on low ground, the flood never really left the school. Buildings decayed. Some were unusable. One time, the floor caved in -- while a class was going on!

The current principal, Mrs. Imelda Macaspac, took over with this huge problem. She was my batchmate and I am thankful she took over. She tapped the alumni association, who responded by donating funds to rebuild the school.

They started by filling the grounds with sand, to stop the floods. Then she got funds to rebuild the buildings. She demolished the old unusable toilets and asked some contractors to invest in two pay toilets. The agreement: contractors can operate the pay toilets for 15 years, after which they would turn over the toilets to the school.

She rebuilt the old unused canteen and built another canteen in the school grounds, operated by the cooperative. The school gets 20% of the profits, half of which goes to a feeding program for undernourished students. She also started a reading clinic for freshmen who (mysteriously) passed grade 6 but could not read (as in reading compre is zero!) and she noted the schools from which these students came from and notified DepEd about it.

She was able to get internet connection and set up a computer laboratory with classes on computer repair and programming. This way, she can accept donations of faulty computers and laptops which go to the computer repair class. Broken armchairs can be repaired by the welding class, and she got a tie-up with a welding company to hire students from the welding shop.

She also set up caregiver, cosmetology and spa courses under the same principle that she set up the welding and computer courses -- most of the students will not have a chance to get to college, so might as well let them learn a trade here.

I will be posting old and new photos later.

PHS needs donations in terms of books, computers, arm chairs and cash. They also welcome volunteer services, and I have volunteered to give them leadership workshops (for teachers and student leaders) and workshops on layouting for the school organ. It would also help if we can get them featured in a show or a newspaper writeup (especially since it will be celebrating it's 100th year soon). If you are interested to help, please email me through rubencanlas(at)gmail(dot)com.

Aug 10, 2007

Knowledge and Ideas from Abroad

It always helps to get ideas from other countries. I used to scorn politicos who justified their foreign trips by saying that it "broadened the mind." Probably because most of them came back and continued being bad politicians.

My first trip abroad was in Hong Kong and I marveled at their train system, the lack of security guards checking bags in malls and office buildings, and the cleanliness of the streets and buildings. You could register a business in a few hours and open a bank account with only a passport. I was elated: despite the fact that many of them were rude, their system worked.

"Hong Kong is actually dirty," said one of the locals I was visiting. "You should see Britain." That comment opened my mind. I already liked what I saw in Hong Kong and this was still not enough for someone who has seen Britain?

From HK, more trips opened for me. I visited --

  • Australia, where the airport quarantine was really serious on protecting from foreign pests and disease and I could visit mountains and beaches just by riding a train;

  • Bangkok, where travel was smooth and peaceful because their roads were mostly free of potholes and the Thai did not honk their horns even in the worst of traffic; and

  • Europe, where they had lots of parks and greenery and (in some cases) their politicians traveled like the rest of us. In Italy, their old villages were travel destinations and they were proud of their village cuisine. In London and Paris, they have preserved their old buildings and structures and you can't help but wonder how inspiring it would be to work in these cities.

In all these countries, they had good mass transit (even Bangkok's Sky Train and Metro beats our 3 train systems) and travel-friendly signs and maps. In Bangkok, although most of their signs are in Thai, their airport and Sky Train have English maps.

PS: There are more than 565,000 registered OFWs abroad (and that does not include the undocumented ones), according to a 2006 DOLE report. If we include the undocumented ones and those who have migrated, along with their families, there must be more than 1 million Filipinos abroad. Imagine if we formed a forum or a think tank where even just a tiny percentage of these Filipinos took a few minutes to write down their ideas?

I am going to label this as "What Works Abroad". Future posts on this thread will be labeled similarly.