Lessons from the Underground

It was on a warm Thursday morning two years ago that three bombs tore through the London Underground, killing dozens of passengers and injuring hundreds more. Less than an hour later a fourth bomber destroyed a bus, killing more people. It was the worst attack on London since World War II - yet the majority of the Underground was up and running again by dawn the next day.

by Knowledge@Wharton
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Tim O'Toole, the Underground's managing director and chief executive, attributes the remarkable turnaround to having a well-trained, motivated and highly responsible workforce. "Not only at the sites of the bombs did employees step right in, but across the entire network," O'Toole told recently told the annual Wharton Leadership Conference.

"We evacuated 250,000 people out of our tunnels and trains during rush hour and not a single person was injured. That doesn't happen because of management intervention. That happens because people in the field are in control and understand what needs to be done. The thing that makes 14,000 people behave in that way is training and competence."

O'Toole arrived at the London Underground in 2003. Since then, he has created a management regime based on the principle that employees should not only know their jobs well but believe in their own abilities. He explained to the conference that his first challenge was to create a 'can-do' spirit among a dispirited and pessimistic workforce. "It all starts with competence," he said. "Too often, consultants and others who try to predict whether an organisation will succeed focus on organisational structure and measures. Those are of secondary importance."

What matters most, O'Toole said, is getting work done, and - if you're in a service business - doing it cheerfully. "We not only drill, drill, drill and train, train, train to make sure that our employees have competence, but we have to make sure that they understand that they have it," he said.

The Underground encourages employees to seek national vocational qualifications, known as NVQs, in their fields. "London Underground has more holders of NVQs than any other company in the country, and that's because we pushed it. We want our people to understand that they know things that other people don't know."

Once employees have competence and confidence, an organisation has to add the final ingredient, a sense of mission. "You have to get people to care," O'Toole said. He explained that this was harder to do in the Underground than in, say, Microsoft or the US Marine Corps, because he didn't have the option to throw cash bonuses or stock options at his employees. And because of the strength of the unions that serve Underground staff, neither could he berate or bully his staff into shape. Instead, he had to inspire and energise them.

"We brought forth a vision, 'A World-Class Tube for a World-Class City'," he said. "At first, it rang hollow for most people because they looked at the system and wondered, 'Could this ever be world-class compared with the modern systems of the Far East, like Shanghai's?' We couldn't oversell it. So we turned the story in terms of their history. We have a heritage that no one else can touch."

Source: Knowledge@Wharton
Review by: Nick Loney

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