Commentary: Does Changing SMRT CEO Help to Reduce Breakdowns? Very Possible.


Over the last few days, people have been talking about SMRT’s soon-to-be leadership renewal: some people weren’t happy that yet another military general has been put into the role, and questioned the integrity of the decision.

I think they have every reason to.

While, according to SMRT, there has been improvements since there were technically less breakdowns based on the Mean Kilometres Between Failures (i.e. how long a train travel before it broke down), almost everyone I’ve spoken to, except SAF generals whom I didn’t know of any, claims that the breakdowns are more frequent.

So frequent, no one bats an eye when there’s a breakdown.

Two days back, it’s revealed that the current CEO would be stepping down, making way for Mr Neo Kian Hong after a few months of global search. It’s alleged that since the tunnel-flooding incident last October (read yesterday’s News of the Day), current CEO Desmond Kuek has already offered to resign.

Not sure if it’s a case of hara-kiri, a position for a good optic or simple “I give up!”, but the fact of the matter is that these crises are actually something to leverage on.

Since the tunnel-flooding incident, SMRT revealed that the problem lies not in the infrastructure, lack of funds or whatnot, but in “deep-seated cultural issues within the company”.

They then said they needed more time to root out.


If you take away the fancy words and replace them with Goody Feed’s primary school English, it simply means this: habits.

We all know it’s hard to change our personal habits, so it’s no surprise that habits within a company is even harder to change.

In Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, The Power of Habit, the author spoke of how leaders can change the habits of a company effectively—it’s an uphill task but it’s do-able. But this article isn’t about that; it’s about how habits can be changed even faster when a crisis occurs.

The book cited two examples, and one of which is related to trains. Back in 1987, a fire broke out in King’s Cross St Pancras tube station; it turned out that the fire could have been prevented, or at least it shouldn’t have got so serious.

The staff were blamed for the fire as they were complacent—in fact, because of the “oh, this not my job” mindset, the fire killed 31 people.

Soon after, the station and its operations were improved drastically.

You see, the book suggests (and quite rightfully so with even more examples) that when an organization is faced with a crisis, it is often the best opportunity for the leader to leverage on that crisis to remove the company’s toxic habits.

In fact, certain good leaders even created a perception of a crisis to change a company’s habits, because mere words or a pep talk can’t achieve that goal.

Imagine you’re working in a company and everyone around you just comes to the office, lepak for seven hours and goes home every day. They’ll will pretend to be busy when the boss is around.

That’s the company’s culture and it’s hard to change: asking everyone to at least work for an hour is like asking them to drink cockroach milk.

But if the boss comes in and tells everyone that business is bad, and that unless they work harder, a pay cut or even retrenchment is expected, everyone would suddenly be the most hardworking people in the world.

Maybe business hasn’t been bad: it’s the perception of crisis that fix the “deep-seated cultural issues”.

But why hasn’t the situation improved with the many breakdowns in the last few years?

I don’t know. If I know, I’ll have been picked to be the next CEO.

But then again, a new CEO might just bring in the results needed, especially since we know there most likely would be crises ahead (good for fast change).

After all, the chief has the ability to change the habits of the company. It’s just a matter of whether that ability is being used or not.


Do come back tomorrow for more commentary!


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