SMRT bids to empower staff to take ownership of work through Japanese kaizen method

Trains and equipment being serviced and maintained by staff at SMRT's Tuas Depot using kaizen principles to improve work flow.
Trains and equipment being serviced and maintained by staff at SMRT's Tuas Depot using kaizen principles to improve work flow. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Just days after announcing better starting salaries for employees, rail operator SMRT on Tuesday (Feb 27) said it also wants to give staff greater ownership to make improvements in their own work.

The firm said that a month ago, it introduced the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, at the Tuas depot and City Hall MRT station, with plans to scale up the use of the business model.

Kaizen, practised by companies such as carmaker Toyota, empowers staff to suggest and make small improvements in their own areas of work, thus resulting in larger gains in a firm's efficiency and productivity.

SMRT's chief corporate officer Gerard Koh told reporters: "This, in turn, will improve work quality and directly impacts the reliability of our trains... It makes staff feel accountable and helps in the ownership of the work they do."

At the Tuas depot in Tuas West, for example, a wash station used to clean train wheel components has been relocated, to minimise the need for staff to carry parts around, improving safety and efficiency.

With the change, Mr Aqeel Kaskhy, a team leader from the wheelset unit at Rolling Stock Workshop, said the unit's 13 workers each shave about 20 minutes off the time spent every day transporting wheel components to and from the wash station.

This amounts to 260 minutes, or more than four hours, saved every day.

Mr Koh said it takes depot staff six days to remove and clean a train's components, and, if efficiently done, this can be reduced to between five and five-and-a-half days.


Following staff feedback, SMRT also plans to relocate the queue line for the passenger service centre at City Hall MRT station, so it does not block the flow of commuters walking through fare gates. This will be done in the next few months, Mr Koh said.

When asked if the introduction of kaizen could help tackle the "deep-seated cultural issues" in a small proportion of SMRT's workforce - a matter raised by chief executive Desmond Kuek last year as one of the reasons for SMRT's reliability problems - Mr Koh said this was not the case.

"I won't say it's addressing a cultural problem... The staff do give feedback that they are quite proud of their work. They know the impact of what they do on reliability and commuters," he said.

Last October, the MRT tunnel between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations flooded, shutting down a large segment of the North-South Line for 14½ hours, affecting 231,000 commuters. Investigations found lapses in the maintenance of flood prevention systems, with work records being falsified by staff.

Last Saturday, SMRT announced it was raising starting salaries, by more than 10 per cent in some cases, and will offer five-year re-employment contracts to attract and retain staff.

The company also said it plans to add 2,500 more employees to its 11,000-strong workforce over the next three to five years.