So, who cleans up the streets of New York City? Behind this somewhat antiseptic public obligation, lies an interesting story. The Bureau of Motor Equipment (BME) of the New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS) is responsible for the maintenance and control of a fleet of 6,200 sanitation collection trucks, sweepers, salt spreaders, plows, trucks, and automobiles. This agency provides critical fleet maintenance services for the City throughout the year. Until recently, however, it was designated as one of the worst performing and poorly managed public agencies in New York City.
With the adoption of the Fleet Improvement R&D Network, the BME's performance has improved dramatically. This program is comprised of professionals (research and development staff, engineers, and management) working alongside front-line mechanics and tradesmen to improve the delivery, quality, and design of sanitation equipment. This new culture breeds a culture of dependability, innovation, and competence.
The program consists of several parallel processes, institutionalized within the organization, to link field and shop level activities with the organizational process. A system of worksite committees encourages line workers to discuss mechanical problems, share concerns, and brainstorm solutions. A formal program to solicit employee suggestions also enables tradesmen to put proposed ideas to test and receive recognition or monetary awards for solutions that work. Additionally, the BME's R&D group conducts periodic outreach to worksites through joint specification-writing reviews with designated line staff.
The most beneficial feature of the Fleet Improvement R&D Network, however, is that vehicle manufacturers have used BME staff feedback to redesign their equipment and improve product quality. This has led to a symbiotic, positive relationship between the public and private sectors. By insisting on sole-source contracts and late-delivery penalties, the BME has also ensured that vehicles come from reliable manufacturers and are delivered on time, leading to higher vehicle availability and lower engine failures. Ultimately, this results in lower costs and higher productivity.
The Fleet Improvement R&D Network is more focused on cultivating an open culture than developing a singular concept or a series of steps. It is about moving from an inflexible, bureaucratic government services agency to a relatively porous work environment where ideas are freely exchanged and lower-level employees are given a stake in the organization's decision making. By providing ownership to mechanics who work with sanitation equipment on a daily basis, the Network seeks to continually identify and eliminate pitfalls that would be difficult for upper management to detect. Though it mirrors a Total Quality Management (TQM) program, it neither borrows its rhetoric nor seeks to blindly follow the TQM methodology. In a highly unionized environment, the Fleet Improvement R&D Network has been able to improve working conditions and delegate authority across its large organization.
The program's powerful ideas can be replicated by sanitation support units in other cities, units responsible for maintaining equipment for other services (such as rail transit) and in general by government agencies seeking to improve public services. The Network has lasted over a decade and proven to be an internal success for DOS. However, its growth in other public agencies will depend both on support from upper management and the goodwill of employees.