Saturday, February 15, 2014

Simple Systems, Real World Example

The New York City Housing Authority owns approximately 165,000 housing units.  The rent is controlled/subsidized to the degree that working class folks can afford them.  Normal rents in the tony parts of the city might run $2000/month which is way more than a working stiff with a family can benchpress.  Rent for these apartments run $400-to-$600 per month.

The waiting list to get into these apartments is huge.  There are over 165,000 applicants on the waiting list.  Turnover is low because these apartments are the best game in town.

A New Mayor

Some time in the past, a mayoral candidate upset the favorite.  He was able to tap into the public anger over the corruption and incompetence of the previous administration.  NYCHA was the lightening rod.  EVERYBODY had heartburn over their bungling.

The first day

The first day in office the new mayor directed the head of the NYCHA to attend a meeting with him.

The director decided a good offense is the best defense.  Walking into the office, the director slapped a 2" thick book down on the mayor's desk.

"What is that?" asked the mayor.

"Everything you need to know is in that report.  That is the report I give the mayor.  The report gets updated every week and it will be on your desk, first thing Monday morning." the director said.

The mayor picked up the report and dropped it into the trash.  He look at the director and said, "I only need three numbers from you: 
  1. The number of tenants who are more than 60 days in arrears with their rent that you have not filed (eviction proceedings) on.
  2. The number of units that have been vacant for more than five days.
  3. The number of times any elevator has been out of service for more than four hours."
"I want that information, and only that information, delivered by you personally at 8:00am on Monday.  Every Monday."

"You may leave.  I suspect you have a lot of work to do."

The campaign trail

While on the campaign trail the new mayor heard from countless voters about the stress they were enduring due to housing issues.  Often, a young family (or two!) would move in with "Grandma".  The combination of small apartments, too many people and a culture that is not preconditioned for multigenerational cohabitation resulted in an emotional pressure cooker.

The candidate also heard that every building seemed to have some tenants who did not pay their rent.  Ever.  They were years in arrears.  These tenants bragged about their cousin on the NYCHA or the soft-hearted case worker they smoozed or how cleverly they worked the system.  The young families who were cohabitating with Grandma would gladly give body parts and cheerfully pay the rent....if they could just get into that apartment.

Sidebar:  Many compassionate people get sucked into these sob-stories.  They see the person sitting across the desk or hear the person on the other end of the phone.  They lose awareness of the larger context. The apartment will not cease to exist if you throw the bums out!    Some other, more deserving family will get the use of that apartment. Those bums are predators who are victimizing those who are trying to work within the system.  Ultimately, the victims will no longer respect the system and the rules.  They will not be able to afford to.

The second biggest hot button was that each building had many vacant apartments.  People died, retired to Florida or had to move out of the city for professional reasons.  Those apartments would sit for months waiting for the NYCHA to assess them and let bids for carpet replacement, drywall/paint , appliance replacement.

The third hot button was when the 74 year old women with emphysema had to carry her groceries up 15 flights of stairs because the elevator was on the fritz.

Who is the customer?

My guess is that the director was a wily and cunning administrator.  He probably had a practiced patter to rationalize his department's non-performance.  Most of those excuses were ones he heard from his underlings.  He repackaged them and fed them up-the-line.
  • I don't have budget for that
  • Labor agreements restrict me from doing that
  • I have guidelines that mandate a bid process and lowest-cost-bidder or EEO preferenced bidder.
  • I don't have the parts
  • Repair jobs often take more than four hours
Anybody who has lived in the real world can easily add to that list.

Setting the tone

The mayor's three questions "set the tone."  It sent the message that "The tenants are the NYCHA's primary customer, not the NYC Mayor." 

It changed the focus away from generating a slick report that obscured dismal performance in the field.  It shifted the focus to "Meet the needs of the paying tenants."

The two NYCHA maintenance guys driving around in the van never saw the two inch thick report. They would not have read it if it was given to them.  Even if it had been spoon fed to them in a 40 hour class they would not be able to manage their job on an hour-by-hour based on the information contained in that report.

The mayor's three questions had tangible performance criterion:  60 days, 5 days and 4 hours. The NYCHA feet on the street could work to those targets.  They were able to change the way they did their jobs based on a desire to perform well to those measurements.

It changed the culture from "manufacturing excuses" to "making happy clients".

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