Operator Johnson

Last week I took a road trip by Greyhound bus. Since I'd also taken various other transport trips in the last month (2 different airlines to get me to Shanghai, Amtrak to New York, subways in DC, and Shanghai, buses in DC) the Greyhound experience was just another travel experience to enjoy or endure.

This Greyhound one started off with booking my ticket on-line. That was straightforward enough. Fortunately the day before I read the small print in the acknowledgement email and saw that seats were allocated on a 'first come' basis and if the bus got filled before you got on then you had to wait for the next one. I was traveling on the busiest travel day of the US travel year.

I got the bus to the Greyhound depot arriving 2 hours ahead of departure time. There were a lot of people there, and a very long line a) because the two machines for pre-booked tickets were not operational, b) because there were only two staff members dealing with non NY tickets (out of 8 available desks), and one dealing with solely NY tickets (short line). I stood in the long line as I wasn't going to NY and I couldn't get my pre-booked ticket from the machine.

Then I saw that there was a subsidiary notice above the NY ticket seller's head that said 'on-line pick up'. I decided to change line, knowing at that point I was dependent on the good will of the agent who might have refused to give me an on-line bought ticket that wasn't for NY. Fortunately she didn't she just wanted my confirmation number which I'd written down to hand to her. That wasn't what she wanted. She wanted me to read it out to her. OK.

Since I was now speaking with an agent I asked to change my ticket to an earlier return. That was not what this agent was going to do. Oh well.

Gate 8, 10:00 departure – well over 55 people in the line for the 55 person bus but by some fluke I was about 54 in the line. Getting on, I had the choice of sitting beside an extra large person or a truly enormous person in either case my seat space was diminished.

Operator Johnson (the driver) began her instructions. 'I want all cell phone on vibrate. I do not want to hear a cell phone ring. If I hear a cell phone ring there will be an accident. If I hear you speaking to a person on your phone in a voice louder than quiet there will be an accident. I cannot be distracted from driving. Do I make myself clear?'

What I enjoyed a lot was the refrain from the 54 passengers 'We hear you Operator Johnson' with loud laughter all around. (I didn't know I had to respond!)

Next instruction. 'Anyone with a soda can or plastic bottle must not let it drop to the floor. It will roll around. It will get under my accelerator pedal. There will be an accident. I cannot have drinks containers on the floor. Do I make myself clear?' Refrain 'We hear you Operator Johnson'. (55 passengers).

Next announcement with the bus now having left the depot. 'Since this bus is full it will be an express. No one can get off before Charlottesville. There will be no stops. I repeat this bus is an express. Do I make myself clear?' Refrain 'We hear you Operator Johnson'. I don't know if there were any people who wanted to get off at one of the normally scheduled stops before Charlottesville but if there were they weren't prepared to speak up. Operator Johnson was fierce and funny!

We got to Charlottesville and were instructed that this bus was terminating there. "The next bus is at 1:30. Do not wander out. If you wander out the bus will leave without you. There is no other bus today. Repeat the next bus is 1:30. Do I make myself clear?" Refrain: "We hear you Operator Johnson". The next bus finally arrived at 3:00 p.m. with no apology or explanation. People started to ask each other – maybe this is how rumors get started people supplying missing information? Finally, I did locate an agent to ask who said the bus would arrive 'soon'.

Settled on the next bus – the operator did not announce himself nor make any other announcements. I did wonder about the different customer experiences. Seat belts, for example, these are not even fitted to Greyhound buses let alone required to be worn (as in the UK). Operator consistency in announcing – is this needed? UK coaches like Greyhounds have a safety announcement, and then a certain amount of driver discretion on other commentary.

Does the non-working automated ticket pick up system indicate a lack of maintenance – does this extend to the buses? What does lack of schedule information mean? It could be chaos behind the scenes, inadequate tracking systems, lack of forecast of demand … What does inadequate staffing on the busiest travel day of the year mean? Possibly staff staying off suddenly sick to cook turkey, or inadequate rostering arrangements, or lack of forecasting of demand, or inflexible terms and conditions preventing additional staff being called on. What do surly , or unavailable, counter agents mean for the company?

However, it was certainly fun to have Operator Johnson in charge. Can one person change the impression of a company? One felt confident in someone so determined not to allow any distractions that might result in an accident. But what is the accident rate? Checking the Greyhound accident statistics was interesting. In the 24 months prior to 11/24/2010 they'd had 143 crashes and their safety rating was 'satisfactory'. (They record 2,735 drivers). Detailed accident data was not available for reasons given on the SafeStat online website

So here's a short case study I might present in my next organization design training program. A start point for assessing an organization – by observation, experience, data search, and seeking answers to a lot of open questions.