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    Fixing the T: Anticipate problems, then practice responses

    A commuter train was used as a plow to clear the tracks on the Rockport line last month in Gloucester.
    John Blanding/Globe staff/file
    A commuter train was used as a plow to clear the tracks on the Rockport line last month in Gloucester.
    Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
    Steven Spear is a senior lecturer at MIT in the Sloan School of Management and the Engineering Systems Division. He is author of “The High Velocity Edge,’’ 2010.

    The MBTA was walloped by January’s and February’s snow, and capital, technological, and urban planning ideas are being floated to prevent future disruptions.

    For instance, the Commonwealth acquired two snow melters capable of processing 100 tons per hour to clear tracks and streets. There will certainly be calls for fleet modernization and maintenance, given the blame assigned to older equipment. Longer term planning has a role in ensuring the right type of vehicles are purchased and available to meet commuter needs.

    While helpful, and even necessary, these actions won’t be sufficient. Necessary, too, is developing a high-speed problem- solving capability characteristic of the world’s most resilient organizations.

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    It is not just the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority that manages complex operations in complex and challenging environments. Airlines, shipping and trucking companies, manufacturers, hospitality providers, and military units all have their own versions of complex systems in complex settings. Some, however, are far better able to weather the storms that they face, demonstrating a consistency and adaptability in delivering value at speeds their counterparts can’t match.

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    Several factors allow exceptional performance:

     Regularly seeing and solving low-level difficulties before they can contribute to large-scale disruption;

     Stress-testing the system (in mock-ups and controlled simulation) to find potential failure modes when subjected to high levels of pressure;

     Practicing crisis recovery so large-scale, high-speed recovery skills don’t have to be simultaneously developed and deployed on the fly.

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    In terms of the MBTA, high-speed problem seeking and solving means train and bus crews, mechanics, engineers, and the like should all start each day with a clear definition of what an ideal experience will be — safe, on time, clean, and so forth. It also means developing an eye to detect even micro aberrations from that ideal and investigating the root cause of disruptions, so countermeasures can be developed and their recurrence prevented.

    This approach of seeking and solving problems that arise in the course of even “normal’’ operations is a part of the reason some airlines are more successful than others in terms of gate turnaround times, luggage handling, lower costs, and more affordable fares, all leading to greater customer satisfaction and profitability.

    Stress-testing the MBTA means creating simulations, mock-ups, and other virtualization — power failure, equipment breakdown, large-scale events, outlier-level ridership, inclement weather conditions — to see where the system will crack when challenges are thrown at it. In training crews, for instance, the Navy regularly throws a variety of challenging environmental conditions to see at which point vessels might fail or the skills and training of sailors would be strained too far.

    This gives insights well beyond those gained from normal operating difficulties as to where investment has to be made in people and equipment.

    Stress-testing reveals conditions that may require longer term fixes as well as potential crises that require immediate mitigation. In the case of the MBTA, running a power failure scenario not only sheds light on infrastructure that must be more robust, it also creates opportunities to practice constructing alternative approaches for responding to crises. Those responses might include diversion of workforce and physical assets, adjustments to schedules and availability, and changes in communication and information approaches.

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    Colleagues at NASA explain that when preparing for a mission, leadership will run mock-ups of system failures — from just a few to dozens — while giving the team limited time to respond, only with resources available in the moment. Building skills in these contrived situations means that actual flights present fewer and less severe complications, which can be dealt with as if routine.

    Stress-testing the MBTA means creating simulations, mock-ups, and other virtualization to see where the system will crack.

    Long and short, the Legislature will be debating budgetary actions to prevent future system collapses. That said, the executive branch will not only have to spend that money wisely but also have to develop these dynamic capabilities to assure that it is put to the best and most effective use.

    Steven Spear is a senior lecturer at MIT in the Sloan School of Management and the Engineering Systems Division. He is author of “The High Velocity Edge,’’ 2010.