Taking Off

British Columbia’s Coast Mountain Bus Company is picking up speed under president and general manager Haydn Acheson. Here, he shares how his experience in the airline industry has prepared him for the public organization’s next trip towards increased efficiency.

“Employees are more engaged and have a better understanding of how to work together to create a culture of continuous improvement.” — Haydn Acheson, President & General Manager (Photo by Charlotte Boychuck.)

I have an airline background, and I’m a pilot. Although I’m new to the bus industry, they are similar businesses. Both have fleet, maintenance schedules, service scheduling, crews, and customers. Making the transition was easy, when you consider how the two industries are structured around operations, maintenance, and safety.

One of my first initiatives was to learn more about the company and our employees. I spent four months going out to depots and garages and talking to employees and holding coffee sessions—I continue to do that to this day. We have 11 different locations spread throughout the Lower Mainland. I met with managers and frontline employees such as bus operators and mechanics. It wasn’t just to introduce myself but to ask them, from their perspective, what works well, what they would do first if they were in my position, what they would improve, and generally what they thought of the place. From there, I summarized trends from the feedback. It was interesting to hear the commonalities. You go out and listen to what the people who do the job every day have to say because they are the ones who know.

I was with the company for approximately six months when outside agencies, including the provincial government, conducted audits to look at how the TransLink enterprise was doing in terms of efficiencies and providing value for taxpayer funding. The audits focused on the bus company and about 80 percent of the recommendations on inefficiencies were CMBC [Coast Mountain Bus Company] related. The senior leadership team, executives and directors, held an all-day planning session and developed a list of initiatives to address the audit recommendations. Earlier we had assigned an internal resource to do best-practices reviews on 12 different areas in the company to set benchmarks for improvements.

The results of the best-practices reviews and other efficiency initiatives enabled the company to reduce the annual operating budget by over $10 million a year. I’m very proud of this accomplishment. We’re still delivering the same number of kilometres as before, and we haven’t cut back our service levels. Our high customer-satisfaction ratings have been maintained throughout these changes.

Outside the Office

President and general manager Haydn Acheson enjoys the outdoors and spends time boating and fishing. He frequently does both with his family at their vacation home on Pender Island, BC.

The savings were the result of becoming more efficient. One area we looked at was the number of employees in different areas relative to the service levels. Staffing levels in a number of areas were reduced. Another example was reviewing our bus fleet spare ratios, the number of extra buses necessary to maintain service and avoid cancellations in the event of breakdowns. We reduced the bus spare ratios on our regular fleet from 24 percent down to 17.8 percent on average. A new bus costs between $400,000 and $1.1 million, and portions of the fleet are replaced each year based on age, so you can imagine the savings from cutting back bus purchases.

We have changed the company’s culture. CMBC used to be a top-down organization and now has established a senior leadership management team. Employees are more engaged and have a better understanding of how to work together to create a culture of continuous improvement. We’ve increased services for our customers without having to increase our employee numbers, because we are working more efficiently. Cross-functional working groups are created each year to focus on specific corporate business-plan priorities.

Once you have implemented efficiencies, the greatest challenge is to maintain what you have achieved. This requires a discipline of monitoring and having the proper checks and balances in place. For 2015, one of the major impacts for us will be the outcome of a transit referendum in the Lower Mainland. Stakeholders and taxpayers will vote on whether we’re going to have growth in transit and how that model is going to be funded. For us at the bus company, we need to be ready to react regardless of the outcome. For bus-service growth, we’ll need to show how we can meet expectations, and for status quo, we’ll need to continue delivering our existing service as efficiently as possible.