Close article 27th October 2015

The Unusual Suspects: Janice Lao, MTR Corporation

MTR is one of the world’s leading rail operators transporting over 5.4 million passengers every weekday. Its primary business is the construction and operation of mass transit railway systems in Hong Kong. 

Its most recent sustainability report, Life of the City, takes a journey through a day in Hong Kong and uses the stories of its employees and customers as a lens to understand why its material issues matter and how the company impacts society. Zoë Arden recently spoke with Janice Lao, who leads the sustainability team at MTR, to discuss the companies approach to sustainability.


ZA: How would you describe MTR’s ambition?

JL: Our vision is to be a leading multinational company that connects and grows communities with caring service. At MTR, we are very clear about what our purpose is and hence, everything else emanates from that. As is written in the CEO’s letter in our sustainability report – “In the 35 years since our first rail line opened, we have grown alongside the city and the people we serve. They have motivated us to build and deliver this world-class service.” If you live in London, you expect that when we run Crossrail, when you say MTR there is already an idea or an expectation of what that is going to be like.

MTR is in a good place in terms of its sustainability vision because it is really part of our business. Our purpose is to connect local communities and services – that is a sustainable business model. Everybody within the business knows that.


How does MTR think about sustainability goals?

Our goals have to be linked to the business, we don’t believe in ‘adding on’ a separate strategy. You can’t be a truly sustainable business if you’re only working on the periphery.

When we started revamping our sustainability report, we decided to take a step back, and asked, ‘What has MTR already been doing that is great? Let’s celebrate that.’ There were a lot of stories to tell. So we have focused on telling the stories that not a lot of people have heard of in our report and inspiring people at MTR that we are already on the right path to be able to push ourselves even further in the next few years.


Why aren’t more of MTR’s goals made public?

We do talk about our material goals such as on safety, energy use and customer service. For us, sustainability is part of the business and isn’t an add-on. So doing something completely separate from the actual business and operational targets of the company just wasn’t ‘us’.

We also spent time telling our sustainability story internally. What we wanted to tell our colleagues and our stakeholders is that MTR has already been doing this for a long time – probably just called something else. So the feedback we are getting is that this is a new way of looking at something we’ve always been doing.


What about the importance of getting ahead of customers – things that they might not realise they need especially in terms of being more sustainable, any thoughts on that?

Part of responding effectively to our stakeholders is not stepping too far away from where they would like to see us. But what we have done as well is not just actually listen, but observe behaviour and trends and say, ‘What does the future for rail hold?’ We are trying to be aware of what the future issues are or being aware of what we call ‘weak signals’ now and trying to embed that within our operations. So it is not just listening to people, but actually being astute to trends and our stakeholders.


And what would a weak signal look like for you?

A friend of mine introduced this concept to me, telling me about this story of how the GPS was invented, basically, by identifying a gap in the market. They saw drivers navigating on old-school maps and found it inconvenient and not helpful – that was the ‘weak signal’. My friend advised me to observe how people behave and anticipate what is lacking or what opportunity can be magnified – that’s often the ‘aha’ moment.


Can you give an example?

For years MTR has been implementing barrier free access in stations, and initially one would think it would be because of the general increase in elderly population. While it is true in some respects, the accessibility also enables different types of users of MTR – from the disabled to people with prams – to use our services much more easily.


In your latest report ‘Life of the City’ you have publicly shared your thinking on the company’s value chain. What brought this on?

Can I say your Engaging Stakeholder’s Workshop in Wolfsburg? So on a cold day in December I was introduced to this idea about value chains and I knew I wanted to do something like that. I had been thinking: if we are going to embed this in the business, we need to look back at all the inputs that go into making our outputs – the services that we provide. I knew about the value chain through Michael Porter but I wasn’t quite sure how you could implement it. The workshop got me thinking. Next year we might actually change the practical value chain back to supply chain and take that value chain discussion at the very beginning of the report. And so people can navigate based on that. People will see sustainability is really being embedded into the company.


What was most dificult about mapping the value chain?

When I first had a go at mapping the value chain, I realised that there is no way one team can do it. So one thing I learned is the need for collaboration. It’s also a learning experience because I had no idea how much more you can actually see the opportunities as you are mapping the value chain. Often in this work we are told that of our negative impacts, and so we try to do “less bad”; but I found value chain mapping as an opportunity to do more good; to amplify opportunities.


Originally posted on Radar, Issue 8

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