Broken Toilets and Bullet Trains

Akio Shiibashi had wanted to design bullet trains in his native Japan. Instead, the railway he worked for sent him to repair toilets and light fixtures around a few of its stations in Tokyo. He spent weeks cursing his bad luck. He felt he was on the wrong career track and at times wondered what the mechanical engineering degree he'd earned 11 years earlier was worth.

Then he started to see the value of fixing flush toilets and light fixtures. Unlike his previous job with the railway, repairing trains, this one put him closer to customers, the passengers.

He worked hard at maintenance, saving the company money and improving service. After seven years, he was promoted to head of maintenance for all of the railway's 1,700 stations.

It was then he met Shigeo Miki, who had been working years in the laboratory to develop a contactless fare card, with the help of Sony Corp. Miki had tried unsuccessfully to get the railway to foot the massive bill for the project. He turned to Shiibashi to sell the idea to top managers.

Shiibashi convinced the railway to spend an extra 13 billon yen (US$107 million) on contactless using an appeal he'd learned fixing the flushing toilets and light fixtures: The company could save money while improving customer service. He showed the railway it could recover the extra money on lower maintenance costs by moving to contactless. And it would allow passengers to more swiftly flow through gates.

As this issue's cover story describes, Shiibashi went on to build the Suica contactless ticketing system for East Japan Railway, today considered the world's largest at 8 million transactions per day. Shiibashi, as director of the system, has rolled out 20 million cards, most of which can also be used at more than 18,500 shops and vending machines as e-money.

This, though noteworthy, would not qualify Shiibashi as a visionary. After all, by the time Suica launched in late 2001, contactless fare-collection was well-established in Hong Kong, Seoul and some other cities. Rather, Card Technology has named the 54-year-old mechanical engineer as its 2007 Visionary of the Year because he has consistently triggered change on an industrial scale, backing it up with a solid business case and a firm nod to customer service.

It was Shiibashi that pitched the idea to giant Japanese telco NTT DoCoMo in 2000 that has led to the rollout of nearly 30-million contactless wallet phones. Consumers can tap the phones to make retail purchases, earn reward points and use Suica. Next March, he'll allow them to buy tickets for Japan's Shinkansen, or bullet trains, over the network and tap to board.

Shiibashi will never design bullet trains, but he's also moved on from fixing toilets.