Thursday, 22 September 2011

Why Getting it Right so often Goes Wrong

It may disturb you to learn this, but almost nothing ever gets done properly.
Take the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan for example. I read a report today that told me what I suspected almost from the moment it happened. In their report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Johannis Nöggerath, Robert J. Geller and Viacheslav K. Gusiakov said:
"The tsunami countermeasures taken when Fukushima Daiichi was designed in the 1960s were, arguably, marginally acceptable considering the scientific data then available. But, between the 1970s and the 2011 disaster, new scientific knowledge emerged about the likelihood of a large earthquake and resulting tsunami; however, this was ignored by both the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and government regulators. The regulatory authorities failed to properly review the tsunami countermeasures in accordance with IAEA guidelines and continued to allow the Fukushima plant to operate without sufficient countermeasures, despite having received clear warnings from at least one member of a government advisory committee..."
As an engineer this comes as no surprise. Almost everywhere I've ever worked makes the mistake of failing to consult the people at the sharp end, the ones who really know what the job entails and what it will take to do it right. Engineers know how to design things that won't go wrong, doctors know how to treat patients and sales assistants know how to keep customers happy but most of the time they don't get a say in how their organisation is structured and how their jobs are done. Instead these decisions are taken by managers, finance boards and steering committes that have no idea what really goes on at the shop floor. This causes a number of issues such as poor staff morale, inefficiency and wasted resources but the real problem is more subtle. And more worrying.
Let's suppose you're hiring a photographer for a family event. You'd explain to them exactly what you want them to achieve, and then you'd ask them what they would need to deliver that - what the cost would be, how much time they will need at the venue and what approach they recommend. A project like that has a good chance of success - you started off on the right foot by asking a professional to do a professional job and giving them the resources they need to achieve a professional result.
Unfortunately, though, most projects are anything but. What usually happens is that you tell the photographer they can only have half the money, must be in and out in fifteen minutes and you've already decided the shooting order - take it or leave it. Well, business is business so many photographers would just shrug and take the job anyway. They know the customer is not going to get a great result, they know corners will be cut and risks might be taken, but after all they are working within the constraints imposed on them so they will do the best they can under the circumstances, take your money and leave the consequences with you. And anyway, what's the problem? Less-than-perfect photographs wouldn't be the end of the world.
True - but a nuclear power plant like that just might be.
So often in today's world the driving principles are politics, vested interests and short-sighted economics instead of the quality of the outcome, and the result is Fukushima - a sub-standard bodge job that was never really fit for purpose and which almost blew up in everyone's face.
The same underlying mistake is repeated everywhere, over and over again, both throughout our public services and in many private companies. Decision-makers lose sight of the fact that without the product, their organisation would not exist. The product - be that a nuclear reactor, a satisfied customer or a healed patient - is everything. And their organisation is filled with people who have dedicated their working lives to providing that product in the best way possible but who rarely get listened to. Instead of making decisions for excellence they make them for expedience, and instead of creating products to meet a specification they make them fit a budget. And worst of all, they so often ignore the sage advice of Proverbs 11:14 - "In the multitude of counsellors there is safety".

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