Two on Tuesday – Systems Failure

Two on Tuesday is a new feature where I find a couple examples of a phenomenon or issue that I find interesting, and try to learn something useful from them.

I recently ran into two examples of systems failure, both of which offer useful lessons in organizational function.

Example #1 – New Orleans. A community program to identify and report blighted houses gets canceled. Why? Because they never connected the web-based reporting system to the team which investigated. It would have been very simple to synchronize blight investigations with the complaints logged on the web, but it simply never happened. My guess is that the web site was designed by an IT department who had little or no contact with the people who actually did investigations.

Lesson learned: Don’t create a communications interface if you have no way of using the information you get from it.

Example #2 – the FAA. Safety investigator Mark Lund discovered that Northwest airlines mechanics were so incompetent they couldn’t close a cabin door or test an engine. When he tries to ground the planes, the FAA retaliates against him, not the airline. Why? Because the FAA was invested in its role as an agency that keeps American aviation flying, more its role as safety watchdog.

Lesson learned: You can’t be all things to all people. Give your investigators the independence they need to do their jobs right.

I spend a lot of time thinking about systems, and setting them up for success. Nearly as much as time as I spend thinking about behavior change. It’s easy to blame individual people when things go wrong, but we should design important process to help people make the right choices, and to catch errors. No system should ever depend on everybody doing their job right, because human beings just aren’t consistent enough.