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don’t know what’s really going on, then every attempt to fix a problem will
only dig the hole deeper and steeper. That insight was reinforced as I watched a
flight attendant follow a simple rule, blindly without thought, while landing
is “Place your seats in an upright position for landing” and the fellow a
few seats in front of me, was having a bit of a problem complying with the rule.
His seat wouldn’t latch into the upright position and keep falling back those,
oh so comfortable, ten degrees. The flight attendant blindly followed the rules,
and moved him to the seat directly behind the broken one.
interesting solution, he was certainly now in an upright seat, but unfortunately
he’d been placed into the path of danger. The rule about upright seats is not
to protect the person in the seat, but to protect the person behind the inclined
seat from crashing into the headrest now ‘aimed’ at their head. By not
understanding the reason behind the rule of upright seats, the flight attendant
actually increased the severity of risk to the passenger.
I do anything about it. Informing anyone blindly following rules, especially
people with bureaucratic power, is just asking for trouble. It’s best to keep
your mouth shut and avoid becoming another example of so-called Air-Rage. A
basic rule of air travel these days? Never disagree, never mind argue, with
anyone in uniform while the plane is in motion.
perhaps too simple an example to demonstrate the importance of understanding how
things work, before trying to fix them when we perceive they are broken.
Consider the following anecdote:
moons ago there was a University with the following setup. A lecture hall, just
across the corridor from a computer room and tutor room. In the hall there were
several vending machines. Undergraduates would take their stacks of punched
cards (I told you that this was many moons ago), feed them into the hopper and
wait in line until the computer printout from their run would stutter out of the
then correct their errors, using the graduate students in the tutor room if they
got really stuck on a problem.
graduate students were kept reasonably busy throughout the night, but managed to
get some of their own work down in the momentary slowdowns of the queue.
was reasonable happy with this configuration, until a new professor began to use
the lecture hall. He could handle the noise from the crowd around the vending
machines and complained to the Dean. The Dean figured that the solution was easy
enough - get rid of the vending machines.
later she’s visited by the graduate tutors who are complaining about the
hugely increased workload and demanding that two more tutors are hired for every
going on? Why the increased workload? The computer courses are NOT handing out
more difficult assignments, and the student headcount has not increased.
vending machines created a gathering place, literally a watering hole, which
allowed the undergrads to talk about their assignments. Drinking coffee together
gave them time to share ideas and solve a certain percentage of their own
problems. Remove the coffee machine, and they all went straight from the printer
to the tutor. The result? A perceived problematic increase, in either the
difficulty of assignments, or student headcount.
the effect of reduced caffeine intake on undergraduate problem solving
capabilities might have had something to do with their demonstrated decrease in
problem solving ability.
far too many example of how not understanding how a system works, results in
larger problems when we try to fix or change things. We need only look to the
rabbit problem in
attempt to fix any problem, it’s imperative understand not only the perceived
problem, but how the system worked before we determined it was broken. To do
that we need to take a systems view of the world, otherwise… every time we
touch the web of interconnections we will awaken a sleeping spider, one much
worse than the one we tried to fix.
Peter de Jager is a speaker, writer & consultant. Contact him via [email protected]
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