Friday, June 24, 2016
America's Raw Story
10 th Post
Life is a crap shoot whether walking down the street, driving on the highway and across the bridge, flying overhead, depending on other organizations (besides those that build cars, trucks, bridges and planes), or just plain living. We take our chances no matter how selective and careful we may be.
But the chances get riskier when dealing with any of the more risky organizations or any of the card carrying corporate members of the Devil’s marriage, the unequal partnership between corporations and subservient government.
Trained as an organizational psychologist I still stay tuned to organizations and their people nearly six decades later. Recently, for instance, I was rereading a published book review of mine in which I criticized the book’s co-authors’ theory about how “highly reliable organizations” (HROs) should manage uncertainty in the face of hazardous operations and environment; and also their choice of organizations against which to “benchmark” their recommendations.
Since HROs presumably are less of a crap shoot I have decided to revisit their study and my review and write this essay. It overviews the nature of organizations, examines the organizations they benchmarked, reports on a cursory search for any real HROs, discusses other criteria besides reliability for judging organizational performance, and finally concludes with a commentary about organizational performance and life in general being a crap shoot at best and a hazard to humanity and the future at worst.
You might very well question why I write this essay at all, and having done so, why I chose this venue for it instead of some academic journal. The reasons are three-fold. Academic journals in my field tend to be unrealistic and esoteric. Not one of us can ever get away any day from one or more aspects of organized life. And there are times when we want a particular organization (e.g., a hospital; an airliner; etc.) to be highly reliable.
Organizations: A Sweeping but Fleeting Perspective
1. Origin. My guess is that the first collective efforts, resembling an informal organization, to achieve a common purpose appeared in the hunter-gatherer period of history. The precursor of organizations as we know them today probably arose during the industrial revolution, although some civilizations such as that of China had very defined civil organizations thousands of years ago. As a matter of fact, the Chinese probably invented the familiar bureaucratic form of administrative organization.
2. Kinds. You name them. They in all their variety are everywhere pursuing purposes that define the kinds of organizations they are.
3. Size. Small to humongous. The world’s most humongous? My guess is the U.S. government by a long shot.
4. Shape. From flat to tall. The world’s tallest? My pick again is the US government. Years ago I counted the number of bureaucratic levels between the entry level claims representative for the Social Security Administration and the President of the US when SSA was still part of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare---37 levels. Now that’s a mountainous pecking order with the biggest pecker at the top.
5. Performance. This is where the rubber meets the road. If an organization doesn’t perform there is no real point in its existing. At the same time, many organizations should not exist because their performance is irresponsible, even disastrously so.
There is a saying in my field that “people make the place.” That’s only partly true because the reverse is also true; namely, that the place makes the people. Another way of putting it is that an organization’s actions and the consequences of those actions are caused by both the organization’s people and the organization’s place; i.e., the organization itself along with the circumstances and situations that the organization encounters and its people sometimes create.
When the organization is a corporation and part of America’s corpocracy I can guarantee you that the place largely makes the people and mostly determines the organization’s performance, which usually amounts to negative successes (negative actions such as unethical and illegal ones that succeed in meeting the organization’s goals) and negative failures (negative actions that fail to meet the organization’s goals).
There are numerous criteria for judging an organization’s performance. The criterion of particular interest here for the moment is reliability. I define a highly reliable organization as one that unfailingly delivers the performance that end users expect and want and without any mishaps in the production or delivery phase.
The Benchmarked Organizations
The co-authors benchmarked five organizations as illustrating the right or the wrong way to manage for high reliability.
1. Bandelier, New Mexico Fire Department. A controlled burn became an uncontrolled inferno causing $1 billion damage.
2. The Bristol Royal Infirmary. It was known at the time as a doctor-knows-best culture with high children death rates. The place deserves to have been called an HDO, or high death organization.
3. Naval aircraft carriers. They have been, say the authors, “a prototype of high reliability systems from the beginning,” even though they say that the carriers “are the most dangerous 4 and ½ acres in the world.” My written reaction was that “I would give carriers barely a moderate rating considering the literature I’ve read on their safety record over the years. For instance, a fire broke out on the USS Kitty Hawk in 2008 causing many injuries and $70 million in damage. Moreover, one study found that on-board injury rates were slightly higher than for industries in general.
4. Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. In my assessment this particular plant and all other nuclear power plants are ticking radioactive time bombs that protestors have tried for decades to get closed. A plant can be accident-free yet till release harmful radiation. Moreover, the Diablo Canyon plant, besides sitting on an earthquake fault line once missed, as noticed in a safety inspection, about 22 missed weld quality hold points. How much radiation escapes from 22 leaky welds?
5. NASA. Sending astronauts into outer space is tricky business. Every detail and backups must be highly reliable. Tragedy may be just a heart-beat away, and that is what happened with the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003 respectively.
You can now understand my aversion to academic literature. The co-authors were clearly benchmarking unreliable organizations, apparently to present lessons learned on what organizations should not do in hazardous situations. Maybe the co-authors could find no HROs to benchmark.
In any case, how well have the five organizations learned their lessons?
1. The Bandelier Fire Department apparently hasn’t had an opportunity to show what they did or didn’t learn. The same dangerous weather and dry brush conditions discounted before the uncontrolled fire have not occurred since.
2. The medical staff at the Bristol Royal Infirmary took umbrage at a staff anesthesiologist who blew the whistle on the circumstances surrounding the deaths and railroaded him out of his job.
3. The co-authors didn’t mention that aircraft carriers were once saturated with asbestos that found its way into crews’ lungs, later causing a serious lung disease and death in some cases. Carrier construction still uses asbestos but much less of it. Carriers still experience flight deck fatalities about once or twice a year.
4. No reported mishaps could be found at the Diablo Canyon power plant, yet it remains a disaster waiting to happen as it sits on an earthquake fault line. California authorities are debating whether to shut it down permanently. In 2014 a senior resident inspector was concerned that “the plant was operating outside the safety margins of its State license.”
5. NASA seems to have missed or forgotten some of its lessons. There have been several failures since the coauthors’ study. In 2014, for instance, an astronaut was killed and another seriously injured when their space ship disintegrated during a test flight over California.
In Search of HROs
Are there any HROs operating today in routinely and potentially hazardous conditions? I could find none from my extensive search of the Internet.
Cheap-costly, inefficient-efficient, slow-fast, and shoddy-flawless are some of the other bipolar criteria for judging organizational performance. Yet another one that I must mention is socially irresponsible-socially responsible.
This additional criterion is particularly important when it comes to corporations. To me corporate social responsibility means 1) staying financially viable, 2) providing socially beneficial products and/or services, 3) without knowingly causing any physical, psychological, financial or ecological harm, 4) without externalizing costs (e.g., job outsourcing, waste disposal), 5) without seeking or depending on “warfare welfare” or other government favors such as corporate personhood recognition, campaign financing, lobbying, subsidies, revolving doors, laissez-faire regulations, or criminal immunity, 6) conducting business ethically and legally, and 7) treating all stakeholders fairly and with dignity. As you can see, my definition is a very unforgiving one that allows no leeway because ethics, morality, and responsibility are not, in my opinion, relative matters. They only become relative when people morally rationalize their wrongdoing.
No corporation in the corpocracy meets all of the above requirements. The corpocracy at large, moreover, is directly responsible for America being ranked the worst among industrialized nations on various measures such as income inequality and unemployment, for America being the most imperialistic nation on the globe, and for America being vulnerable to continuous blowbacks from drone strikes and other forms of unending, devastating and deadly military aggression done solely for profit and power.
The authors were oblivious to the broader context and implications of their benchmarked organizations’ performance. For instance, diplomacy, not war making, might stand more of a chance if aircraft carriers and all other weaponry were so unreliable as to be useless. The same goes for NASA and its revenue draining, risky, and scientifically meritless manned space program.
It’s said that two certainties in life are death and taxes. Baloney. The second is mostly escaped by people and organizations living on tax welfare, or tax havens and tax breaks. But there is another certainty, the focal point of this essay.
That certainty is the unreliability of life, which is a crap shoot. We take our chances every day aware or unaware, especially when we deal in one way or another with organizations in which we entrust our well being.
There’s another certainty when it comes to the organizations making up the corpocracy. Its corruptible politicians and corrupting corporations crap on the rest of us and the world’s regimes they try to change to suit themselves.
Finally, there’s yet another related certainty. What goes around comes around. Some day the US will get crapped on by the environment it has polluted and charcoaled, by horrendous blowbacks from enemies it has created, or by Armageddon from nuking Russia or China.