Click above, or read it below in 66 dull words.
My gas meter was exchanged for a newer gas meter, a few days later there was a lingering strong smell of gas, I called a gas engineer out who located the source, a loose bolt that was little better than hand-tight. He made the installation safe, and I made a complaint about the original installation, that the meter was left in an unsafe condition leaking gas.
The foul smell of box ticking
Today the person handling the complaint rang me. This is how the conversation went.
The systems thinking lesson
There are two realities in conflict here. One is the normal humdrum messy reality that you and me are in right now. The real one. This is the one where gas ignores tick-boxes and chooses to obey the laws of physics instead, leaking out to lower pressure surroundings where it can kill people.
Then there is the reality created and inhabited by the system that my complaint is enjoying. In this reality you look at a piece of paper to find out what is and what is not the truth.
In this reality the truth is counted in tick-boxes and the truth is always counter-signed..
This reality is the unreality of a command and control bureaucracy. The unreality that is created when there is an audit or inspection or performance management regime. Wherever there is a control system that uses paper to control reality, the paper replaces reality.
The phrase “the map is not the territory” means that the model you use to understand things does not replace those things, it is only a model and only useful in so far that it reflects reality and allows you to understand it and live in it usefully.
In these systems though the map always does replace reality. There are distant planners, monitors and inspectors. Auditors and analysts. Managers and leaders. All these people don’t experience the messy reality of work that happens a long way away from their desk, only the neat certitude of documents on their desk in front of them.
The man who rang me today saw his standard procedure and his checklist, the tick-boxes and the counter-signature. Logically me and my story cannot fit in with his. So am I mistaken or a liar? The subject never came up, and I doubt he considered it. We don’t have competing or contradictory realities, they run side by side without ever touching. When I said to him that the meter was left unsafe, this did not contradict the counter-signed tick-box checklist reality he is in. It was irrelevant to it.
In command and control bureaucracies the reality of documents replaces the real reality in so many ways:
- A small boy at school is ““tormented”, thrown into stinging nettles, had insects put inside his clothing and even been grabbed by the throat.” The school responds “We have a robust anti-bullying policy”
- A housing service is so good it can give you an appointment when you need it, wins a global management prize. Then the Audit Commission cant find certain documents so downgrades it.
- A charity worker reports a colleague is sexually assaulting disabled clients, then loses their job as a result through constructive dismissal. But that’s fine, as the Charity has a strong and robust whistle-blowing policy.
Reality is never in a document. It can never be understood through a document. If you want to get reality you have to go to it. It won’t come to you, and it certainly never comes to you in Ariel point 12, double spaced.