Tag Archives: Atul Gawande

Of Leviathans, the Tube and #climate crisis.

The last post was about what happens to technologies that challenge the “Leviathan” – of hierarchy, class, habit and the external and internal oppositions. It’s worth a read, and I can say that because there are big slabs of quotations from two brilliant articles (about the 1970s industrial-policy-from-below Lucas Plan, and the present problems of Wikipedia).

This isn’t abstract though. When an elephant can’t tapdance, when people are silo-ed, and refuse to see what they need to because of the turf battles, then 31 people can die.

See these quotes from Chalres Duhigg’s excellent “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.”

The Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read – and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. For decades, the Underground had been run by the “Four Barons” – the chiefs of civil, signal, electrical, and mechanical engineering – and within each of their departments, there were bosses and subbosses who all jealously guarded their authority. (p. 168)

Duhigg makes the point that for the trains to run on time (and it’s a VERY complex thing), you need there to be a “truce” between groups that would otherwise be trying to jockey for position, and causing havoc. In normal times, therefore, a “truce” can be a Good Thing.

But – and Duhigg also makes the point using a hospital A and E in the United States – when staff are “trained” not to step outside their very strictly demarcated (more than my) job (is worth), then they train themselves not to see things. Things that matter, like burning material at the bottom of an escalator on a November evening in 1987…

The London Underground’s routines and truces all seemed logical until a fire erupted. At which point, an awful truth emerged: No one person, department, or baron had ultimate responsibility for passengers’ safety. (p. 175)

fennell front coverDuhigg then goes on to point out that the period after a disaster, where everybody is shook up, and the ability (or willingness) to defend turf is shaken, is the time where things MIGHT be up for real change. He recounts what happened when the appointed investigator tried – on the basis of interviews with people in the Tube hierarchy who had known for years that “fire safety was a serious problem” – to fix things.

When Fennell began suggesting changes of his own, he saw the same kinds of roadblocks – department chiefs refusing to take responsibility or undercutting him with whispered threats to their subordinates – start to emerge.

So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus. (p. 179)

Sometimes, you need the klieg lights to keep things warm. It shouldn’t have to be like that, but it’s the world we live in, eh? But what do you do when things need to change, but the media just isn’t interested, because it’s not something that affects/scares its readers and therefore sells eyeballs to advertisers? What do you do about long, slow, unsexy emergencies in which we are all complicit, not just faceless “barons”? Like, to pick an example entirely at random, climate change?

References/further reading

Duhigg, C. (2012) “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.” New York: Random House

Fennell, D. (1988) Investigation into the King’s Cross Underground Fire London, UK: Department of Transport

Gawande, A. (2011) The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right London: Profile Books