train-wreck-67775_640Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

The updated quality management standard, ISO 9001:2015, is causing a big stir in the quality profession because it requires risk-based thinking. This is really nothing new because risk-based thinking has always been required in any practical operation. There is little certainty that everything will go right even if past experience tell us that it should. This is encapsulated in Murphy’s Law which states that “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” The corollary is that Murphy was an optimist.

People are easy to fool and no one is more easily fooled that the planner. Whether it’s a children’s birthday party or a large ocean liner, we tell ourselves that we have everything planned and we’re ready for anything that can happen.

I was once tasked with organizing a social event for my command – approximately 200 people were going to get together for drinks, appetizers and just having a good time. I secured the venue, picked the appetizers, budgeted the cost and even called that afternoon to verify that everything was prepared and ready to go – which I was assured was.

Then we showed up a half hour before everyone else to make the final checks only to find that nothing was prepared or ready – the day manager hadn’t bothered to tell the night manager that the event was supposed to occur! The event was almost a complete fiasco – but drinks were available in quantity and some appetizers were provided all be it late. I had done everything to make the event a success but failed. Could I have done more? If so, what? I did everything a reasonable person would do.

And that’s the problem. I was a reasonable person. It never occurred to me that the venue staff couldn’t – or wouldn’t – communicate with each other. After all, we had held social events there before with no problem. Why this time? All anyone could say was, “Murphy’s been here!”

I once was given management responsibility for a government employee that no one wanted to work with – I have a knack for getting these assignments. What drove everyone crazy was that this employee insisted on a form for everything – which he color-coded. I came to understand that this employee had got in trouble earlier in his career because things were not documented – that was NOT going to happen again! To avoid the pain of failure or being blamed, he created a system where everything would be documented without the possibility of an error being made.

Except that the process was slowed down and response times were much too long. The fear of being blamed created the next problem – slow response times. The employee thought the system was great because he wasn’t blamed for not documenting enough.

If Murphy is always present and ready, then what are we to do?

The first step is to have a healthy dose of humility. Despite all of our planning and preparation, things won’t work like we planned. It doesn’t mean we failed. It just means that we didn’t anticipate the situation.

The second step is to have trust in other people. I worked with one organization that created a beautiful disaster preparedness plan. When tested in a table top exercise, we exposed a central weakness in the plan – authority was centralized and if the organization head was absent, then everyone was frozen, unable to take action because they needed permission. The proper response is to ask, “If (blank) wasn’t here/hit by a bus/died of a heart attack, what would you do? Then do that!”

Will people make mistakes? Yes, but as the computer pioneer Grace Hopper was fond of saying, “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” It’s also easier to try to do the right thing than sit on your behind and later explain why you didn’t do what you should have.

The third step is to accept that bad things will happen. When they do, you have to “pull your big girl panties up” and just get to work. That’s the adult thing to do. This doesn’t mean that you should plan, but that you acknowledge that you can’t anticipate everything. You have to be flexible.

Being flexible means that you know what your situation is and responding in an appropriate manner using the resources you have. And this is where planning is most effective because it forces you to know the environment, people, resources, and sources of support available to you.

One of the major innovations in planning was the development of PERT – Program Evaluation and Review Technique – by the Strategic Project Office for the Polaris Submarine Program. It provides probabilistic estimates of the length of activities and highlights the critical path to project completion. Today, it’s done easily with computer programs, but back in the 1950’s, it was all done with paper and pencils – very tedious. As a consequence, it was not done very often. Changes to the schedule didn’t occur unless they were really required. But when they did occur, because of the effort put into knowing and understanding the schedule and all the interlocking activities, the consequences of the change were understood before the change was made. And the Polaris program was an unqualified success – developing the first sea launched ballistic missile and its submarine in record time.

Just because Murphy is always present and waiting, doesn’t mean that we are doomed to fail. It just means we have to be on our toes.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.