Why Scandal?Name any scandal that has hit the headlines lately –VW diesel emissions, Tanaka air bags, GM ignition switches – I’m not trying to pick on auto manufacturers – Veterans Administration medical services, Target getting hacked – you name any one and they are HUGE. Millions of cars, patients, clients are involved.

Why are the scandals getting bigger?

There are the usual suspects – You could blame social media, the 24/7 news cycle, corporate greed, government corruption or a host of other issues and there is some justification for naming them. But while we can communicate around the world in seconds, most of these reasons have been with us since humankind has been organized in more than small family units.

No, the fundamental reason is that our world has changed for good and ill – as it always has.

If you ask people, most would say that progress is good. After all, we are healthier, better fed, and live materially richer lives than our parents. But there are costs with progress that are usually not apparent at first blush.

I recently participated in a sustainability conference held by the Boy Scouts and featured an address from National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC. One fact presented was that the population growth is primarily caused by a decline in the death rate of children. That’s good – no wants children to die. But the birth rate usually takes about two generations to come down to match the death rate. In other words, we keep producing children like we expect most of them to die – but they aren’t.

Production Efficiency

Similarly, we have been increasing the efficiency of production around the world – it uses less materials and energy and results in lower prices. That’s good. But it also means that we are consolidating production. A single plant in Japan wiped out by the 2011 tsunami stops automobile production of most major automobile manufacturers because everyone uses the same component.*  The drought in California results in thousands of almond trees being destroyed and the result is fewer almonds – start hoarding the chocolate covered almonds?

What this means is that when something goes wrong – and it will (Murphy is always present and waiting) – the results will be over a wider area and involve more – more people, more products, more organizations.

Complexity

And our products and systems are more complex – meaning that every part has to be more perfect that previous products and systems – because failure is compounding. If you have one part and it has a 1% chance of failing, then you have 99% chance of it working. But if you have 100 parts in your system and they each have a 1% chance, your chance of the system working as expected is only 36%.

Expectations

Of course, you can design and build robust systems and manufacture parts to have a better chance of avoiding failure – and we have achieved amazing levels of performance in our manufacturing. Compared to our grandparents we live in a world that’s nearly perfect. And therein is part of our problem. Because we have achieved amazing levels of performance, we have come to expect near perfection in all that we deal with.

The result is that we are surprised when a space shuttle blows up or falls out of the sky, an ignition switch starts a fire in our car, the air bag that we depend on to protect us becomes an instrument of injury, or we can’t get an appointment at a VA hospital in less than 6 months.

But who would expect any system involving humans to function perfectly? Hollywood has an entire film genre based on two people misunderstanding each other – what can you expect when there are literally thousands involved?

So the answer why our scandals are getting bigger is because our systems are getting bigger, more consolidated, more complex – and, yes, because we can find out quicker.

* 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami: Economic Effects and Implications for the United States

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.